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

Exposing One's Self in More Ways than One! (Part 1)

by John Cantu ©

"Halle Berry got paid a $500,000 bonus on top of her $2 million salary to bare her breasts in Swordfish, the director of the movie told the New York Daily News. "Yep," said Dominic Sena, "$250,000 per."

Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle Thursday, May 17, 2001

The above item made me laugh and also jarred a long-forgotten memory. It reminded me of 1977 when George Schlatter was doing a revival of the 60s Laugh-In show and came to San Francisco in search of talent. Because the original Laugh-In show had been such an icon of the 60s decade, Schlatter was determined to put together a cast to exceed the quality of the original show.

George Schlatter has a tremendous eye for talent. He had been all over looking for talent . . . London, New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas. But as the tag line of the classic famous motivational speech goes, "One can often find acres of diamond in one's own backyard."

By this time Robin Williams had relocated to LA and when Schlatter first saw him, Schlatter naturally went nuts. I have already written about this and about how Schlatter discovered Dana Carvey when Dana was a college freshman.

But, after the New Laugh-In show was cast and they were in rehearsals, Schlatter got a promo idea. There were fourteen cast members: Nancy Bleiweiss, Ed Bluestone, Kim Braden, Claire Faulkonbridge, Wayland Flowers and Madam, June Gable, Jim Giovanni, Ben Powers, Bill Rafferty, Michael Sklar, Lenny Schultz, Antoinette (Toad) Atell, Robin Williams, and Sergio Aragonés

Five of the cast members (more than one third) were from San Francisco, a city at that time not known for comedy. So he decided to rent a popular local venue, The Great American Music Hall and tape a preview show to be called the Great American Laugh-Off.

It would feature the hometown gang: Robin Williams, Jim Giovanni, Bill Rafferty, Antoinette "Toad the Mime" Atell, and Nancy Bleiweiss. Since Robin Williams, Jim Giovanni, Bill Rafferty, were all Holy City Zoo alumnae - we local comics considered it essentially a "Zoo" show in spirit.

Even one of the non-comedians, Antoinette Atell had performed several times at the Zoo as "Toad the Mime." Nancy Bleiweiss was a popular singer featured in the San Francisco musical comedy extravaganza, Beach Blanket Babylon.

The Great American Laugh-Off also featured a guest set from a New Laugh-In show member, Lenny "Chicken Man" Shultz as well as a special guest appearance by the then very hot comedy troupe Duck's Breath. (Perhaps best known for a trio of characters spawned from the group: caustic cultural commentator - Ian Shoales; burnout sage - Randee of the Redwoods; and that master of erroneous erudition - Dr. Science.)

There were two major lessons I learned from this show. One came as a result of being at the show during its taping and the other was from the show's post-production party.

For their guest spot, Duck's Breath was doing a sketch called "It's a Box. It's More than a Box." I don't remember the specifics of the sketch and for the purpose of this essay it doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that after they had completed the sketch, the director came out and said, "Sorry. I'm sorry. We didn't pick it up on tape. We have to retape. And could you audience members please laugh at the funny parts again?"

Duck's Breath had to come out and do exactly the same bit over again and we had to pretend to enjoy it again. And I thought this is the most unfulfilling, unrewarding experience a performer could have. In that instant, I made up my mind "television sucks!" Why would anyone want to deal with that?

By this time, I had come to the realization that my writing career was going to take longer to get fully established than I had hoped so I had taken a job as a bartender at the "Zoo" (oh, strictly temporary of course).

And at the time, it was not widely known that I was also living and sleeping at the Zoo since there was no money to pay me a full salary. Tony was still doing the producing job I had turned over to him a couple of years earlier.

So I sneaked out of the club early one morning three months after the taping to have breakfast. It was 9:00 am, I've just woken up, and I'm headed up the street. There are the usual regulars here and there. I see one neighborhood woman, whom I knew by face only and she stops me and says I saw you on TV last night.

Well, in those days, a lot of people thought I bore a resemblance to Charles Bronson, and I thought maybe she had seen him on a talk show while changing channels and thought it was me. No big deal. I knew I hadn't been on TV last night.

So I continued onto my favorite low-priced neighborhood eatery, the now defunct little 20-seat Mexican restaurant inexplicably called the Foot Print. I noticed that when the waitress, whom I knew, handed me the menu she eyed me kind of funny at the same time.

I didn't think much of it. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to order. Studying the menu I happened to look up and I noticed across the restaurant (this was a small 20 seater) that there's four people seated at a table about ten feet away and they're looking at each other and then looking at me, then whispering.

When the waitress brings my food she says, "You were on TV last night weren't you?"

And I said, "No."

She said, "Yes you were. I saw you on channel four."

The four who had been eating and eying me, got up to leave. One comes over to me and says, "Listen could I get your autograph? We don't know your name, but could we get your autograph?"

So I gave them my autograph. And I thought what the hell is going on? Is this some real life Twilight Zone episode? Is this some bizarre Candid Camera prank? What the hell is going on with the world?

Now I'm positive that Charles Bronson must have been on some show and a lot of people, seeing me unshaven, and hung over are convinced I am him - except it doesn't make sense that the regulars like the neighborhood lady and the waitress would be confused.

I get back to the club and the phone is ringing. It's one of the local comics. "Cantu, did you see Schlatter's Great American Laugh-off last night?"

"No. No one even told me when it was gonna air."

"Well, you were on it man!"

"Huh!?" I said, "What the hell are you talking about?" Because I knew that I damn well I hadn't performed.

"Man it was so cool. After one of Robin's jokes they cut away to you man and did a 30 second close up of you laughing your head off. You were on TV man."

Then I realized THAT's what the people had seen and that's what the people remembered. Damn. I had gotten more recognition from that thirty-second close-up on television, then I had in four years of stand-up.

But I had learned an important lesson. I told myself, "Oh - that's why you go on TV!" That's why you expose yourself to the BS like Duck's Breath did - for that kind of exposure. With the power of television, you can become accepted, famous and popular without ever demonstrating any talent whether you have talent or not.

For the second lesson and also for the reason why the Halle Berry blurb reminded me of this...

NEXT: Exposing One's Self in More Ways than One! (Part 2)