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

Bullfights and Fool Fights

by John Cantu ©

In Name Dropping by Barnaby Conrad there is a profile of the Spanish bullfighter Manolete, called by many the greatest matador of his time.

As I read it, I was struck by the similarities between a bullfighter and a comedian. The following is excerpted from his book with comedian references.

Once, in Peru, I took a blasé American college girl to watch Manolete during the preparation ceremony before a fight.

"Excuse me, señorita, if I don't talk much," he said with his shy smile, as they worried his thin frame into the skintight uniform. "But I am very scared."

An hour later the fear he spoke of was nowhere in evidence.

"To fight a bull when you are not scared is nothing," other bullfighter once said. "And to not fight a bull when you are scared is nothing. But to fight a bull when you are scared--that is something."

Manolete told me, "My knees start to quake when I first see my name on the posters, and they don't stop until the end of the season."

People do not think of bullfighters as being scared. Neither do they think of successful comics as being nervous when they perform. Here's a peek at Johnny Carson before one of his shows. In Comic Insights Ajaye says, "I was a guest on the show that night and I was more nervous than I usually am on club dates. I was backstage and saw him nervously fiddling with his shirt cuffs a few minutes before the show.

"Don't tell me you still get nervous?" I asked him incredulously.

"Every night." he replied.

But there was never any real end of the season for Manolete. In 1945, for example, he fought ninety-three fights in Spain in six months, about one every other day. That meant body-racking travel, for he would fight in Barcelona one day, Madrid the next, and then maybe Lisbon day after.

He would snatch some sleep in the train and sometimes he had to board a plane with his ring outfit still on. Then followed Mexico's season and Peru's season, and when he got through with those, it was March again and time for the first fights in Valencia.

For a club headliner, when you are on the road you spend this week in a Motel Six in Nowheresville, Alabama. Then the next week at a Holiday Inn in Jerkwater, killing time during the day before doing your two sets at the Comedy Comedy Comedy Club that night. And you have four more days to kill that week.

If you're a club headliner you go where the jobs are. And that means long separations from your home and your friends. You have no idea how boring it gets with nothing to do all afternoon, in a town where you have no friends, no colleagues, no relatives. Just hanging around waiting to do your act at the local Ha-Ha A-Go-Go. You leave only to repeat the process the following week.

Yet he kept driving, driving. What, then, made him run? What made him The Best? Money would have been the obvious reason. In eight years as a senior matador, he made approximately 4 million American dollars - in the 1940s!

Yet it wasn't the money; people seldom risk their necks just for money.

Re comedians: Why is Seinfeld going back to the clubs? Why did Robin Williams just do a live stand-up tour? Why does Leno still take "road' gigs?" There is that inner drive. In all my years of running comedy clubs and producing shows, I saw it over and over and over in the great ones. They simply can't not perform.

In his debut, he was clumsy.

In the last issue you read headliners like Seinfeld, Maher, Shandling talk about how clumsy they were at the start of their career.

Then came the turning point in his life, for José Camará spotted him. Camará, a bald, dapper little man of thirty-five with omnipresent dark glasses, might have become the greatest bullfighter of all time except for one thing: he was a coward.

When he saw Manolete gawking around a small-town ring, he knew that here was someone who could be everything that he had failed to be. With his expert eye, he saw what the crowd didn't, that the boy wasn't really awkward, but he was trying the wrong passes for his build and personality.

A good coach or manager can cut years off your leaning curve. The trick is to find the right one. Here's a quote from Buddy Morra partner in Morra, Brezner, Steinberg who over the years have managed Crystal, Williams, Letterman, Poundstone, Klein . . . quoted in Comic Insights.

"If you look at the comedians from Jack Benny, George Burns, to Newhart to Cosby Seinfeld, Roseanne, by the time they did a series they had done standup long enough to really learn about comedy.

"They knew performing.

"Now everyone comes out, "How ya doing, where ya from?" Who cares? They're not trying to develop.

"Someone said to me that most performers spend most of their time waiting for the opportunity, instead of preparing for it. If you prepare for the opportunity and you have the ability, the opportunity will come."

Camará figured that with his brains and Manolete's blood they could really go places. He signed the astonished young man for a long, long contract. Camará remade Manolete. He took him out to the ranches and showed him what he was doing wrong.

When Camará thought Manolete was ready, he launched his protégé. They came to realize that here was a revolutionary, a great artist.

When you are starting out - make your mistakes in the boonies - at the small non-consequential venues. In Comic Insights Ajaye asks Richard Lewis: "Was it tough to get laughs starting out?"

Lewis: "David Brenner who's like a brother to me - once told me, 'Richard, why do you want to go on stage at the Improv, the most important showcase in New York with new material for the first time?' So he gave me names of clubs forty miles out of the city and he says 'Take about six months'.

"So after six months, I went to open mike night at the Improv and I blew the roof off because I was so ready."

It seemed as though Spain had just been waiting for his kind of fighting. His honest and brave style showed up the fakery that the cape-twirlers had been foisting upon the public.

By 1946, he was the king of matadors.

Here's good advice from the Jay Leno, king of talk show hosts on the importance of being true to yourself.

Frankly Ajaye: "I've always felt the goal of a stand-up comedian is to get to the point where you are the exact same as when you were your funniest, say with friends in high school."

Jay Leno: "Exactly. It took me a long time. I'm almost there with the Tonight Show. It takes a long time before they know your personality.

NEXT: Bits and Pieces: Drew Carey, Aisha Tyler, Stephen Wright, Joan Rivers