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

Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 1)

by John Cantu ©

If you ever visit San Francisco during early August and you peruse the entertainment section of the various San Francisco newspapers you might see ads for Comedy Day Celebration. This is an annual event held in Golden Gate Park with some one to two dozen comedians putting on a special one-afternoon free comedy show.

NOTE: Comedy Day is the FIRST of all the comedy festivals. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival added review comedy in 1953, but cannot say when "stand-up" was first performed there. The next earliest appears to be Just For Laughs Festival Montréal which started in 1983. Comedy Day is different from all the other festivals - it's FREE!

The audience consists of thousands of San Francisco residents, visitors from neighboring cities, and any tourist lucky enough to be clued into this fun San Francisco insider's event that has been held yearly since 1981. Many people turn it into a picnic and come as early 9:00 am to stake out a spot for their blankets and food baskets for the comedy show that starts before noon.

Among the comics you might have seen thru the years include major stars such as: Whoopie Goldberg, Robin Williams, Kevin Pollack, Jake Johannson, Bobby Slayton, Paula Poundstone, Margaret Cho, and Dana Carvey as well as other comedians who are not as well know nationally, but are comedy club headliners in clubs across the country.

What makes Comedy Day especially great is that it is as much an event for the comics as it is for the audience. Comics get a chance to mingle with each other for a day. Comics are on the road a lot and can go months without seeing each other. As Will Durst once said, "It's like an annual picnic where we can get together once a year and get caught up with each other on what's been going on."

Comedy Day Celebration actually started out to be simply a one-time free sixty-minute production at noon in San Francisco's downtown Union Square featuring, then Bay Area sensation Shields the mime, and a handful of local club headliners. Now, for the first time you get to view a public airing of the myriad weird things, strange coincidences, and seemingly unconnected events that ultimately combined to create the annual Comedy Day Celebration in Golden Gate Park.

So - how could the following facts play an integral part in the creation of Comedy Day Celebration? The 1970s so-called "Zebra Murders" of San Francisco; Robert Shields, street mime; Union Square; President Carter canceling the US's participation in the 1980s Olympics; a visit by Cantu to a McDonald's on Market Street for cheese burger and fries; a proclamation from the Mayor for fire fighters raising $5,000 for a charity event; two questions from a friend of a friend who had just gotten a job with the Coca Cola company (no joke, Comedy Day Celebration exists PRIMARILY because of these two questions!) ; a magazine article about how a "roll of brand new shiny nickels makes a great gift for a child when you have a limited budget;" and getting screwed over by a comedian.

In this is first installment of the never before told saga, I'll begin with how all these events came together in the mind of comedy legend Cantu (am I allowed to talk about myself in the third person like that?) and morphed into Comedy Day Celebration, one of the best loved comedy traditions in San Francisco today.

In 1975, a local comedian, Jose Simon, requested a meeting at the office of Gregory McKeag and three other movers and shakers of the San Francisco Bay Area Comedy Scene. In addition to McKeag, Simon had invited Tony DePaul, Patricia Daniels, and mef. McKeag by day operated the Mad Cobbler shoe repair shop, and by night ran a weekly comedy show in Concord, California. (I believe his production company was called "Spotlight Productions.")

Tony DePaul was there because he was the current producer of the Holy City Zoo's Sunday Night Funnies. Although I was the original producer of the Sunday Night Funnies, (the first all-comedy shows at the Holy City Zoo), after three months I had turned producer duties over to my best buddy, Tony DePaul, so I could concentrate on my budding freelance comedy writing career. (Earlier readers may remember how we were moved to the Sunday slot after Zania, the belly dancer, evicted us from her Wednesday night show.)

Patricia Daniels, my then wife and writing partner, was there as the producer of a weekly comedy show in the small basement of a coffeehouse on Mason Street in the San Francisco theater district. Comedy is everywhere today, but in the mid-seventies comedy was just getting started and no venue was able to fill the house more than one night a week.

Why was I there? I was sharing office space with McKeag and I was (and still am) sort of a comedy gadfly. Although writing was my major occupation, I was always dropping into the various venues, offering solicited and unsolicited advice to neophytes performers on their material or coaching them on their presentation skills.

As I remember, Simon felt that the city of San Francisco had been receiving a lot of bad publicity because of series of racially motivated murders called "The Zebra Murders." He felt that the serial killings was giving the city a bad rep and he wanted to offset that somehow. He felt he had an idea that could give some positive energy and publicity to the community. Simon's idea was to produce a one-hour show from 12 noon to 1:00 pm in Union Square.

Union Square is in the heart of San Francisco's hotel district. At that time a local mime, Robert Shields, was performing there daily and was quite well-known and popular. Later he went on to co-star in the television show Shields and Yarnell. Simon's idea was to let people who were on their lunch break come watch Shields perform and along with a handful of some of the Bay Area comedian headliners. A one-hour free show to cheer up the City.

I do not recall the reaction of the others specifically, but I was alive with excitement. Today the idea may not have the same impact on you as it did on me then. But you have to put it in its historical context. Today there are comedy clubs across the country. You even have a television network, Comedy Central, devoted entirely to comedy. But in 1975 the comedy boom was in its nascent stage.

McKeag, Daniels, and DePaul were the only people producing comedy shows in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Three comedy venues total and each only featured comedians one night a week. And 30 people in the audience was considered a good turnout.

But the Union Square gig promised an opportunity to produce a show where - what - maybe 300 plus (imagine that - 300 plus!!) people could see it! An idea so breathtaking in its scope at the time that the sheer grandeur of it seared itself into my mind.

But then questions arose in my mind as well as in our informal conversation as we tossed Simon's idea around. How do you get permission to use Union Square? And while Shields would not need any amplification, the nightclub comics would want a sound system. We had no portable sound system period let alone one strong enough to project through the entire Union Square. How would we get a sound system? How would we get electricity to run it? How would we get publicity for the event? How would we pay for various expenditures that were sure to come up? What it boiled down to was the vision exceeded our capabilities at that time. So nothing came of that meeting and at the end of our discussion, as they say in Hollywood, the idea was left on the cutting room floor.

But the idea had burned itself into my consciousness and stayed in my head. I thought about that idea at least a half-dozen times a year and always came up with the same unanswered questions. Now flash forward to early 1980.

By now I was intimately reinvolved with the Holy City Zoo. One thing I had discovered with my budding comedy writing business - you should have a day job to support you until your business is fully viable. Therefore, after a couple of years of scrabbling to my get writing biz going, (even though I had sold material to Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Rip Taylor and a host of local comics) I took a job as a Holy City Zoo bartender. I became bar manager in 1978, the producer in 1979 and finally by 1980 I had become co-owner and producer of the Holy City Zoo.

On January 20, 1980 I read a newspaper business article about President Carter's decision for the United States to boycott the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But the article covered more than just the athletes being disappointed. It was also about the millions of dollars the Olympic sponsors would lose.

Let me interject what might seem like an unrelated fact (and about which I will write in greater detail in a future essay), but around this time, a comedian had just canceled headlining a show I had booked him to appear just ten days before the show. I was guaranteeing him $200 - a lot of money on those days, to headline one show. He had canceled me to MC six shows for Jon Fox (one show Wednesday, one show Thursday, two shows Friday, two shows Saturday) $125 total. Because, as he said, "Cantu, Fox controls the San Francisco Comedy Competition and I have to stay on good terms with him."

How could I compete with that? What could give me the same clout and act as insurance against last minute cancellations to work the Punchline for Comedy Competition producer, Jon Fox. (By the way, I had nothing against Fox in this situation. He was not trying to screw me and probably didn't even know about the canceled gig because it was in a new club opening up in Petaluma, about forty miles north of San Francisco - the comedian was the jerk for not telling Fox he was already booked.)

After finishing the brief article on President Carter's decision, I put the paper down and with uncontainable excitement and thought, "Eureka! I may just have found an event that can hold its own against the allures of the San Francisco International Comedy Competition!"

NOTE: It's ironic that Backstage Pass is supposed to be a memoir and not a research project. All I wanted to do was simply recount some of the memories I had about running the Holy City Zoo (may I add, with the invaluable assistance of Rebecca Erwin and Don Stevens).

The only research I wanted to do was explore my own mind. Just revisit those special memories and write some vignettes. However, chronicling the creation of Comedy Day has turning out to be a tad more difficult than I had originally envisioned because the creation of Comedy Day includes a number of elements tied to specific historical events (the San Francisco "Zebra Murders," President Carter's canceling the US participation in the 1980 Olympics and others). Historical elements that needed to be factually verified before I could accurately describe them.

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 2)