Johnny Steele breaks into radio--
and breaks out onstage
By David Templeton
WHILE listening to Johnny Steele's Friday morning "party" show, on San Francisco's Live 105 FM radio station--with its rowdy, raucous, in-studio audience and the coffee-fueled antics of numerous guest comics--one can't help but paint a certain mental picture of what all this wildness must look like in person. A big, spacious seating area--like the one on David Letterman's show, probably--looking down on Steele and his cohorts reclining in comfy chairs all in a row. People would leap up and run around on a regular basis; snack-food projectiles would be a common event.
It is a testament, therefore, to Steele--and in part to the legendary Alex Bennett, who pioneered the immensely popular drive-time comedy show and whose recent departure opened the door for Steele's 4-month-old show--that so much giddy enthusiasm and high-decibel mayhem could blast off from what turns out to be a very tiny launching pad.
The audience--about 25 people crammed into folding chairs in and around the station's multicubicled office area--in fact observes Steele and guests through a sliding-glass window that looks into the cramped and cluttered studio, where everyone clusters tightly together around a microphone-studded desk. The very unlikeliness of this jerry-rigged arrangement only adds to the sense of celebration everyone apparently feels.
All this energetic hullabaloo seems partly to be the small group's attempt to compensate for its size, and to express its delight at being an arm's length away from Steele, one of the Bay Area's strongest and freshest young comedians.
"It was hard at first," Steele admits after the show, referring to his switch from the late-night comedy clubs where he started out to these early-morning radio gigs in so strict and claustrophobic a setting. "Then I sort of realized that the reason you become a comic to begin with is that you're out with your buddies in a car somewhere and you're the one who's always cracking the jokes.
"It wasn't always 100 or 200 people in a club. It was me, a foot away from you, making you laugh."
Only today the jokes are broadcast to a potential audience in the tens of thousands, many of whom--at least at first--were hostile to this perceived interloper coming onto Alex Bennett's hallowed turf.
"It was weird coming in after Alex," concedes Steele, who was a regular guest on the old show. "He is a legend. I mean, there are several bios where it's noted that Howard Stern was at least partly inspired by Bennett. I was accused, by some people, of stealing his show," he adds, wide-eyed and shrugging. "How do you steal a radio show?"
For the record, Bennett--whose ratings had been slipping, in part owing to his increasingly long, unfunny rants about high-tech computer modems and the like--departed Live 105 some time before Steele was asked to develop his own morning program. Though Steele is still tinkering with the details of the show, it appears that his fledgling effort is paying off; ratings are up for the first time in years.
"My goal," he grins, "is to make the show both smart and zoolike. It's a tricky balance to maintain, but it seems to be working out pretty darn well."
SONOMA COUNTY will get a taste of Steele's genre-busting showmanship this weekend when the Luther Burbank Center plays host to his variety-style Comedy Breakout show, featuring fellow comedians Scott Capuro, Sue Murphy, Robert Hawkins, and whatever tomfoolery Steele thinks up by showtime.
"It's still being fleshed out," he laughs. "But basically it's gonna be a comedy show with a live band and a couple of off-the-wall side things. I'd like to do a stage version of the 10-second rant we do on the morning show. I'll line up 20 people from the audience and give them each 10 seconds to rant about anything they want. I'll throw in a few other surreal surprises.
"Actually, I have no idea what will happen, and I can't wait to see."
Since entering the Bay Area comedy scene in the late '80s, the Pittsburgh-born (East Bay version) Steele has built a reputation as a comic at odds with the somewhat staid stand-up formula that comedy clubs have employed for years--three comics performing in succession on an otherwise empty stage in front of a lone mike. Early on, he began playing with the genre, incorporating live music into the act, allowing his routines to be interrupted by such bizarre sights as a gibberish-spewing woman pushing a shopping cart across the stage.
"I get bored with straight stand-up. I call what I do 'New Age vaudeville,'" he says. "It shakes up the old formats we expect from comedy shows." It is possible that Steele's lifelong urge to combine elements that seem incompatible is the fuel that powers his peculiar brand of comedic genius.
"I come from a blue-collar town and I played football in high school," he laughs, "but now I'm a vegetarian leftist with gay friends. I don't fall into any preconceived, marketable niche. So I've had to make my own.
"That's the way I like it."
Johnny Steele hosts the Comedy Breakout on Saturday, April 11, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $15. 707-546-3600.
[ | MetroActive Central | ]
From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.