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

Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 2)

by John Cantu ©

There are a lot of ins and outs to running a successful open mike. The Holy City Zoo probably had the most successful open mike in the Bay Area. In another essay you will learn the tricks to running a good open mike.

But I want to write about an open mike I screwed up at a club other than the "Zoo," and how it led to my first talent discovery. This was in the spring of 1979 and I was running the Boarding House Comedy Room at the time. Open mike Thursday nights and booked shows Friday & Saturday. (And I don't recall exactly how I was involved with both Allen's Alley and the Zoo at the same time, but I was.)

I had tried an experiment one night. People were always bitching and bitching and bitching about the time slots they got for open mike so on this particular night, I decide to do it democratically. I put all the names in a hat and drew them out one-by-one.

And while it might be a democratic way to put together a line-up, it was the worst way theatrically. On this particular night, my strongest performer drew slot one, my second strongest performer drew slot two, my third strongest, etc.

It meant that unlike most show where you start out with weaker acts and build to a strong finish, this show was the EXACT opposite. Each act was progressively worse. We started at 9:00 pm with twenty comics and maybe forty people and by 11:00 pm there were exactly six people in the room.

The six people included a comic whom I'm had never seen before. I later found out he was close in age to me, but because he had prematurely grey hair he looked decade older - as if he were in his late forties. More importantly, he had a sad look on his face and sat with slumped shoulders waiting to go on. He looked almost as if he were carrying the weight of the world.

I thought, "I know the story behind this guy. Here's a guy who has a day job he hates. But his friends tell him he's funny. They tell him he ought to be a comic. So he's signed up and is sitting there with fantasies dancing through his head of getting discovered and being on the Tonight Show in six months."

I actually felt sorry for him since I know it takes at least five years on average to get to club headliner level and possibly good enough to even try for the Tonight Show assuming you had any talent to begin with. He was there with a woman whom I assumed was his wife because of his mature age. That was two of the six people in the room and they obviously didn't count as a real audience...

There were two other people there. Paul Giles, just beginning as a comic who would always stay until the end of the show so he could study the comics and Ellen, his girlfriend. So, that now accounted for a total of four people out of the six and two more who, in a sense, didn't really count as audience members.

I was the fifth person and for me, at that moment, the featured attraction was the sixth person in the audience, a brunette who was sitting at my table. She was new to the comedy scene (although she later became a serious amateur comic in her own right). I had been enamored of her for quite some time and it was our first date.

She loves to tell this story about that night. "Cantu, you bought me a glass of wine and then when you set it down in front of me with your typical aplomb you said, 'That cost me $1.25. You'd better come across later on tonight.' "

Anyway that comprised the tiny audience of six people. And I couldn't wait until the last comic finished his set so I could close the show and turn my attention to the babe. But because I pride myself on never letting booze, babes, or drugs interfere with running a professional show, I thought, "I have to give him the professional courtesy of listening to at least the first three lines." I knew they would bomb, but after I had paid at least a minimal professional courtesy I could then get down to the real business of the evening. Convincing the brunette to come home with me.

As he lumbered up on stage, I forced my eyes away from the brunette towards the lonesome figure on stage.

"Over the weekend I got mugged in Marin. It was one of those New Age muggings."

(First line, first laugh and I'm thinking - huh? Did he say "new age mugging?" That's a concept I've never heard in any shape or form before. Damn, not what I expected. No, not what I expected at all!)

"Yeah, a guy comes roller skating up me (Laugh) holds a broken Perrier bottle to my neck (Laugh) and says 'get into a full lotus position (Laugh) and don't try anything cosmic.' " (Laugh)

By the third laugh, the brunette was not an issue any more. I thought this guy was the funniest guy I'd heard in years. This guy was fresh. This guy was new. This guy was original. I don't remember the entire set, but some of the other lines:

"More bad news. My wife just had a breast removed. Thank goodness. Now she has two like everyone else."

"My uncle lived in a town so dull he died of boredom. He committed suicide by whittling his wrist."

"We have a softball team with the world's only Hindu player. The coach said. 'Sacrifice!' He killed a goat at home plate."

At that time the only other comic's material that came close to this comic's material was Woody Allen (I would not meet Steven Wright till a year later).

As I said, I forgot about making time with the brunette and went over and introduced myself to him. "I'm John Cantu.   Friends call me 'Cantu.' "

"Tom Finnigan."

"Tom that is some of the funniest stuff I've heard in years. Where are you from?"



Petaluma was a small town northwest of San Francisco, at least an hour's drive.

"You are too good to have driven from Petaluma to perform for just six people all of whom are either in the biz or dating someone in the biz. Have you ever heard of the Holy City Zoo?"

He said, "Yeah, I performed there about a year ago. I followed Bobby Slayton and bombed." I could tell from his response, following Bobby Slayton and bombing had been a traumatic experience for him.

I said, "Tonight's showcase night. And don't worry, Slayton isn't there."

I then called the Zoo and spoke to my buddy, Tony DePaul. "Tony, listen, I'm bringing over a comedian from the Boarding House. It'll take us maybe 30 minutes to get there. Put him in the line-up. His name is Tom Finnigan."

We showed up and as usual there were fifteen to twenty comics standing around out front hanging out and shooting the breeze. I told them, "This is Tom Finnigan. He is funny. Make sure you come inside and check him out when he gets up."

Tom performed, and while I don't recall him killing, he did do well enough to get a big boost of confidence which was what he needed most at that time.

Later that night I realized what I had done. Like, Schlatter, I had simply seen a comic for five minutes and immediately felt in my bones I was in the presence of someone special.

NEXT: Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 3)