It looks like eons in the past — maybe in the course of the Mesolithic period — when stand-up comedy was working on all cylinders. The golden age of the Eighties and into the ’90s when there have been extra comedy golf equipment than Starbucks.
Johnny Steele was proper there in the course of it, with a pointy, cheetah-quick wit rivaled within the Bay Space solely by his bicycling buddy and pal, the late Robin Williams.
“I used to be booked fairly stable within the ’90s. Typically each week,” Steele remembers. “That could possibly be as few as a pair gigs per week or as many as 25 gigs per week. Vegas Improv on the Rivera had three exhibits an evening, seven nights in a row. Plus I used to be required to do a couple of media appearances, radio and TV, to advertise the present.”
It helped catapult the Pittsburg native and Berkeley resident when he received the 1992 San Francisco Worldwide Stand-Up Comedy Competitors. There have been the golf equipment, the theaters, and the company gigs, which had been all the time hit and miss, Steele mentioned.
“You already know you’ve hit it large if you end up doing the American Podiatrists Luncheon. ‘Hey of us, what’s with this plantar fasciitis?’”
Getting booked steadily was a bodily drain, but it surely lifted Steele to prominence.
“It was grueling and exhausting, but it surely actually made me a greater comedian. There may be nothing like stage time. And free drinks,” he mentioned, acknowledging “I made a little bit of a reputation for myself and an honest dwelling for a superb lengthy whereas.”
Many golf equipment ultimately fizzled out, many of the higher comics fled to L.A. or elsewhere, and the Bay Space was
whittled to a handful of venues. Nothing, nevertheless, rivaled a year-plus of COVID-19. Any comedian who might snicker about discovering work — live-streamed or in any other case — within the final 12 months is sniffing helium.
“Very restful, however wholly missing financial reward,” mentioned Steele, a 2015 inductee into the Pittsburg Leisure & Arts Corridor of Fame.
However the doorways are once more opening, if solely slowly. Steele emerged from his comedic cocoon two weeks in the past in Alameda “and the entire time it felt like that nightmare the place you might be at a job interview in your underwear and are completely confused and unprepared for the duty. Oh, wait. That just about describes day-after-day of my life.”
Steele predicts higher outcomes after knocking the rust off for a June 19 present on the 75-seat Empress Theatre Lounge in downtown Vallejo. Opening is Larry “Bubbles” Brown and host Patrick McDermott.
It’s a skip and a bounce from Steele’s Berkeley house. And the gig is on a Saturday. A Friday present would imply late afternoon motoring mindlessly into site visitors, considered one of Steele’s pet peeves. In truth, if site visitors was a pet, Steele would have it euthanized.
“Site visitors is the worst factor,” he mentioned. “Again within the day, I might get a name at 7 p.m. from, say, the Sacramento Punchline telling me the headliner missed his flight and consider it or not I might take the gig and get there from San Francisco with loads of time to spare.”
For higher or worse, expertise has made a huge effect on the enterprise, Steele says.
There are a plethora of recollections throughout Steele’s 30-plus 12 months comedy profession.
“The very best was once I was a child, enjoying our neighborhood out in Pittsburg, my mother would name me house to dinner with the loudest whistle you’d ever heard. Actually, from blocks away you would hear it. It was an early model of texting,” Steele mentioned. “So my of us got here to the exhibits each night time in the course of the San Francisco Comedy Competitors finals and each time I used to be launched I might hear, above the applause of over a thousand folks, my mother whistling. It’s nonetheless considered one of my favourite recollections.”
One other memorable second — and a painful one — was a mere two years in the past.
“I used to be going to a non-public efficiency at a rustic membership. My left arm had been feeling bizarre for some purpose and I simply shrugged it of as getting old or outdated soccer accidents or no matter,” he mentioned. “That night time on stage throughout my set I reached to seize onto a podium to maneuver it and out of the blue I used to be consumed with excruciating ache. I used to be blinded and noticed solely rockets and squirrels and palm timber in purple and black and white. I knew I used to be in bother.”
Steele rapidly returned to the dressing room, took off his shirt, “and noticed that my bicep had torn off my forearm and was now up close to my shoulder. My second look that night time was on the hospital.”
Regardless of how lengthy between stage appearances, Steele mentioned he inevitably thinks of the late Williams, who died in 2014.
“I miss every part about Robin. My eyes properly up simply pondering that he’s gone,” Steele mentioned. “Once we bicycled the Marin hills close to his house, I typically had bother maintaining with him but it surely made me comfortable as a result of I believed, ‘He’s so sturdy and wholesome. He’s going to be with us and performing for a few years.”
It was Williams’ comedy “that taught me to play extra on stage and provides life to characters,” Steele mentioned. “Many comics simply ship setups and punchlines however Robin created little SNL kind skits, enjoying all of the characters himself. I attempt to try this at any time when I can.”
In line with a number of Bay Space performers, he’s succeeding.
“Each time Johnny Steele performs, it’s like a grasp class in comedy,” mentioned actor and producer, Vallejo native Matt Larson.
“Since talent and title recognition now not run parallel on the earth of American comedy, Johnny Steele isn’t a family title, though he must be,” mentioned Derrick Leonard, a Vallejo trainer and part-time stand-up. “Johnny is well one of many high 5 comics within the nation. He’s positively the Steph Curry of Bay Space comedy.”
Brown was extra succinct describing his longtime pal and comedy colleague.
“A San Francisco icon,” he mentioned.
“Comedy Returns to the Empress Lounge” with Johnny Steele, Larry “Bubbles” Brown, and Patrick McDermott, is Saturday, June 19, 8 p.m., 330 Virginia St., Vallejo. Admission $20. For extra, empresstheatre.org.