Documentary starring Pittsburg native premieres at festival
By Lou Fancher
Steele is golden.
Closing out a four-and-a-half-hour, freewheeling radio talk show in 1997 or coming offstage after a stand-up comedy routine in Sacramento in 2014, his humor has been glowing for decades. And now, the new documentary, "3 Still Standing," in which Steele is featured, is making its world premiere on at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week. The film will be shown at 8 p.m. Saturday at 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley.
The Pittsburg native lives in Berkeley, but odd, wacky, Pittsburgian characters, friends with nicknames like Man Mountain Mike, vegetarian tacos from New Mecca Café, and memories of what it means to grow up just shy of the Delta in an ethnically and culturally diverse community still course through his veins.
"I was not a great student," Steele admits in an interview. "I was either ADD or just addicted to football. I was the anti-guy."
Actually, he was more anti-boring: Suiting up his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame early for football practice at Pittsburg High School, he trekked to the school's theater to watch the drama students rehearse "Guys and Dolls.
" "I was a guy in cleats, interested in literature and drama," Steele says.
He pushed on, to Los Medanos College, then Saint Mary's College in Moraga, where he played football between stints in the radio studio.
"I think it only had enough watts to reach Lafayette, but I was totally taken with having a turntable. There was an underground punk thing happening and I loved it, even though I was probably awful," Steele recalls.
Attending graduate school in San Diego State University, Steele lasted one semester. Given an open mic at Comedy Store South in La Jolla, his parents called his next move (quitting school) "Operation $40K Down The Drain." His mother still lives in the house where he grew up: He credits his family for his funny bones.
In 1984, Robin Williams and Dana Carvey were turning the Bay Area into an oasis -- or more likely, a careening carnival -- of comedy. Steele got hooked.
"It helped my career, that San Francisco thought of comedy as an art form instead of as a commodity, something to sell," Steele says, referring to a comment made by fellow comedian Will Durst in the new documentary.
The 90-minute film profiles Steele, Durst, and Larry "Bubbles" Brown, following their "boom years" in the early 1990s at San Francisco clubs like the Holy City Zoo and others. Painting a sometimes tough, sometimes tender, often funny picture of artistic endurance, clips of Robin Williams add a special poignancy to the film.
"What struck me about Robin was how he was unable to be mean," Steele says. "He didn't want to stick in the knife and twist it."
But Steele also admired Bobby Slayton, whose acerbic humor would pack houses.
Despite what Steele calls "Slayton's sexist, misogynistic material," the man's ability to "get away with anything" was intriguing.
About being the subject of a documentary, Steele says, "There's vulnerability.
They put cameras in my home for three years. The first thing I thought when I saw the film was, "It's time to diet. You might have the light adjusted right in your bathroom, but when they light you up on the screen, it's different."
But physical weight won't be what viewers are thinking about between the film's many moments of laughter. Instead, it's the gravity of a situation many in 21st century America face, not just comedians: What do you do when the world pivots and your career/values/ways of communicating all change?
For the three stand-up comedians, seismic shifts in entertainment -- let's say it, the Internet -- disrupted audience habits. Suddenly, their targeted listeners were staying at home. Radio dwindled, although it's making a resurgence, Steele says.
Today's stand-up landscape requires a nimble, all-platform performance.
"I'm learning to deliver through the Internet," Steele says. "I'm cutting a half-hour show and selling it to Netflix and YouTube. I'm using social media to get the word out.
The silver lining of improving technology is that Steele can shoot a live comedy show with two guys in a room, edit on a Mac using Garage Band, and have a product to ship out the door.
Either way, his pop-up show will need a name. Maybe he'll call it "Pittsburg in a Bottle," or maybe, "Simply Steele, Golden."