Comedy is a serious business

The Monthly, December 2015


Three comics discuss the art of standup, managing to work some funny one-liners into the conversation.

By Reese Erlich

It’s not easy making comedy from U.S. foreign policy. The policy may be a joke, but few people laugh about it. Will Durst is one of the few standup comedians who can make it work.


In a new documentary film Three Still Standing, Durst does one of his classic routines set during the Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980s. The United States played both countries against one another by supplying missiles to Iran through the Iran-Contra affair and giving satellite intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.


“How did that work?” Durst asked, arching his eyebrows. He goes over to one side of the stage and whispers to the Iranians, “Here put this gun in your pocket.” Then he walks over to the other side of the stage, and tells the Iraqis, “He’s got a gun in his pocket.” Finally, he walks back to Iran, saying, “He knows about the gun!”


The routine is still funny because it accurately skewers the hypocrisy of U.S. policy.


“People still request that joke,” Durst said during a recent interview.


We were sitting in a publicists’ office in San Francisco with the film’s other two stars, San Francisco’s Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Berkeley’s Johnny Steele. The documentary film is not only a funny recounting of lives of the three standup guys, but it also offers a lot of insight into the world of comedy.


Steele says audiences don’t understand certain topics, like foreign policy. “Most people think the Mideast is next to the Midwest,” he said.


He remembers when his wife accompanied him to a comedy gig in Santa Cruz, a reasonably sophisticated college town. She heard two women in the ladies room discussing the first comedian. “He was great,” said one woman. “He talked about sex and going to the bathroom.” But then referring to Steele, she said, “The other guy is just talking about a bunch of newspapery stuff.”


Brown noted dryly, “The hardest criticisms come out of the women’s bathroom.”


The three comedians have spent collectively nearly 100 years doing standup, and it’s still not easy.


The film uses archival footage to trace the evolution of Bay Area comedy. It uses no narration, not an easy task for documentarians. It allows the comics to tell their own story of performing at five major, independently owned San Francisco venues starting in the 1980s and contrasts that with today’s corporatization of standup.


In other countries, comedy is entertainment. In the United States, it’s an industry. And like many American industries, big-time comedy is the property of a few, large corporations.


Cable networks, late night broadcast shows, and even local comedy clubs are all owned by giant conglomerates. Cobb’s Comedy Club and the Punch Line, San Francisco’s largest comedy clubs, are owned by Live Nation Entertainment, a corporate behemoth with performance venues nationwide. The big clubs tend to book touring acts from out of town.


Younger, local comedians have created their own spaces in dive bars and small rooms in the Tenderloin and the Mission. So audiences can still find new edgier comedy, explains Steele.


“It’s like the rest of America,” he said. “Two of the rooms have 90 percent of the audience. All the other comics in teeny-tiny venues have no money and a very small audience.”


And, as it turns out, comedy is actually serious business.


The corporatization of standup makes life more difficult for comedians performing political, sexual, or other edgy humor.


For example, Brown doesn’t fit into any commercial category. He works clubs regularly but never had his own comedy special on HBO. His dry, self-depreciating humor can be hilarious.


Referring to Olympic star Bruce Jenner’s recent transition into a transgender woman, Brown said, “I thought the genius was waiting until he was 65 to do it because that way he avoided menopause.”


Of course, some edgy comedians have made it to the big time. Lewis Black parlayed appearances on The Daily Show into a successful comedy career as an angry, progressive populist. Margaret Cho did the same by combining insights into her Korean-American heritage with outrageous observations about sexual deviations.


The three comedians in the documentary have never reached that level of success. But they’re still standing, or at least holding on.


“We hung on like barnacles on a pilot whale,” noted Durst.


Steele isn’t a political comedian like Durst, but he does make some radical observations. He remembers telling a joke in a club one night.


“You can’t blame Mexicans who just want to go north where people are literate, civilized, kind, and there’s health care. And they have to go through here to get to Canada.”


The club owner told him later that several Latino guys were pissed off, perhaps because Steele implied Mexico wasn’t literate or civilized. That wasn’t Steele’s intention. “The joke is in support of immigrants and making fun of us!” he said.


I guess some comedians just don’t get no respect.


Steele’s agent years ago advised against telling complicated or political jokes. The advice, Steele said: “Keep it simple.”


“No,” responded Durst emphatically in one of the only disagreements expressed among the group. Comedy is art, he said. “It’s every artists’ responsibility to change things for the better. You’re not going to change what people think. But you can plant progressive seeds. You can let people know their ideas are as important as the ones they hear. You can empower them to think.”


The comedians hope that the documentary will give them a late-life career boost. The film, directed by Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero, is definitely a grassroots effort. It played in small Bay Area movie theaters in October and November. The directors hope for national distribution to film festivals and the art house circuit.


Meanwhile, all three comedians continue their careers.


“Making people laugh out loud against their will—there are worse ways to live,” Durst said wistfully. “When it works, it’s better than anything.”


Predictably, Brown has a different take. He advises young people to stay away from standup. “Do something respectable, like selling drugs or hedge funds,” he said with only a slight grin.


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