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

Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 1)

by John Cantu ©

When George Schlatter came to San Francisco in 1978, he had already been to London, New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. He was reviving the New Laugh-In show and he wanted to use the funniest talent...

When he found Robin Williams he said, "I wish had half a dozen more people as original as you." And Robin said, "I'll tell you where you can find a whole city full of original funny people, San Francisco."

Schlatter was shocked. "San Francisco? I haven't heard anything about San Francisco comedians." This was in 1977 and San Francisco wasn't even the tiniest blip on the comedy radar screen. But based on Robin's recommendation, Schlatter came to San Francisco searching for fresh talent. By the time he finished his scouting expedition, he had signed four more performers for his show, Bill Rafferty, Jim Giovanni, Toni "Toad the Mime" Attel, and singer/performer Roberta Bleweiss.

When the show aired, there were thirteen regulars and including Williams, five were from San Francisco - so thirty-eight percent of the cast consisted of performers from San Francisco. The New Laugh-In show made Hollywood aware that San Francisco was the new developing ground for fresh and funny performers.

But what I want to focus on first is an anecdote about a San Francisco comic who was considered, but not hired. Comedy was so new, at the time one of the major rooms was a once-weekly showcase in the basement of a church on Mason Street near Geary, called the Mustard Seed Coffee House. It was being booked and produced by my then wife, Patricia Daniels.

Side-note: (The lesson here is if you want to produce, start where you are.   Don't make the mistake of waiting for the ideal place and production.   The glorious San Francisco comedy clubs arose primarily from three less than ideal venues:  that little coffeehouse, run by Daniels;  another coffeehouse in North Beach, The Intersection of the Arts;  and a rowdy bar also in North Beach, The Coffee Gallery.)

On audition night I and one of my best buddies, comedian Tony DePaul were in the back of the room watching Schlatter. Tony was watching to see what Schlatter was responding to in a comedian in preparation for his audition. I was watching Schlatter to find out how a real life Hollywood producer talked, walked, and acted since I was evolving more and more into a producer and fading out my performing career. Schlatter was sitting in the back of the room with his assistant, talent scout Rose Gramalia.

The first comedian performed and left the stage. Same for the second, third, and fourth funny folk. Then the fifth comic showcased and as soon as he finished, Schlatter turned to his assistant and said, "I want him." Without even waiting to see the next act Schlatter got up and went backstage to talk with the guy who had just finished. I write "backstage," but since it was a coffeehouse, there was no backstage so he met him by the espresso machine.

They talked for ten or fifteen minutes. The next three comics who performed were steamed since Schlatter didn't see them due to his preoccupation with Carvey, but I noticed Schlatter's casting agent Gramilia was still checking out talent. I learned then, you didn't have to see everything if you had a trusted aide watching for you. I have since learned the term is called delegation of responsibility, but back then I was just a tenth grade dropout without an ounce of business experience or knowledge. (My family background was poor, blue collar manual labor. My father had moved up from being a migrant farm laborer to having a back-breaking, but steady job with General Motors.)

The comedian was Dana Carvey and while Dana did not wind up on the show I was fascinated by George's actions. (I don't remember why Dana didn't make the cut. I don't remember if Dana declined due to wanting to finish college or if Schlatter decide against him because of his youthful appearance. At the time Dana looked eighteen or nineteen. Schlatter might have felt Dana wouldn't have been effective trying to play older characters.)

In either case I was totally blown away by Schlatter's confidence in simply observing someone on stage for just five minutes and making the on-the-spot decision, "This performer has something special." I made up my mind that someday I would be able to do that. Just see some performer for a few minutes, nod my head and say, "You got it... You got stardom potential."

And remember in 1977 Dana Carvey wasn't "DANA CARVEY," he was just one of dozens of San Francisco Bay Area comics developing a craft. In hindsight I am even more impressed with George Schlatter's eye for talent. Back then he was able to see the talent that burst forth when Carvey was on Saturday Night Live.

But that image stuck in my head. The ability of a professional to simply see someone for five minutes and make an immediately decision on that person's talent. (Of course, when I hosted San Francisco auditions for comic actors to replace John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, et al. when they all left Saturday Night Live in 1980 I found how little time you REALLY have to make an impression. The vignette of that night of misery I call "Saturday Night Dead" and is one of the highlights of my speech on the early days of the Holy City Zoo.)

But back to Carvey. After that, I had an ongoing desire to see a performer and realize in just a few minutes "There is something special here." Now, while many comics from back then went on to success in the comedy world... (Just to use Saturday Night Live comics for example two others from back then who later also became Saturday Night Live alumnae are Nora Dunn, and A Whitney Brown. And oh, yes there was another Saturday Night performer who would make his debut much later. Rob Schneider, who at that time was too young to get in the club, would come by and stand in the doorway and watch.)

I could list dozens more soon to be famous performers, but the main point is that at the time, we were more or less peers. I was too close to them to see the talent. They were just "Robin," "Dana," "Nora," etc. But within a couple of years when I had a chance to make my first discovery, I blew it.

I was running the Boarding House comedy room. The Boarding House featured national headliners of all sorts, singers, bands, comedians, etc., performed upstairs. I was downstairs in the basement in a room called Allen's Alley. (A play on the name of Fred Allen's old radio show, Boarding House owner David Allen's name and because getting to venue in the basement was virtually like going thru a small alley.)

As mentioned above, the main room upstairs headlined national acts. (A comedy side note - at one point in his career Steve Martin was about one month away from quitting comedy and taking a job teaching philosophy in college when he caught on at the Boarding House. He later recorded part of his first comedy album there. Robin Williams' Reality What a Concept was also partly recorded there.)

So national acts are upstairs and local acts downstairs. One day David Allen says to me, "Cantu I've got this comedian booked in upstairs as an opening act, but she doesn't fit in with the headliner's crowd. However, she's been paid for a week, so why don't you put her in your room?"

Well, first I was miffed. One thing that drove me nuts back then was all the other producers who kept bringing talent from New York and Los Angles. I think I was the only producer who felt you could book talent locally and not have to go out of town.

I had never heard of her, but my take then was "She's probably funny, but the audience members are fans and only want to hear the music of the headliner," (a common problem for comics opening for music acts). But it was David's club. So I agreed to make him happy and consented to make her the headliner on his word alone. Producers virtually always have to compromise on something or another to get the show produced.

Five minute into her set that old high school joke ran though my head: "She's ugly and her momma dresses her funny." I thought she looked singularly unattractive, dressed bizarre, and was one of the most unfunny people I had ever witnessed. I found it difficult to find any jokes at all in her set. I actually felt sorry for her. I thought she was pathetically untalented.

I let her perform for the week and couldn't fathom how David had come to hire her. At the end of the week, she left and I asked David, "What were you thinking when you first saw her?"

"I never saw her before."

"Never saw her before!? How could you book a comedian and pay money without seeing the act?"

"Cantu, there's some very big people in Hollywood behind her." And my instantaneous thought was, "Just another reason for me NOT to go to Hollywood. And my second thought, having a comedian's mentality and knowing about the ways of Hollywood, was "She must give great head."

I forgot about her. A few years later I begin to see newspaper and magazine articles about a hot new singer, Madonna. Well, we all know what happened to her. A couple of years after I had first heard of Madonna I had a television set on in the background and I heard the broadcaster talking abut Madonna's new girlfriend.

I glanced at the screen and the first thing that went through my head was, "Obviously Madonna doesn't think she's ugly and that her momma dresses her funny." Shoulder-to-shoulder, there was Madonna and Sandra Bernhard. When I saw them together I laughed to myself when I remembered one of my first assumptions about her. I realized I hadn't been that far-off the mark with my original surmise, "She must give great head." I just had the recipients' gender wrong.

The next time I saw Bernhard performing was in The King of Comedy I realized, ''Oh, that's what the big people saw in her." That was great acting on her part. Has my opinion of her as a comedian changed since that first time I had her in my room? Let me close with two observations about her as a comedian with the wisdom of hindsight.

I read an interview with her once that impressed me greatly. She said something along the lines of "I like to LET THE AUDIENCE FIND THE LAUGHS in my material." That is a most insightful statement about comedy. I still don't have the courage to do that myself. When I perform, I'm constantly selling my material. But I understand explicitly what she means by that. And it is her ability to be true to herself from the get-go that is why she is the star she is and I'm still defining myself.

And I now realize that the time I first saw Bernhard, she really had a much more sophisticated understanding than I did of the reality of comedy and what comedy actually was. She understood then what it took me years to understand. Great comedy is not about jokes. Hacks are about jokes. Great comedy is about your personal vision of the world.

She's an original - and she's herself - and she's been that way from the start. And more importantly she has continually had the balls to say to the world: "This is me and what I find funny, absurd, or amusing!" And that is great comedy.

NEXT: Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 2)