Supposedly it's pretty hard to cold-call Johnny Steele and actually get him on the phone (there's a home number on the comedian's web site with an invitation to "call Johnny Steele and leave a message"). But the stars aligned just right last Tuesday afternoon, and Steele answered on the second ring. "Hello?" "Hello?" Static. Click. I called back two minutes later, and — what luck — he picked up again. "I'm pretty sure the phone is tapped," he said. "Karl Rove, you know." Then he reconsidered. "No, I think I just pressed the button that said, 'Send this person to hell.'"
A self-professed former "dumb jock" who played football at Saint Mary's and did the Live 105 morning show from '97 to '98, Steele now makes his living as a social critic. He ran the gamut of West Coast comedy clubs but ultimately consolidated his career in the variety show racket, where he now resides — probably for good. Steele said he got tired of working with comedians who tell the usual setup and punch-line jokes, and of winding up in clubs with names like "the Chuckle Hut," or drink specials that involve some crudely described appendage — i.e., "purple hooters" ("And I'm barely exaggerating here"). Most of all, he was fed up with vapid audiences. "Even last time I worked in the city, literally like, Hummer limos are pulling up with twelve guys from Turlock because Dave's getting hella married and they're having a bachelor party," Steele said. "What can you possibly impart to these people? They have a blood alcohol level of like 1.5, they haven't read a newspaper in their lives, they haven't read a book in four years."
The variety show format solves all of those issues. It demands an intelligent audience; it features different kinds of performers who all help advance some overarching theme or idea; and, in Steele's case, it's always "anti-Bush, antiwar, anti-everything that was going on." Take next Wednesday's Bizarro Comedy Show: Two Funny Heads, which places Steele alongside two comic-strip artists, Bizarro illustrator Dan Piraro, and Cheap City creator Mike Capozzola. The format proceeds thus: Steele mocks the audience for twenty minutes; Piraro shows illustrations and reads his hate mail, Capozzola shares some of his portfolio — and who knows, he might have some exciting hate mail, too. Steele said the constant shifts of material keep things interesting, but the acts still cohere thematically. "We're on the same side of the sociopolitical-environmental-animal-rights-vegetarian-vegan kinda fence," he assured. Fortunately, they can all laugh about it. September 10 at the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Ave., Oakland). 8 p.m., $10. JohnnySteele.com
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