After the city moved on to foster on newer, shinier, more lucrative bubbles, three legendary comedians stayed in the Bay Area to keep the laughs alive: Will Durst, Johnny Steele and Larry “Bubbles” Brown. Their legacy has been chronicled in the new documentary 3 Still Standing, directed by acclaimed journalists Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero, a husband and wife film making team that knows a good stand-up routine when they see one.
SF Weekly was lucky enough to sit down to all five of these influencers to discuss the making of the film (in theaters now) and how the pursuit of laughter has shaped their lives.
So how did this documentary come about? Were you big fans of these Will, Johnny and Larry from back in the day?
Robert Campos: We were fans of comedy. We’d seen Will, we’d seen Larry, Johnny came a little later. I think I saw him for the first time on a rainy day at Golden Gate Park. And I was bent over laughing, honestly.
Donna LoCicero: I had a friend who managed The Punch Line, so I was going to see him. The scene was just great back then, just really exciting and I never really payed attention to one comic over another, I just knew that anytime I’d go there it’d be a fabulous night.
DL: We lived in Miami for almost two decades, and we came back. We kinda wanted to reconnect with the city. We’ve got daughters we think should be comedians, and we’ve been trying to convince them.
RC: Don’t become a doctor — become a comedian. We envisioned a maybe five- or 10-minute video about the comedy scene and how cool it was. But these guys, they did something to us.
Johnny Steele: [Laughs] We slipped something in your beverage.
RC: Larry did.
JS: Here, spend four years with these three idiots.
Oh, this took four years to film?
RC: Eh, well, from the conception of it ‘til getting it released...
DL: At first, we were working on other projects. It was just in our spare time.
Larry “Bubbles” Brown: Like the gestation period for a woolly mammoth.
RC: And that’s what we’ve got, exactly, is a woolly mammoth. Extinct. They’re trying to clone it now.
JS: And unmanageable.
DL: Kinda cute.
LB: I love the woolly mammoth.
Watching this documentary, I couldn’t help but notice how much it focuses on The Holy City Zoo. I’m guessing that was the premiere comedy hub in S.F. back in the day?
LB: That was the place where everybody started. Then we branched out and clubs started popping up everywhere. But the Zoo was where, if you had a gig somewhere else, all the comics would meet there afterwards at midnight and do another set there. It was a big hangout for everybody.
Which neighborhood was this again?
Will Durst: Richmond.
RC: I think the Zoo really captured something about that time in San Francisco. I think that’s why we spend a lot of time there [in the film], and why the Zoo closing feels very much like, oh, that’s over. That kind of free spiritedness.
WD: A time-marker, yeah.
JS: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to enjoy the Zoo much. I started a little bit later than these guys. I think I did one set there before it closed and I think Will bought it and reworked it. It reopened for a while and how long was that before it closed down again?
What’s the stand-up comedy scene like now in S.F., outside of you three?
WD: It’s different. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. Everything changes.
So we’re talking, like, Carrot Top stuff?
DL: There’s a lot of open mic going on. Nobody’s getting paid. There used to be a middle class of comedy. It used to be possible to make a living. But there’s a lot of energy still out there, I think.
LB: You get a sense that it is kind of cycling back in a way. We were coming out of pizza joint on Geary street the other day. There was a little coffee shop across the street and a comedian comes out and says, “Come on in, we want to do our sets!” So there are these little places now that remind us of some of what was going on.
JS: Another thing that was happening then that I don’t believe is happening now, is almost every weekend there’d be someone from The Tonight Show or Letterman flying up here. You could go on stage Sunday night, often at The Punchline, and have a good set and be whisked off to the Montreal Comedy Festival the week after. They even taped a lot of shows in town. I don’t know if that’s happening every weekend now.
LB: In 1980, there were four or five clubs in the Bay Area. And now there’s two.
And do you perform there often at these two remaining clubs?
JS: We don’t. Not as regularly as we used to. I think it’s our own doing a little bit. Clubs can be the greatest place, but they can also be a grind. It’s a lot of work. They hustle that audience out. Will’s doing solo stuff, Larry’s opening for people like Dana Carvey. I’m working on solo stuff and theater work.
DL: Will’s been really busy with his one man show.
WD: Yeah, I’m trying to do theaters.
We’re talking about Elect To Laugh, right?
WD: It was Elect To Laugh, yes. After the 2012 election, I started doing a show about being a baby boomer. Next year I’m going to do Elect To Laugh again because of the 2016 election.
Speaking of which, it seems like your comedy act slowly evolved into being more politically slanted over the years. How else has your style changed since you began?
WD: Well, I started off doing some politics. Then it and became the whole thing. The hard part is I need an enforced deadline. I need someone else to be dependent on me writing new material. If it was up to me, fuck it. I’d be doing the same old shit. I’d be doing William Howard Taft material. That’s why I enjoy a challenge.
I’m guessing your wife [Debi Durst, fellow comedian] keeps you accountable for that?
WD: She keeps me very accountable, yes. [Laughs]
JS: I remember your early bits. I used to be able to do you bits by heart because I stood in the room as a young pup. “My wife likes to go camping…”
WD: “I hate camping…”
JS: I remember everybody’s act but my own.
DL: That’s one thing. The old stuff. We have a lot of footage of them as pups. Seeing them now, you really notice the evolution of their comedy. They’ve all gotten so much better, so much smoother, more confident...
LB: Except for me.
DL: No, you have. What about your taglines? Your timing?
JS: Not today, but in general.
JS: This is the most energy Larry’s ever put into an interview.
RC: He’s all hopped up right now.
JS: This is after a quart of Diet Coke for christ’s sake.
I can tell. So, Larry, what about you? How did your comedy evolve?
LB: I started off telling a true stories that happened in my life. For some reason it evolved into self-deprecating one liners. That seems to work best for me. Jeff Garlin told me, because I had one liners in the act, he said no, your act has to be consistent. It has to be all one liners.
WD: No it doesn't. You can do anything. If you make it funny. And now, you are funny. You've been doing this for forty years.
LB: I just think if you can make a true story funny, that's the best.
JS: Well the great thing about stories, buddy, is there's something other than the joke. In the joke, there's almost only the joke, but in the story, if it's a well told story, people want to find out. They're invested. They want to know, are you going to achieve your goal?
What about you, Johnny? How has your style evolved?
JS: It’s in constant flux. I really want to be George Carlin and I really want to be Lenny Bruce. I really want to look at global warming and overpopulation and where the middle class went. If you go on stage and you just make fun of yourself, you’re going to have a lot more success at your country club gigs and your theater fundraisers than if you go on and say, “All the global warming is not cars, it's animal husbandry." Nobody in this room wants to hear that, let alone somebody in a comedy club on a Saturday night. So I'm totally split on what to do. The venue and the type of material, 30 years in, I can't decide. So that's how my comedy, I wouldn't say has evolved, but has stalled.
These guys have have a lot of insight, I can see why you made a film about them.
RC: I think one of the things we're attracted to with these guys is just this - this process. I mean, they're artists. And stand-up is a unique artform that just vanishes the minute when you step off that stage...maybe sometimes even before. (Laughs) But it's fascinating to me to see. I love the creative process, and to see it in that form where it can be so quick and so ephemeral. And these guys are all evolving all the time.
As a stand-up comedian, how do you view people in public?
JS: Larry's just trying to get those people into bed.
WD: Those without Y chromosomes.
JS: There is one problem as a comic that you have to watch out for. I think you do have to be very careful not to be very cynical. I think what happens is you don't go to vacation in Mexico and come back and say, "It was great!" You say, "Who are these people that go on vacation in Mexico? All they do is look at their laptops all day." So you have to be careful to not always look for the bad.
What do you want people to take away from this movie?
JS: A DVD for $29.99.
RC: Can we all say that?