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

Conclusion of Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 9)
by John Cantu ©

The big mistake I made was not budgeting any money for publicity. I figured there would be no need for any until one month before the show. Why publicize something taking place in July 1981 any sooner than thirty days out?

I just figured a month before the event I would send out a Comedy Day news release along with my regular Holy City Zoo news release, and all the sponsoring clubs would start making announcements 30 day prior to the event at their club and that would be enough. I was thinking of this show as the "Woodstock of Comedy."

However, back then I didn't understand the importance of creating a "buzz on the street." In my mind the idea was so good I had no doubt that the idea itself was big enough to generate a buzz. But I was thinking in terms of buzz for the event itself, not the pre-event buzz needed to sell your industry insiders.

If you are a movie producer, you get a buzz going while the script is being shot to get a distributor excited about distributing your film and to get theater owners excited about showing it before it is in the can.

If you have written a comedy book, you need to develop a "buzz" to get the sales reps excited about pushing your book versus the 200 other titles they rep, and you want to get the store owners excited about carrying your book before it is off the press.

Don Stevens, former house MC of the Holy City Zoo, recently sent me the following quote:

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Howard Hathaway Aiken, physicist and computer pioneer

That quote is the closest description of the reaction of the San Francis Bay Area comedy community in the months leading up to the first comedy day. Although Bob Ayres had, without hesitation, made the first donation, my comedy scene sources in the know soon told me that behind my back, comedians and producers alike were mocking my plan, jeeringly calling it "Cantu's Folly." ("Real' comedy took place inside a comedy club at night, not outside, not during the day, and not in a park.")

But I barreled ahead. I simply assumed the local comedy community would automatically get behind me as soon as they realised it was a good idea. Back then I was constantly approaching club owners and trying to sell them on the merits of sponsoring Comedy Day which I envisioned as the "Woodstock of Comedy."

As you can see from the paltry number of actual sponsors, I didn't do a very good job of selling my vision. Also, if you re-read the last issue's list of actual sponsors, it's hard to realize that in 1981 a comic could make a living just playing clubs in the Bay Area.

There were more than a half-dozen clubs offering a full week of comedy (often running from Tuesday through Saturday with two shows Friday and often three shows Saturday). At least a dozen more offering three-day (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) or two-day (Friday and Saturday) weekend shows and numerous bookers and venues offering one nighters.

As for booking the comics, I let Jose take care of that. Today, performing at Comedy Day is a B I G thing. Heck, just being back stage today is a B I G thing. Now, each year you can see dozens of aspiring future comedy stars hovering around the entrance tying to find a pal with enough clout to just get them in backstage - the idea of actually performing for Comedy Day would be beyond the pale.

But back then the comedians were doing us a favor by agreeing to perform and fill an open spot as I didn't want to find myself in a pro-quid pro position. "Hey, Cantu, if I agree to perform on Comedy Day, can I get a 'real' booking at the 'Zoo'?"

Just look at the names of the performers from the first Comedy Day (how many do you recognize?)

Timothy Barron -The Electric Mime, Bob Barry, A. W. Brown (we didn't have space to spell out 'Whitney'), Marty Cohen, Jim Cranna, Gil Christner, Tony DePaul, Jane Dornacker, Will Duerst , Femprov, Jim Giovanni, Dr. Gonzo, Hazzard Bros., Hurley and Zee, Billy Jaye, Doug Kehoe, Jeremy Kramer, Lorenzo, Bill Lucas, Mann and Vittorio, Rich Mark, Kevin Meaney, Pat Morita, Papaya Juice, Murphy St. Paul, Steven Pearl, Chris Pray, Michael Pritchard, Jeff Ross, Bob Sarlatte, David Scheuber, Joe Sharkey, Rodney Sheriff, Jose Simon, Barry Sobel, Spaghetti Jam, Warren Spottswood, Jonathan Szeles

How many did you recognize? The only bonafide stars were Marty Cohen, who was then nationally known from his standup appearances on Sold Gold as "Marty Party Hearty." And Pat Morita who had started performing as part of the comedy generation just before us from the 60s.

And a few of the other comics that you may recognize weren't famous then. They got their fame years later.

A. Whitney. Brown - Saturday Night Live 1986-1991

Will Duerst wasn't even notable enough for anyone to double-check the spelling of his last name.

Lorenzo - more than fifteen years would pass before he got the role of "Buzz" under his stage name "Buzz Belmondo" on Out Of This World.

Kevin Meaney - eight years would pass before he starred in Uncle Buck.

Murphy St. Paul of the comedy team Dan St. Paul and Sue Murphy - 1981 was years before they went their separate way to the solo headliner careers they have established today. Dan St. Paul - After making numerous television appearances, Dan is one of the country's top corporate comics. Sue Murphy - now has her own Comedy Central show

Michael Pritchard - this was way before his critically acclaimed Public Television series for kids

Bob Sarlatte - In 1980 he worked as an announcer, writer, and regular comedy contributor on the first David Letterman Show for NBC, but it wasn't until 1987 that he would guest on Letterman's show.

Barry Sobel - He would make his television debut in 1989 on Uptown Comedy Express with Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, Robert Townsend and Marsha Warfield. Look at Barry's fellow performers - what is most surprising is that Sobel is the only non-black comic on the bill.

Jonathan Szeles as The Amazing Jonathan, is probably second in fame only to Penn and Teller for doing comedy magic and his television appearances are legendary including Late Night with David Letterman where he was the only comic magician hip enough to appear on the show.

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This is all that John would write on the subject of Comedy Day. However, though John consistently wrote about his poor background and lack of education, the one thing he didn't lack was class. Busy in 1982 turning around another comedy club, Cobb's Pub, he sold his interest in Comedy Day to his "partners" for $1 rather than let the increasingly acrimonious pressure from them destroy his dream.

NEXT: Bombing & Hecklers