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 8)
by John Cantu © HumorMall.com

Ah yes, raising money. If it wasn't for this onerous, thankless task, there would be no need for the title "Producer."    I was so naive back then I thought the main hurdle would be getting that FIRST dollar. I thought once I had my first sponsor, it was simply a matter of duplicating the process.

Ha.

Ask any producer and they will tell you raising money is $-%^&*# hard from dollar one to dollar last. I have since produced many events that required a budget. I've discovered it's never, ever easy.

In fact, the closer you get to your final goal, the more difficult it can become as the gap gets narrower and narrower and your frustration increases. You can see your goal so close, yet still it's SO FAR.

There are two schools of thought when you get close to your total budget. There are some, who if they don't get all the money they need to do their project the way they envisioned it , they will stop the project and return the funds,. These tend to be bean counter producers.

Then there are others who are so smitten with their idea, they cast caution to the wind and go for it - figuring they will either get it somehow in the end when people see the full glory of the project. Or they will try to scrimp, economize, and revise to bring in the finished project in as close as possible to the original vision. To me, these are the artists with a great vision.

I put myself in the latter school. As soon as Bob Ayers wrote the first check becoming the first sponsor, in my mind, the event was a done deal. Ouch. There was a massive detachment from reality.

Between then and July 11, 1981 my life had only three parts: Running the Holy City Zoo; working out the unforeseen details that kept cropping up; and hounding, badgering, pleading, for money from other Bay Area comedy movers and shakers.

There are three vignettes that stand out clearest in my mind from those days. There was one club that wanted to be a sponsor. Jose was closer to the owner than I was so he was the contact. Every other week or so, I'd ask Jose where their check was.

And every time, to paraphrase Gilda Radner, it was always something. "The quarterly taxes were due and took all our excess funds." "The last couple of week have been slower than normal so we are a bit tight right now." "Uh the pipes broke in the men's bathroom and we had to call in a plumber on a rush basis . . ."

Finally in exasperation I said to Jose, "Jose, what's the difference between a sponsor who doesn't give you money, and a comedy club owner who doesn't sponsor you at all." I have always operated on the principle "What starts in trouble, ends in trouble."

If a backer promises you money and doesn't have it ready when they say they will, that's a big red flag. If they blow a second deadline, then it's more than 50% likely they have, at least mentally, backed out and either don't yet realize it consciously or don't know how to tell you.

And I suggest you give up after the third failure to produce regardless of how GOOD the reason. And of course it's ALWAYS a good reason. No one says, "I am simply too inept, venial, or broke to make good on my word. Bottom line - after the third failure to come through, scratch them off you list and move on.

A second event that I remember quite clearly was Jose's infatuation with Murphy's Law. We were going to have a press conference at one club in lieu of a cash investment. They were going to provide free booze (most important to get the media to show up) and free food always appreciated, but never as much as free booze.

I don't mean the press will write a glowing review because you offer them booze and food. No, those two are not necessarily connected, but it means that for future events they will be more likely to attend your event over another equally newsworthy event that doesn't have booze and food.

And about a week before we were to have the press conference, there was a problem with the venue. I think it went bankrupt - or it might have had a fire. But in any event, we had to scramble to get a new place.

And I said to Jose, "Oh, no, talk about Murphy's Law!" Now Jose was born and raised in Mexico. And he had never before heard about "Murphy's Law." I explained it was an expression meaning "If anything can go wrong, it will - and at the worst possible time."

Well Jose was quite taken with that phrase and from then on he anthropomorphized Murphy's Law which tickled me no end. From then on when something would go wrong Jose would say, "Oh, you know Cantu, we got another visit from Mr. Murphy." Or he'd say, "Oh, oh it looks like Mr. Murphy has already been here."

Fortunately, Jon and Anne Fox offered the Punchline as a replacement for the ill-fated original press party. They did their job admirably, but the party only drew about six media people and I think one was a writer for some throw-away rag and the other five were interns who had been given the pass as a "perk."

For me it was one of the low points of the entire production process. I left feeling really embarrassed and I had a subtle sense of inadequacy as a producer. I never admitted this to anyone, but later that night I thought to myself "Cantu, you don't know as much about producing a big event as you thought you did."

BUT

I never once had any doubt that Comedy Day was going to be successful. I never thought the press party had doomed it. I just felt, well, we'll have to get the word out some other way. I went back to focusing on scrounging up mo' money.

And the third thing I distinctly remember was that overall I was not very successful in the money raising department. On the program for the first Comedy Day Celebration 1981 are the following sponsors:

  • The Holy city Zoo
  • The Other Café
  • The Punchline
  • S.F. Stand-up Comedy Competition
  • Cobb's Pub
  • The Flat Iron
  • The Open Theatre Café
  • Funny Business
  • Life of the Party

Observant readers might have noticed that Funny Business and Life of the Party both had the same address: 1700 Mason Street, S.F. Coincidentally enough, my home address was 1700 Mason Street.

Since I was running the Zoo as well, I was in fact, personally responsible for one-third of all monies raised for the first event. That was one of the penalties for my pushing ahead as if it were a done deal.

But when you have passion and commitment and desire, you have to make it happen. I didn't think in terms of "I am contributing two thirds more money than anyone else" - for an event that is designed to make no money.

Nope, never thought that at all. I just kept one vision in my mind. That vision I first had when I stood on the stage of the band shell and looked and imagined every park bench full of people smiling, laughing, and partying.

And through all the ups and downs I never once lost sight of that vision. I never once failed to hear the booming laughter. I never once lost the feeling that this event was too big for anyone or anything to stop it.

NEXT: Conclusion of Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 9)