'3 Still Standing': Hot Docs Review

3 Still Standing Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Beanfield Productions

3 Still Standing Still - H 2015

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Robin Williams casts a long shadow across this heartfelt documentary about the San Francisco stand-up comedy scene in midlife crisis.

The late Robin Williams makes one of his final screen appearances as an interviewee in this warm-hearted documentary about the highs and lows of San Francisco's live comedy scene. Fellow Bay Area veterans Dana Carvey and Rob Schneider add extra star power, their presence a key selling point in an otherwise fairly parochial hometown homage. Making its international debut at Canada's Hot Docs festival this week, 3 Still Standing is a sporadically amusing but ultimately gloomy reflection on fickle fame that appears to conclude there are not many second acts in American stand-up life. Marquee names should boost further festival bookings, though this slight film ultimately feels like a small-screen project.

Despite the presence of Williams and Carvey, husband-and-wife directors Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero mainly focus on three comics who enjoyed youthful success but never quite hit the big time. The elder statesman of the trio is Will Durst, whose sardonic delivery and politically themed material marked him as a milder cousin of Bill Hicks. Now 63, Durst also is a syndicated columnist and author with a flair for profile-boosting publicity stunts, like breaking the world record for continuous joke-telling and running for mayor of San Francisco. "Comics are like blues musicians," Durst says with just a hint of wishful thinking, "we get better as we get older."

Less well known outside Bay Area comedy circles are the film's other main subjects, Johnny Steele and Larry "Bubbles" Brown. Now in their 50s, both became hot names on the city's stand-up scene soon after Durst. Three decades later, both are struggling to find work. Steele specializes in likable guy-next-door observational material while Brown has cultivated a stage persona as a depressed and sexually frustrated misfit which, the film seems to confirm, is not too far from his real self. "Life is very sad," he explains, "so try to make it at least funny while we're here"

In the 1980s, Durst claims, San Francisco was "the Left Bank of comedy." The city certainly had multiple venues and a connoisseur crowd attuned to new, edgy, experimental humor. But then came the period that Williams calls a "comedy recession," with local clubs freezing out left-field performers as the industry became increasingly corporate and geared to television. Instead of relocating to L.A. and joining the gold rush, Durst, Steele and Brown stayed home and arguably missed their big breaks.

Woven into a broader historical narrative that fleetingly includes Lenny Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Bobcat Goldthwait, Ellen DeGeneres and more, 3 Still Standing sketches in the backstory of its three antiheroes over the last 35 years. Once, they seemed primed for stardom, but today they are all hustling to make a living in a fragmented comedy scene of pop-up shows, free downloads and social media self-promotion. While multitasking Durst appears to be just about staying afloat, Steele is primarily playing watered-down shows to senior citizen groups, and Brown seems to be in free fall until old pal Dana Carvey generously invites him on tour as his opening act.

Bright and breezy despite its bittersweet tone, with a jaunty jazz-heavy soundtrack, 3 Still Standing is a pleasant but conventional affair. A more serious documentary would have dug deeper into the social and historical reasons why San Francisco became such a comedy hothouse, and might have included a broader mix of talents, too, given that the three main subjects are straight white males in a city famous for its diversity. The film is dedicated to Williams, who appears unusually subdued in his interview clips, an incidental detail that assumes extra significance in light of his suicide last year. A richer, darker, more journalistically rigorous story hovers just outside the frame.

Production company: Beanfield Productions
Cast: Robin Williams, Will Durst, Johnny Steele, Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Paula Poundstone, Dana Carvey, Debbie Durst, Rob Schneider
Directors/cinematographers: Robert Campos, Donna LoCicero
Producers: Wally Smith, Simon Rose, Allison Hatcher
Editors: Brandon Dumlao, Eli Olson
Rated 14A, 90 minutes