Mar 28, 2017
Please contact us
or breaking news
3 Still Standing Tops Comic Charts
by Doniphan Blair
Will Durst, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Johnny Steele star in Robert Campos's and Donna LoCicero's new film “3 Still Standing”. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, ESPECIALLY
since last year’s suicide of Robin Williams, who reminded us incessantly: In the 1980s, THE international epicenter of standup comedy WAS San Francisco!
“For whatever reason—it was the end of the road, everyone was already lost or very high—and San Francisco has always been a comedy,” noted an unknown comedian, at that time. And the new movie, “3 Still Standing”, by the versatile local producer-directors Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero, proves the point.
“San Francisco is the only city that has treated standup as an art form,” opined Will Durst, who is one of the eponymous “3 Still Standing” comics, in the film. “Not New York, not LA—it is a commercial product there.”
“For the generation before us—Mort Sahl, the Smothers Brothers, Phyllis Diller—San Francisco has always… been a really cool town,” said Bobby Slayton, also in the film, albeit forgetting to mention those titans of titans, Lenny Bruce, or, the decade following, Robin Williams.
“He’s emotionally setting himself on fire a lot of the time,” Williams says, about Larry “Bubbles” Brown, another one of the main comics in “3 Still Standing” , which is distributed by
The third is Johnny Steele, who currently survives killing, with comedy, old people at retirement homes—a tough crowd, to be sure. Steele was too iconoclastic for David Letterman, who featured Brown two times and Durst only once.
“Kids just stare at me, why is this bitter old man lecturing me?” Durst remarked, in reference to his equal parts political and very funny material.
Donna LoCicero and Robert Campos have been 'co-everything' for three decades. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
The project was a labor of love for the two producer/directors. “We were co-everything on [the film],” LoCicero said, "AND we’ve been married 21 years!"
Prior to “3 Still Standing”, they focused on television projects for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, ABC and CBS, and amassed a rather astounding resume.
For a while, in fact, they locked in the “crazed adventure” beat, from swimming with sharks to summiting (or not, as is sometimes the case), massive mountains.
Hence, they were overjoyed to make the cerebral turn to comedy, albeit under sad circumstances—its diminishment, if not demise, in San Francisco.
While it boomed in the ‘60s, and again in the ‘80s, the arrival of cable, which allowed you to watch crazies from the comfort of your own home, and the sheer number of spectacular comics, which attracted another type of shark, the conglomerates, drove many of the comedy clubs out of business and the comics to LA.
This fact came into stark relief for Campos and LoCiciro when they returned to live in the Bay Area. They started filming in 2010, focusing on the '80s, which they fondly remembered from when they were young lovers on dates in the audience.
Hoping to find out more about the great movie I had just seen—recommended by my friend, the musician and mixer supreme Tom Disher—as well as the Bay Area’s once-lightening bright comedy scene, I called LoCiciro and Campos at their San Francisco home.
What drew you to the comedy subject?
We were in the audience in the ‘80s. I had a friend who managed
for years [on Battery Street]. We went to The Other Café [comedy club, now defunct].
We loved that scene. We knew, even as it was happening, this was something special.
Johnny Steele was already cutting up at four in Pittsburg, CA. photo: courtesy W. Durst
[Then] we left San Francisco and came back 20 years later and wondered, ‘What happened to all that—where are all those people?’
I was amazed that San Francisco developed the standup movement and, then, that it disappeared. According your film, it was ‘Cable that killed the comedy show,’ but I suspect a bit came from ‘yuppification’ in the ‘80s.
Robert: Many factors were involved.
Donna: The audience got to that age: they got children, they moved to the suburbs—that had a dampening effect.
Robert: In the ‘80s, if you were a standup comedian and you wanted to try out fresh, edgy material, this really was the place. Folks like ‘Bobcat’ Goldthwait or Dana Carvey, it was a place where they could play.
Then cable and bigger businesses got a hold of it and they ruined the local scene.
Donna: Some of the clubs got bigger. Cobbs Comedy Club got bigger; The Other bought a place in Emeryville. [But] comedy works best in small rooms with low ceilings where the laughter bounces around. [It] doesn’t work as well as in large venues.
Robert: The minute you try to tweak it for money—a 500-seat theater with two-drink minimum—you are messing with something that is very fragile. It is a fragile, fragile art form.
Donna: That being said, there is a lively scene going now—lots of open mikes. When we were putting postcards [for the film] at all the open mikes Tuesday night, we had to divvy it up because there were so many venues.
Just in The City, there were 20 open mikes that night. No one is making any money but there is a really interesting comedy scene coming up.
Robert: We have seen that traveling around with the film. We were in Austin and Denver and both those cities had really vibrant open mike nights.
We had a lot of young comics come up after the movie and say, ‘Wow, we have never seen these veteran comedians live.’ It was really a trip for them.
Larry Brown was nicknamed 'Bubbles' back in the '80s when someone suggested a mixed-gender group adjourn to a hot tub and he was a notch or three overeager. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
Has there been any push-back from the micro-aggression, politically-correct people?
Robert: Not sure I follow your question.
Judging from Lenny Bruce, who made San Francisco his home away from home, he was pretty in your face, curse words, politically incorrect. The yuppification of San Francisco might have toned down a freewheeling audience open to that.
Robert: Right now it is more YouTube centered. The tricky thing is that, what you want is a viral video. So you are market driven.
What made the ‘80s work in San Francisco is you didn’t have the TV cameras plugged in here. You weren’t going on David Letterman or the Tonight Show, straight from the Holy City Zoo—except for Robin [Williams]!
Donna: The guys—and it was mostly guys—at the Holy City Zoo [on Clement between 5th and 6th Avenues] were doing bits for each other.
Robin Williams went from the Holy City Zoo right to Letterman?
[Bay Area native Williams debuted at the Holy City Zoo, in the early ‘70s, after working his way up from bartender. Then he moved to LA and got on the ‘Laugh-In Revival’ and ‘Richard Pryor Special.’]
Donna: He was doing something down in LA and one of the producers of ‘Happy Days’ saw him in a club.
Robert: He played Mork the Alien on ‘Happy Days’.
That was great that you got a lot of Robin in the film.
Robert: We ran into Robin at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley—he would show up unannounced. Our three guys, Larry [‘Bubbles’ Brown], Will [Durst] and Johnny [Steele] were performing.
We told Robin what we were doing and he said, ‘I love these guys, let’s do something.’
Donna: He said he’d give us 20 minutes and he gave us an hour.
Johnny Steele, a whipsmart idea comic, was too iconoclastic to get on TV. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
We had an agreement, he didn’t want to overshadow his friends in the movie and we were on the same page. He saw the film as it went along—and the final version—and said it captured the scene.
Robert: It was the favorite times of his life, it is fair to say. It was kind of a home for everyone. We had a comedian watch the film the other night who got a bit teary eyed. ‘I really miss that time,’ he said.
Your three guys Brown, Durst and Steele were self-selected—the ‘3 Still Standing’, as your title says?
Donna: No, there are a lot people still at it. We didn’t even realize, when we picked them, that they were all long-time friends.
We talked [first] to Will. I remember him from back then. He has always been brilliant. People said, ‘He was like the class president of the comedy community here.’ He had so many wonderful things [to say]. He’s philosophical AND poetic. It was obvious we had include him.
He can be categorized as the most political of them?
He does a lot of politics; he has a great, one man show he has been doing about being a baby boomer: ‘Boomer Raging: From LSD to OMG’. It is this 90 minute tirade—brilliant!
Robert: We talked to other comics. We thought maybe five or six main comedians and then a handful of other. But, as we tried to tell the story, it was too unwieldy.
It is the story of these guy’s lives and the scene. We found them all delightful and so different from one another.
They are almost like archetypes: One of them has a wife, the other only goes to prostitutes. One is very good looking, the other calls himself a cross between ‘ET and—
That one, Brown, was he the only one twice on Letterman?
Yes, and Will was on once.
Donna: Johnny never was because, to do those late night shows, they want you to stand in one spot and tell them exactly what the act is. Johnny just can’t do that.
Robert: He won’t do that, on principle. He’s bored with a set that is the same. He just wasn’t a good fit for those shows and he knew it.
And the other themes your film explores—getting old, being somewhat of a failure and dealing with that—that was very moving.
Donna LoCicero, Robert Campos and their friend Tim Didion introduce '3 Still Standing' at its Bay Area premiere. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
Donna: One thing we came away with after talking to these guys is ageism.
They really have gotten better over time. We looked at their old footage and what they are doing now and the difference is striking. The experience makes them shine on stage.
Robert: If they are failures—we don’t see them like that—it’s only as defined by an industry that is very ageist.
Donna: And money oriented. They’re so good.
I didn’t mean to say they’re failures but that was part of your dramatic arc. At the end of the film, they rebound. It made for good drama.
Robert: They’re really a blast to watch. At different moments, we’ve seen each one of them just kill the audience with laughter. It is a kind of magic. There are moments when you feel like, as Dana Carvey said, ‘The whole room levitates.’ [That is] when that person is really on and connected.
There is something about live standup that is very special, very unique. We wanted to shed a bit of light on that. It is a remarkable thing to stand up in front of a group of people and go on for 45, 60, 90 minutes. To take that audience through all these ideas.
Donna: We don’t define what success is in the movie. It changes in the course of the movie. These guys whine about what happened to their careers and where they are going. Will once said what he wanted was Ry Cooder’s success.
Robert: To be able to fill small auditoriums on a regular basis, and he is doing that.
One of their little successes is they continued living in the Bay Area and didn’t move to LA?
Robert: That is a big one for all three. A lot of their friends went on to LA and became part of that scene, you know, writers for comedy shows on Comedy Central.
Donna: Other didn’t do so well.
Robert: So they hung on to this thing that worked for them, just enough to keep them engaged.
I thought numerous times, since seeing the movie, about how Brown drives over to the East Bay and writes in his car. Other writers need their writing desk: he needs warmth and a car.
At the Holy City Zoo, with the others besides Durst, Brown and Steele: (top, lf-rt) Tom Finnegan, Jim Giovanni, a guy from a band that hung around the Last Day Saloon (probably Stevie Gur), Joe Sharkey, Steve Carey; (bottom) her name was also Robin Williams, so she used a different last name, Carol Rechutti, John Fox, Bob Fisher, Tim Bedore, Warren Thomas; around 1984. photo: courtesy Holy City Zoo
Robert: He really did use to write in a car lot—
Donna: On auto row [in Oakland]. He had a friend that worked at one of the dealerships and they let him sit in one of their cars. To him, that was heaven.
That’s insane. I thought he would go to Harbor Park and get a nice view.
Robert: They went out of business so now it is Raley’s in Alameda.
He is an unusual character. He has never seen the movie. He can’t bear to watch himself.
Our current feature article is about the director of ‘Tangerine’, Sean Baker, who has seen his own film, of course, but can’t bear to watch it with an audience.
Robert: The other guys have certainly seen it a few—
Donna: Quite a few times. They watch it and criticize their weight. They get really self-conscious but audiences react really well—the comics feel good about that.
Especially Larry, he gets surrounded by women—he can’t wait to do more Q and A.
That’s a great bit when you explain how he got the nickname ‘Bubbles,’ due to his eagerness to go to a hot tub with some women.
Robert: Women, at the end of the film, want to rescue him. I think that is the secret of Larry ‘Bubbles’ Brown.
Donna: He’s a challenge.
Of course, [the handsome] Johnny Steele doesn’t have that problem. It is amazing how they are three different types. Now the film is going around to film festivals?
We are wrapping up our film festival run. I think it is going to be available end of winter, beginning of spring.
Robert: We have a distributor in New York who is going to start doing digital distribution, some combination of Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others.
And we have a sales agent working to find a good broadcast home for the film here in the US and abroad. In fact, it will be on [Canada’s] CBC main channel in December and, after that, the movie channel. He hopes to expand from there.
We have done a theatrical run in the Bay Area, eight or nine theaters. We have yet to do theatrical screening in LA and New York—we’d love to hit the comedy cities one at a time.
The film does really well if the guys show up afterwards and do a bit of standup or Q&A but it’s costly to fly every one around.
Donna: In our fantasies, we talked about having Viagra sponsor it.
Brown, Steele and Durst entertain each other, as they undoubtedly do in the green room before a show. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
Robert: Larry ‘Bubbles’ Brown would be the spokesman.
He looked at the poster [for ‘3 Still Standing’] and said ‘Oh, it looks like we all found out that Viagra works.’ The tour would be in a little blue bus. We haven’t told Pfizer about this plan yet.
I think they are busy with some sort of merger.
Any other comedy projects you are planning?
Robert: We thought about profiling other comedians but, the fact is, this is a lot of work—for a long time. In 2010, we started meeting comedians and building our ideas.
Donna: But we dove in full time a couple of years ago.
Robert: We decided we had to finish this movie and get it out to the festivals.
We have been chasing comedians for years now, which is like herding cats. I think we might set off in a different direction for our next project.
However, there is some interest in creating a line of comedy shows set here in San Francisco. We might contribute to that effort.
How did you connect with Tom Disher, who did your sound?
Robert: Some friends have an annual, big garden party with live entertainment . Tom played piano and sang—he is really amazing. We started talking and realized he had an audio post house [
Did he create some of your music?
No. All the music is from
, a music library.
Tom worked on mixing some of the tracks. Paul Zahnley did the mix. Those guys [Disher Music and Sound] are great; they embraced the project and they really went the extra mile for it.
You edited at home and went out for a professional sound—and color correction?
Yes, we did color correction at Kim Aubry’s company: Zap Zoetrope, Ri Crawford did the color grading.
Movie poster from '3 Still Standing'. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
Donna: We had all this archival footage so we really relied on him for tweaking—
Robert: Making it look as good as it could.
We had two outside editors, who made huge contributions to the film: one in the East Bay, Eli Olson, and the other in Miami: Brandon Dumlao.
Were did you get the archival footage?
The comedians themselves, that storage shed in the movie—
Donna: of Will and Debbie Durst.
They had the Holy City Zoo sign
Yes, and Larry had a neat little box, everything is on one DVD. Johnny’s stuff looks like he keeps it in hamster cage.
Other people had boxes in closets. Gail Simon—her husband, Jose Simon, who died a few years ago, and was part of the scene—had boxes and boxes of stuff. Robin [William]’s assistant had boxes of notebooks and old DVDs from the Zoo. Everyone had a little piece.
It is a remarkable film, about another one of San Francisco’s art achievements. With the ‘millionaire-ification,’ however, I’m afraid it may not happen again. I don’t think it there will be another beatnik poetry, psychedelic rock or comedy scene emerging. I hope I am wrong.
Robert: You have a point. It is sad what is going on.
Donna: I was looking at SFGate: there was a photo essay about San Francisco characters, like Carol Doda [the famous originator of topless dancing who just died, 1937-2015] and where are they all now.
It kind of made me sad because a lot of the color of this place is disappearing.
Even though the immense wealth the arts needs is now there, you don’t have the actual artists. What other future projects are you thinking about?
Robert: Are you are familiar with Code Pink?
Cracking up your buddies is the price of admission worth every penny, even if penury is also thrown in as a freebee. photo: courtesy Campos/LoCicero
Donna: They are peace activists. We are talking to a VR [Virtual Reality] company named Jaunt, which is very interested in doing something.
Code Pink is international and they cover whatever is happening in the world. We are working on a putting together a documentary of their year in 2016, putting VR cameras in the midst of protests.
Robert: So anyone could be in the middle of a march in Lebanon or wherever.
You probably heard that the NY Times just did a virtual reality promo and it was mind blowing.
Robert: It is very immersive stuff. 3D was interesting but this a quantum leap.
We are very excited about that.
Donna: Mostly we are working on television projects.
Robert: We self-financed a lot of this film so we have to do some commissioned projects for a while to pay everyone who helped us make it and all that.
How do you do that you, go to LA or make calls?
Robert: It’s a combination, sometimes there are gathering like the Real Screen events, the American Film Market.
Or you can have meetings with people and approach them directly with a pitch. We have been at this for a while, so we have relationships with some folks out there.
We say, ‘Hey take a look at this, what do you think?’ A combination of the two is what we are doing.
You are not tempted to move to LA?
Donna: No, we have family here. Robert’s parents are here and they are in their 80s.
I see on your IMDb that you have done a lot of mountain and survival stuff, how did you get into that?
Donna: We don’t know how we got into that.
Robert: We were doing some science—we really like working in the science space and docs—and someone from discovery Channel approached us and said, ‘We’d love to do a ‘Shark Week’ episode that has a lot of science. Can you do that?’
Donna: We did the story of the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. We did some reenactments and they liked that. And we did the Elian Gonzalez story [, the 2000 controversy about a young Cuban immigrant who was sent back]. They liked our touch with reenactment, which led us to do a lot of action and adventure, which requires those things.
But we were a little surprised. Sometime fate takes you by the hand to some interesting places.
Robert: We did a couple of shark shows and Discovery called and said ‘Hey there has been this horrible accident on K2'—more people died on that ascent then ever before—'Can you do a story about that?’
That was fascinating. It seemed like one would beget another one. That was our 'action-adventure' phase.
They called you and you flew directly to northern Pakistan?
No. Everyone who had survived was in a hospital in a different part of the world. Our job at that point was to fly around the world to meet everyone who had just come off the mountain and decipher from them what had happened, what went wrong.
You didn’t actually have to get up on the mountain?
No, the window to get up there was closed. They had done the climb in August ’08.
Donna: It takes ten days to get to K2: a trip to Pakistan and a smaller airport and drive of several days and a hike of several days—
Robert: to get to base camp.
Donna: They wanted it done in a hurry, so we went around the world in twenty days, starting in Miami, flew to Colorado, then to LA—there were mountain climbers there. We flew to Nepal [and] interviewed some Sherpas.
We went to Italy next. It was our first time working with an Italian crew, they are really a treat, they are so different. The wine and the food [happens] before you shoot.
A number of the climbers were Dutch. The first Irishman ever to ascend K2 died on the way down so we went and talked to his family.
Robert: One of the Dutch climbers had a helmet camera all the way up to the summit. Then we went to Alaska to build some scenes as connective tissue to the story.
Donna: What happened, they climbed the mountain; it was a beautiful day—a little too beautiful—and an ice wall collapsed when they were at the top. Some had started to descend and those were the ones who died. There people left on the top in the dark.
You made the reenactments in Alaska?
We worked in Alaska in November; we did quite a few reenactments, filming on a glacier. We worked with Mat Szundy’s company Ascending Path—they were terrific. We worked out of a ski lodge, [which] we had it pretty much to ourselves, recreating everything.
Robert: At that point, we had all the interviews to figure out what WHICH scenes to recreate. We found a really nice mountain range in Alaska that looked Himalayan, the same jagged look. It worked very well.
This is often disputed, the notion that you reenact scenes in a doc, interpreting someone’s story in a visual way. [But] I think it can work very well.
Of course, Robert Flaherty re-enacted his whole movie [‘Nanook of the North’, 1922, the first feature documentary, after he accidentally destroyed the negative].
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 11, 2015 - 02:20 AM