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 5)
by John Cantu ©

Two things to keep in mind although they have been touched on already. One, my main motivation for Comedy Day was to have an event to compete with the Comedy Competition. The impetus for this came from booking a comedian as a headliner and offering him one of his biggest fees ever for a one-nighter outside the city. At the last minute he canceled on me to do six shows for Jon Fox at the Punchline for half as much money because Fox controlled the Comedy Competition.

I wanted to have an event associated with the "Zoo" the same way the Competition was associated with the Punchline that was as well-respected as the Comedy Competition.

And two, back then I just didn't have the confidence that if I invited any name acts, even if they agreed, that any would actually show on performance day. Yes, today it is a big deal. Yes, today in fact Comedy Day is one of a couple of dozen comedy festivals, but back then this was a never-before done idea.

Comedy outside? With an audience two or three times the size of any club? Huh? There simply was no comedy model. In fact since I had to send in the listing for Chase's Calendar of Annual Events almost a year in advance, our first name for Comedy Day was "Comedy on the Green," a takeoff on Bill Graham's baseball stadium sized music events called "Day on The Green."

As I noted earlier, I wasn't sure if any "name'' comics would actually show up so I had my fall back position in place with the option of using lesser known comics, but I really did want this to be a blowout event.

So with that in mind, I had to go downtown for something or another, the actual reason long forgotten to posterity. And when I took a lunch break, I just happened, for no particular reason, to go into a McDonalds on Market Street.

I sat there eating my cheeseburger and fries, idly looking around the eatery when something on the wall caught my eyes. Being insatiably curious and a compulsive reader I changed seats so I could read it. It was a large framed glass-covered case with an official looking document that had a large gold seal on it in the lower left corner. It seemed to be some sort of official proclamation:

"WHEREAS The Firemen of San Francisco do the good deed . . ." and continued to describe some charity drive they were involved in.

And the next line was

"WHEREAS McDonald's has generously supported them in their endeavor . . . " It went on about McDonald's being a good and loyal community supporter blah, blah, blah . . ."

And then in the lower right-hand corner was: "IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have set my hand and caused the seal of the City & County of San Francisco to be affixed this such and such day, Diane Feinstein Mayor."

Wow. So cool. And I had an out-of-the blue-inspiration. I didn't know how one got a proclamation. I didn't know if we could get one. But what if I could figure out a way to get a proclamation from the Mayor for Comedy on the Green?

They happened to have a box of photo copies of the proclamation so any customer could take one as a souvenir. I took one and when I got back to the Zoo, I showed it to Becky, Holy City Zoo secretary and den mother to the comedy community at large.

Before coming to the "Zoo," Rebecca had worked in a law firm. This proclamation seemed to me to be some sort of "legal" document so maybe she would know what strings had to be pulled, what buttonholes had to be buttoned, to wrangle one for our Comedy on the Green.

Becky said, "You write to a supervisor and request one."

I said, "You just ask for one?"

She said, "Yeah, politicians love them. They give them away all the time. It doesn't cost them anything and their constituents love them for it. They are for boosting goodwill and cost nothing."

I started to get a little excited. Gee, we had gotten the bandshell fairly easily and to me that had been a real coup. Maybe we could get - - - Nah! But then again, maybe.

I decide to go for it.

"Hey Becky, do you think you could maybe use the McDonald proclamation as sort of model and do a rough draft of a proclamation? Then I'll polish it up and maybe we can submit it?"

"Sure, Cantu."

I figured it would take her two or three days to get the draft ready. She surprised me the next day when she said, "Here's your proclamation draft." I got a red pen and prepared to edit it. I started reading,

WHEREAS, Freedom of speech is recognized as an inalienable right guaranteed by the . . . "

I finished it in about three minutes in shock and sat silently in stunned admiration. It was, at that time, one of the most complete and perfectly written pieces I had ever read in my life. I could not think of a single thing to change. Not one word, not one comma, not one period.

I don't think I've ever told Rebecca this, but I have told it to my partner, Susan Cerce and to others when discussing my role in Comedy Day. The sublime joy of reading that flawless document, today, still ranks as one of my all-time top ten pleasurable life experiences.

My only contribution to the proclamation as to ask dumbly, "Now what do we do?"

She said, "You send it to one of the supervisors. They introduce it as a motion. The entire board votes on it unanimously requesting that the mayor make the declaration and that she then issue a proclamation."

"Okay. So who should we send it too?"

"Send it to Quentin Kopp. He loves these sorts of things." That certainly surprised me because Quentin was an Independent and was well known as a no nonsense watch-the-budget type guy. But if Becky, with her legal secretary background, thought we should "Send it to Kopp" then send it to Kopp we would.

Once again I relied on Becky's experience. I asked her to write the cover letter that would accompany the request for a proclamation.

We mailed it on September 18, 1980.

And about three weeks later in early October we got our proclamation. Signed by Mayor Feinstein with San Francisco City & County seal.

Oh it was a wondrous joy to behold.

For the first time, I started to relax a tad. I now had my leverage. I now knew Comedy on the Green was going to be a reality. For me, the proclamation became the ultimate source of leverage. And from then on, I had no doubt Comedy on the Green was going to be produced. If, for no other reason, then to simply not embarrass ourselves after getting the proclamation from the City of San Francisco's government.

A postscript to last month's essay: A colleague from the old days emailed me. "Hey Cantu, it was you AND Rebecca who informed Jose of the progress of Comedy Day at a Comedy Competition outside the city that Jose was emceing. That was when he said the famous, "Don't f**k with my baby."

Ok, so be it. This is a memoir and I never kept a diary back in those days. With Jose's line, what was important to me was not who was with me or where we were, but rather the vehemence of his retort! That's what has stuck in my mind all these years.

And as for Rebecca being there that also was not important to me. In my opinion, for all my braggadocio and Simon's machismo about Comedy Day, there are three key elements that made the event and one of them was Rebecca Erwin Spencer's brilliantly written proclamation and her knowledge of how to get it officially proclaimed. That's what was most important to me about Becky's contribution.

The other two key ideas were from the unknown consultant: Her suggestion, "Move it to Golden Gate Park" and her other suggestion, "Make it 'First Annual."

Everything else that Jose and I did was merely filling in the details.

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 6)