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 4)

by John Cantu ©

In order to understand the many obstacles in creating Comedy Day, you have to realize that this was a brand-new event with no precedent. And to fully understand that, here's your mini-lesson in producing a live event.

There are three mandatary parts. I call them the three Ps of producing: Place, Publicity, and Production. This is also their order of importance.

Your place (venue) is the most important. A note to would-be live event producers: Your location is always the most important aspect because if you have to physically change a venue location at the last moment not only is it difficult, but you also, more than likely, will lose most of your audience who didn't get the word about the change.

While your production (your performers, or presenters, or participants) may seem to be the most important, they actually can be much more easily replaced at the last moment. For example, suppose you're producing a charity event and Jay Leno and Bill Cosby have committed to appear. Two hours before the event starts, you discover that their plane is grounded in Hollywood due to bad weather and they won't be able to make it. But you also discover that already in town for another event are David Letterman and Rodney Dangerfield.

If they agreed to sub, you could very easily substitute Letterman and Dangerfield for the billed performers and the people will still have a good time by and large. Some might grumble or cancel, but the event could be held, and everyone most likely would attend.

But suppose two hours, no, suppose two days before the event, the building you planned to use is damaged by fire. You scramble to find a replacement venue. Even if you could find one and move the event to the new location, you'd find that unless it was a major disaster featured on all the news media, many of your would-be attendees would have gone to the wrong place because they didn't hear about the location change.

And, of course, your need for PR is obvious.

Now back to Comedy Day.

Okay, so I've got my venue, the Golden Gate Park's Band Shell (and it can't burn down - all that can happen is that it falls in an earthquake). The most important building block is now in place. As I mentioned earlier with the three P's, publicity is more important than the production. But you first have to have a production to publicize and promote. Once you have that (i.e., a line up) you can start notifying the media.

I now needed a presentation (in this case - a performance consisting of X number of comics). I had to put together talent line-up, allot performance times, and then invite the selected comics to commit to perform.

And that scared me. That scared the living daylights out of me. Simply put, back then I didn't have the confidence that if I invited any name acts they would actually show up.

If you live the San Francisco Bay Area, you might think, "What are you taking about Cantu? Comedy Day is one of the biggest comedy events in San Francisco. It always has a couple of dozen top comics"

Yes, today Comedy Day is a San Francisco institution. But back then this was uncharted waters. No one had done any live comedy event on this scale before this. Let's put this in historical context for you. The biggest comedy festival today, is the Montreal Comedy Festival. That didn't start until 1983.

The time period for this pre-production work for the first Comedy Day was in mid 1980, three and a half years before the Montreal festival. I had no model or template to follow. I was literally making everything up as I went along.

Was it just a cockamamie idea? Comedy outside. With no cover charge. And no alcohol. No seating arrangements. And only one weekend after July Fourth.

The closest model I had was Day on the Green, a large outdoor all day music event produced by Bill Graham. That really was what I used for my basic outline.

But still, I didn't have a clue how to handle this. Five years earlier the original idea had called for the top comics to perform for free. But that was in the mid 70s, when comedy was just starting. Comics then would have shown up in droves because it would have meant having an audience.

But by now, comedy was fully established and comedians were making a living at it. It would mean giving away their business for free on a Saturday, a big money day. Oh yes, in the proposal to reserve the Band Shell, I had used the big guns - I had said, Robin Williams from Mork an Mindy, Bill Rafferty from Real People and a couple of the local well-known club headliners "would be invited to perform."

But this is your typical producer BS. Many charity event producers will say, "We have invited so and so." Yes, but that is not the same as "So-and-so has confirmed." It's like a Hollywood producer saying, "So-and-so is reading the script" or "So-and-so has expressed an interest in playing such-and-such role." Only when you have an agreement (i.e., a contract) do you have anything of substance, and then not always.

The second aspect was time - how much time should each performer do? Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, a half-hour? These were perplexing questions. And I found my answer in of all places, a dental office while reading an out-of-date December issue of some woman's magazine.

This was August or September in 1980. At the time I was having a lot of dental work done. And while I waited to be seen, I read this article, the title long forgotten, about giving inexpensive Christmas gifts to very young kids when you had a limited budget.

One suggestion was to give your child a roll shinny new nickels. The article said the shininess makes it seem like a NEW toy and the fact that there are forty is overwhelming. The perception for the child is lots and lots and lots and lots of "toys" to play with.

And I had an "Aha" moment. I would have a show consisting of forty comics and literally overwhelm the audience with a long line-up of funny folk. Sort of a comedian's bazaar. And to keep it moving, I mentally adapted five pennies equal one nickel to five minutes equal one set. I decided to allot each comic five minutes.

This became my major fall back position. By only using comics for five minute sets, I could very easily substitute lesser known comics (even on the day of the event) if headliners turned me down or were no shows. I could use quantity of comics (versus quality, i.e., fame) as the marketing hook - so it wouldn't matter if I got stiffed by the big guys.

All I needed were forty comics of any length experience, who could do at least five funny minutes. That was doable. That applied to just about any intelligent comic who had been on stage performing six months or more. I realized new, inexperienced comics would perform in heartbeat just to have stage-time in front of an audience. For the first time, I started to relax. I had the venue. And now I had the structure, forty comics doing five minutes.

I had been carrying the idea of comedy in my head for over five years. Ever since Jose had presented me with the idea of a one-hour free show in Union Square. I had taken that idea and already multiplied it by a factor of ten.

I was so excited, I couldn't wait to tell Simon. The next time he was at the Zoo, I said, "Hey, Jose, guess what? Remember, that idea you had for a one-hour show in Union Square? I think I know how to make it happen."

"What are you saying, Cantu?"

"Jose, I think I can pull it off. But I got a couple of ideas for some changes. I was about to tell him about moving it to Golden Gate Park and making it the "First Annual," but before I could get any more out, Jose snapped at me, "Cantu, don't f**ck with my baby!"

I thought, "What the hell?" I just never expected that. I'm thinking, "Jose, here's an idea that's been lying around for five years. I'm the only one you've got who wants to do something with it, and you are busting my chops?"

I couldn't believe it. So, I just shut up and mentally beat a hasty retreat. I had made up my mind to go forward with the idea. I realized right then that I had best not tell Jose any more. Not at this point any way. I decided to wait until everything was sewn up and then present it to him as a fait accompli.

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 5)