John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Backstage Secret from the Tonight Show

by John Cantu ©

Both Jim Giovanni and Frank Olivier are comics who started at the "Zoo." I was at the Bohemian Club last week for its comedy night and while I knew Jim G was a member and was performing that night, I was surprised to discover Frank was also on the bill.

During dinner Frank Olivier came over to my table to say "Hi."

Frank and I had a few minutes to chat and I got a chance to ask him a question I had been dying to ask him for the longest time. It was about a Tonight Show appearance I had seen him do a few years back.

Frank does a unicycle bit - the classic where he looks like he is about to fall on his butt at any second. On this Tonight Show appearance I was shocked when he called Johnny over from behind his desk and asked for assistance.

In his floundering around, Frank actually reached out his hand and used Carson's head to stabilize himself.

I asked Frank, "Did you just do that or was that pre-planned?"

Frank said, "It was rehearsed. At first Carson's people said, 'Carson wouldn't go for that. He doesn't like to be touched.'

"But I did it with Gary Shandling and Carson saw it and like it and said he wanted to do it. So all of Carson's people said, 'Ok, Carson's gonna do it. But don't expect him at the rehearsal. He never comes to the rehearsal. But don't worry an assistant of his will be there and Carson's assistant takes very good notes.'

"So I'm there for the rehearsal and I hear this familiar voice, 'Ok, what are we gonna do?' I turn and look and it's Carson. His staffers are shocked. 'You really want to do the rehearsal?' "

On camera it looked like Carson was a really great sport being manhandled by Olivier.

Using an Established Act's Material to Start Your Career

I am one of the few comedy coaches who doesn't mind a rank amateur using an established act's material in their first few times on stage. To me it's the equivalent of what they do in art school when they tell an artist to go to a museum and copy the painting of a master to understand their brush stokes.

But I am in the minority. Most coaches and pros go ballistic over this, but I say what's the harm for an amateur to use some established comic's jokes as a confidence primer their first few times on stage?

 NOTE: I say established - national headliner. A big act, one who will not be damaged by you borrowing their material. Not anyone you see in a comedy club, they are not established enough. Even if it is the headliner.

If you have used someone's act as your break-in piece what I suggest you do is start to add your own lines. Add a line or two of yours, then drop one or two of the ones you've borrowed. Keep doing that till you finally are doing material solely from your own mind, your own ideas and your own sense of humor. And then continue to add your stuff building your own entire act.

Set a goal for yourself - in six months you should have replaced all of the line in the "borrowed" material with your lines.

I was both pleased and shocked to find that Jaime Masada of the Laugh factory agreed with me. In Comic Insights (and if you don't have this book in your personal library you are not serious about the business) - Masada is quoted on page 269 " I'm very passionate about the comedian's material. If someone comes in and does someone else's material that is proven, I say Ok the first six months they are trying to learn, but after six months if they aren't writing their own material, I say, 'Don't come back in here.' "

The reason I also feel this way is I started my comedy career by memorizing Bob Newhart monologues and doing them for friends. I have since developed my own ability to be funny in writing and speaking and my "borrowing" didn't hurt Newhart or me.

And Rosie O'Donnell tells about her first time on stage and afterward all the comics said, "Hey where did you get your material?" She said, "I heard this guy Seinfield or Steinfield or something." And they said, "You can't do that. You have to do your own stuff!"

"She said 'I have to write my own jokes? Damn that's hard.' "

Actually, when she was told that you couldn't steal another comic's work, Rosie thought they were idiots because "When you're an actress, they don't ask you to write the movie."

Like all comics who ultimately become successful, she eventually learned to write her own routines. She had a day job in Long Island in the catalog department at Sears and she spent her nights working as an emcee while she listened to the various acts and learned the ropes.

NEXT: Stories about Tom Finnigan, Paul Giles, Mike Bizarro, and Robin Williams