It's not exactly a tears-of-a-clown story, but comedian Johnny Steele does unveil a more serious side in a new documentary.

"3 Still Standing" follows Pittsburg native Steele, along with fellow comics Will Durst and Larry Brown.

The husband-and-wife team of Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero are at the helm of the nearly completed film.

Campos said, "In the 1980s, San Francisco's audiences and media supported innovative, original comedy. But by the mid-1990s, a number of forces -- comedy cable channels, an over-saturated market and a corporate takeover of clubs -- squeezed the juice out of the city's comedy scene.

Johnny Steele, aka Pittsburg native John Lopez, is one of the subjects featured in an upcoming documentary "Still Standing."Comics Larry Brown
Johnny Steele, aka Pittsburg native John Lopez, is one of the subjects featured in an upcoming documentary "Still Standing."Comics Larry Brown and Will Durst are also in the film. (Beanfield Productions)

"In the face of what Robin Williams calls a 'comedic recession,' all three have shown amazing ingenuity and resilience. This film is about talented artists, who have only gotten better with time, striving to stay true to their art while the entertainment business is focused on television, movies and 'stars.' "

Fans of comedy, the husband-and-wife team set out to show the San Francisco comedy boom of that era. But the more they talked with the funny trio, "they discovered a more intriguing story was about our struggle to keep our careers alive as older comics," Steele said.

"Each of us flirted with fame and might have been the next big thing, but (for many factors), it didn't happen."

For the last several years, the three have survived the challenging entertainment world by reinventing themselves.

"Essentially, we're trying to keep our careers alive in a business that discards people over 40 unless they are famous," Steele said.

For two years now, Steele said he has been filmed dozens of times in live performances and interviews. "Cameras stuck in my car as I drive to gigs, the wife and I discussing finances. It's a little strange to open oneself up like this."

But, open up he did because of the trust he formed with the filmmakers.

"They are talented artists, and also great people and huge fans of smart comedy. As soon as I got to know them I wanted to be part of the project. I knew if I let them into my home and into my brain they wouldn't take advantage.

"Although, I think one of them swiped some silverware while I was in make-up," he teased.

Despite the film featuring the three friends, Steele said it is "really about our individual paths."

If there's a downside, it's "seeing yourself on camera close up."

Steele once had a local TV show, so he's no stranger to the camera. "But the older we get the more careful one has to be. You can't go cocktailing the night before a shoot, eat Chinese food at 1 a.m., sleep fitfully and then not end up looking like a bloated wildebeest."

Now residing in Berkeley, Steele is glad to be part of the film.

"People lined up around the block to see comedy back then. There were clubs everywhere, nearly a dozen in and around San Francisco at one point. Sometimes we'd do three sets in a night, running from one club to another. Agents came to town to scout for talent for TV shows and comedy festivals. I was thrilled to be a part of it."

More importantly, though, it was a nurturing scene.

"You could be very creative, take risks -- artistically, politically -- and audiences loved it. I remember going to L.A. at that time and was shocked at how square the comics were. But, in S.F., I started doing edgy, irreverent, smart, iconoclastic humor ... And, folks loved it. It was a great time.

"I'm happy somebody is finally telling that story."

Of course, that story took a bitter turn once support and attendance dwindled. "Hollywood and clubs discarded us."

Steele believes his comedy career actually began with his family in Pittsburg in 1960, when he was born John Lopez.

"I absorbed everything I saw around me, not just my zany family but also the mannerisms of all the characters in the neighborhood. I owe them all a great debt. (But some of them owe me 20 bucks, so I think we are even.)"

The 1978 Pittsburg High grad won the prestigious San Francisco comedy competition in 1992.

Filmmaker Campos said choosing the main characters was a fun challenge.

"(The three) together bring a great wide spectrum of stand-up comedy: Johnny unleashes a tornado, Will twists words and politics into hilarious knots, and Larry bemoans his lack of success with the ladies."

"3 Still Standing" is slated to be finished by summer's end, with plans to enter film festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and Austin's SXSW.

It will also be screened during a 10-city launch, which tentatively includes Pittsburg, San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee (Durst's home town), New York, Boston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver.

The filmmakers have made dozens of documentaries for the Discovery Channel, Science Channel, National Geographic, A&E and others. This is their first independent documentary.

For a sneak preview of the film, visit www.facebook.com/3StillStanding. For more information, visit www.beanfieldproductions.com.

Reach Trine Gallegos at TrineG@att.net.

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