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

Cooperation, Sex, and Cantu (Part 1)

by John Cantu ©

Rob Becker's Defending The Caveman opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway March 26, 1995, and earned a place in the theatrical record books after its 399th performance on July 17, 1996, when it surpassed Lily Tomlin's Search For Intelligent Life in The Universe and Jackie Mason's The World According To Me.

At that point, Defending The Caveman became the longest-running solo play in Broadway history. In honor of this milestone, New York City Mayor, Rudolph Guiliani proclaimed July 18, 1996, "Caveman Day" in New York City and renamed the city's West 44th Street "Caveman Way."

Here's an excerpt from a post by Rob Becker on the Holy City Zoo Alumni's bulletin board:

The Zoo Was The Place To Be

I did my first comedy set at the Holy City Zoo back in 1981. I remember watching Jeremy Kramer, Ken Sumori, Barry Sobel, Kevin Meaney, Billy Jaye, Murphy St. Paul, and Larry "Bubbles" Brown perform that same Monday night.

The comedy scene was different then. Sort of underground, sort of bohemian. The audience was just discovering the San Francisco comedy scene and I remember them coming in with an air of anticipation, wanting to be part of it.

The Holy City Zoo was the focal point, Mecca.

Robin Williams was on Mork and Mindy and I think a lot of folks who were coming out, were "hipped" to the fact that Williams started at the Zoo and they wanted to see the scene that had produced such a talent, wanted to see if they could spot the next one, wanted to be part of what was happening.

After the mega-star of Robin, there was a group of local stars like Bobby Slayton, Bob Sarlatte, Dana Carvey, Bill Rafferty, Barry Sobel, Dr. Gonzo, Marty Cohen, and Michael Pritchard. Rafferty was on Real People, Cohen was "Party Marty Hearty" on Solid Gold, and Pritchard had just won the Comedy Competition.

John Cantu would only post the next 5 or 6 comics at a time and there'd be 25 or 30 of us waiting to go on, pacing, hoping to get on while the audience was hot, praying that one of the established stars wouldn't show up and do a guest set, bumping your spot that much later into the night, that much further from prime time.

I can recall many nights watching the scene build, the "prime time" comics kill, the inevitable guest set, the audience dwindle, and then performing to a few late night patrons, faces down on their tables, failing to provide the laugh track for my tape recorder.

At the end of the night, a bunch of us would end up at the Sugar Plum over on California Street, eating too much fried food, reliving our sets in excruciating detail, and wondering about our futures in comedy.

I was part of a "third wave" of comics that started around that time. Guys like Milt Abel, Jake Johannsen, Jon Ross, "Bubbles" Brown, Warren Thomas, Frank Prinzi, David Feldman, and Rob Schneider were my contemporaries.

People like Paula Poundstone, Rick Reynolds, Joe Campiolo (later, Dexter Madison), and Kevin Meaney were in the "2nd Wave" between the Slayton group and mine.

I couldn't believe my good fortune to stumble upon a place like the Holy City Zoo. It was like a rabbit hole into another world.

It is a shame that the place and the time are long gone."

Rob Becker

Cantu here again:

What made the "Zoo" such a magical place? What made it such a magnet for both comedians and audiences alike? The "Zoo" started with comedians doing sets between a belly dancer's performances in 1975 and by the time Becker writes about, had become one of the country's premier places for a comedian to start, develop, and then move to take on New York or Los Angles.

Three vital factors made it possible for the "Zoo" to flourish: Cooperation, Sex, and Cantu (and in that order).

What do I mean, "Cooperation, Sex, and Cantu?" (And no, that's not a redundant statement.)

We start with cooperation. You have to go back to about a year before the Holy City Zoo started offering comedy. My first comedy show performance was for Frank Kidder at The Coffee Gallery in North Beach.

You could count the total number of comics in San Francisco on two hands - Beside, Frank there was Bob Barry, Bill Cologne, Freaky Ralph Eno, Jeff Ross, myself and our resident headliner, Jim Giovanni.

Ralph and Jeff were weren't so much comedians as they were singer/guitarists who did humorous songs and/or song parodies. Bill and I and Barry could do maybe 15 minutes a piece (and not all of that totally polished).

The point being that with the exception of Frank and Jim, none of us were capable of actually doing a full set of comedy by ourself. Consequently, whenever we heard about a possible venue or were contacted by some one who wanted some entertainment, we got on the phone and called every other comic to see who could join us to fill out the show.

The entire San Francisco comedy scene started on a fundamental basis of cooperation, support, and sharing of resources and knowledge.

In Los Angeles and New York, most comics wouldn't share info to the degree we did - info about newly discovered venues, important gigs, and hot auditions. Most comics, when they heard about a new venue or an important audition might tell one or two close buds about it, but with the proviso, "Don't tell anyone else."

Because if they told their secret inside info about an audition to everyone they knew, one of those competitors might attend, beat them out, and be booked to headline at the club, or get on a TV talk show, or even worse, get cast in a sit-com while they would have to stay on their day job.

But here in San Francisco, we had no such illusions about being discovered. We were simply performing at the time for the thrill of performing (and as a way to meet babes) with maybe Hollywood as a faint, dim, vague future possibility.

So during this time, we individually needed enough other comedians to join us so we could fill a decent 20 or 30 or 40 (or, however, many minutes) slot. I cannot emphasize enough, the power of this fundamental approach we took in the first few years of comedy in San Francisco. This easy sharing of all our comedic resources permeated our every day actions.

So, in San Francisco we freely shared information about venues we heard about, quirks of the audience we had discovered performing in various venues, i.e., what seemed to work and not work. (Every venue has certain topics that you can get extra laughs with and other topics that will cause the audience to suddenly go silent.)

We also shared rides to and from gigs and apartments to crash in after gigs. And more important, we shared feedback on our hard-earned knowledge of what worked and what didn't work. As Becker writes: "At the end of the night, a bunch of us would end up at the Sugar Plum over on California Street, eating too much fried food, reliving our sets in excruciating detail. . . "

I am a member of the National Speakers Association and in the early 70s Cavett Roberts got a couple of dozen speakers together and formed an association. His approach was, "Let's not compete with each other and each try to grab and hold on to our tiny slice of the speaking opportunity pie, but rather, let's work together to make a bigger pie."

That's what we comedians did unknowingly in San Francisco (and about the same time he was doing that in Arizona). This overall sense of cooperation permeated the San Francisco comedy scene for years and its influence should never be underestimated. By sharing instead of hoarding, we unknowingly helped leverage and multiply each other's experience and knowledge base.

While this San Francisco sharing attitude did start to diminish after a couple of years when people started to realize - "Hey you can actually get paid to do this." Overall, it was a still a fairly strong part of the San Francisco comedy ethic throughout the early eighties until the comedy explosion that happened in the mid-eighties when there suddenly seemed to be a comedy venue in every town with a population of more than five.

Cantu notes:

Murphy St. Paul: The comedy team of Sue Murphy and Dan St. Paul now each headlines solo under their own name.

NEXT: Sex In The Holy City Zoo (Part 2)