Danville Express

Living - February 9, 2007

Comedy's man of Steele

Laugh it up on Valentine's Day

by Natalie O'Neill

Comedian Johnny Steele keeps an old joke in the back of his mind when he's in front of a new audience.

"It isn't my joke, it's George Carlin's joke," says Steele, who speaks rapidly and grew up as the class clown in Pittsburg.

"The joke is that anyone who's going slower than you on the freeway is an idiot and everybody going faster than you is a maniac," he says.

To get laughs as a comedian you have to be cruising at the same speed as your audience. You've got to be "relatable." So being ideologically miles ahead or miles behind them is a comedian's nightmare, Steele says.

This is the reason why a political comedian wouldn't be caught Bush-bashing at a small Texas comedy club circa September 2001. And it's why the Blue Collar Comedy Tour doesn't make tour stops at Yale.

With the range of venues Steele has been booked in - from edgy San Francisco night clubs to fancy East Bay corporate events - he has to constantly gauge who is filling the seats in front of him.

But it's not that he changes his style or twists his persona to people-please.

"I can't do an act for people in Kansas, then do it in Japanese and then in sign language," he jokes, "(But) there are three or four ways I can approach the same subject."

For Steele, who goes on irreverent rants about the state of socially dysfunctional America, it's particularly crucial that he be able to "feel out" who is at his shows. His act has been written up as outrageous, intense and even brilliant. But he knows how to tone it down - or turn it up for that matter.

"I know people vacationing don't want to hear that the polar bears are dying," he said referring to a show he recently did at a resort.

With this in mind, Steele says he knows right away that his Danville Valentine's Day show is going to be more about love and relationships than consumerism or war.

He will still draw his jokes from "the newsroom instead of the bathroom," but he said he'll be skipping over some of his more controversial tirades.

"The audience respects it if you get close to the line, but the second you cross over it they have no use for you. I wish I could do a Jerry Seinfeld act about nothing - about socks - it would make it so much easier on stage," Steel says.

To him, comedy is about taking some risks.

"If you don't take risks then it would all be Garfield cartoon strips," he says.

Steele has experience as a radio host on Live 105, has co-hosted on Bay TV/KRON's "The Show," has made appearances on quake radio, and has been doing standup since 1990.

Lately, though, he's been frustrated with the way comedy clubs are changing. There is too much emphasis on boring masturbation and defecation jokes and the audience is usually drunk, he says. His frustration was a catalyst for his decision to book shows at small venues - like Danville's Village Theatre.

Steele used to frequent Cobb's Comedy Club, a nationally renowned spot in San Francisco's North Beach, but he said he recently did a show for an audience at Cobb's with a preference for low grade misogynistic humor. The audience was filled with drunk frat boy types, he said.

"They looked like they were there for a 'cage match ultimate fighting' ticket give-away. They were a bunch of troglodyte cave dwellers," he joked.

While he says most comedians think "the drunker the audience the funnier I will seem," Steele likes his audience members sober so they can pick up on his subtle nuances.

His new goal is to get a bunch of smart 35-and-older comedians together for a sophisticated, clever act.

"It's kind of the opposite of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour," he says.

To go along with his group of older comedians, he hopes for an older audience as well. He said he wants to talk about things that people his age are going through. Getting married, losing a parent, buying a house - these are all experiences his demographic can relate to, he says.

"Like for example ... did you know you have to take a class if you want a vasectomy? I told the doctor I want to get a vasectomy, not perform one," says Steele, who is in his early 40s.

Thinking back on shows he performed toward the beginning of his career, one particularly awful one comes to mind. Steele had just flown in to San Diego from the Bay Area and decided to do a bit about airplanes.

About a week before, a U.S. Air airplane pilot had crashed into the ocean, no one had been hurt, but the story had been all over news. In his standup, he made a reference to the plane and an elderly man in the front center row stood up and started screaming at him.

"It turned out he was the father of the captain of the plane!" Steele says.

The father had apparently flown to San Diego to get away from all the press and decided to see some comedy to take his mind off the week's events. Talk about a comedian's worst nightmare.

As a comedian, no matter how well you measure the audience, you always run the risk of rubbing someone the wrong way.

This is a chance Steele is willing to take. And anyway, if you're funny enough people won't realize that you're pushing boundaries, he says.

"The trick is to be funny," he says.

Sounds simple but it's one of the most elusive, complicated tasks modern entertainers say they are faced with. In standup, sometimes you just have to get on the road and hope the other drivers will go your speed. That's what Steele does.

My funny Valentine

What: Johnny Steele and Pals Valentine's Day Comedy Show

When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 14

Where: Danville Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville

Tickets: $18

Box Office: telephone 314-3463

Information: www.johnnysteele.net


There are no comments yet for this post

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: *

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields