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

Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 3)

by John Cantu ©

It's one thing when you discover talent. But does the world share your view?

The day I met Finnigan, I called my buddy Tony DePaul and told him, "I'm bringing over a funny comic. Put him in the line-up. His name is Tom Finnigan." As Finnigan and I approached the fifteen to twenty comics always hanging around out front of the Zoo shooting the breeze, "This is Tom Finnigan. He's funny. Make sure you come inside and check him out when he gets up."

Now Tom Finnigan was a terrific writer. Original. Brilliant. But he had no understanding of how to sell his jokes on stage. He would simply stand there and lay the lines out one after another to the club audience. However, a successful comedian does more than just tell a series of jokes. A successful comedian has to learn to deliver his/her material. Sell it to the crowd and make them laugh.

Even given the limitations of his stage act, the other comics immediately recognized the brilliance of his lines. And as they knew how to deliver the material Tom created, they started to beseech him to write for them. Quickly Tom became one of the most in demand writers for other comics in the Bay Area.

Perhaps Tom's talent was too rarified for the real world. Soon after our first meeting, Tom got fired and came to me for a job. I made him the Holy City Zoo's bartender, but as Don Stevens has written in Comedy Club Diaries, Finnigan was a terrible bartender. The only thing that secured his bartender job was his need to support his wife and two kids. I just couldn't bring myself to fire him. Besides, I knew he was one of the best writers I had ever met. Period.

He and I collaborated on a few writing projects, but it was not a partnership of equals. I would hustle up the writing gigs here and there, but when it came to the actual writing, it was 90% Finnigan and 10% Cantu. Tom was charitable about it though. Perhaps because of my tremendous support for him. Anyway when it came to our writing partnership, we pretended it was a 50/50 collaboration and split the fee.

Here's some irony for you. Remember when I first met Tom and I asked him, "Have you ever heard of the Holy City Zoo?" And he said, "Yeah, I performed there about a year ago. I followed Bobby Slayton and bombed." I could tell from his response that following Bobby Slayton and bombing had been a traumatic experience for him.

Well, within a month Tom was writing for Slayton! Later that year, Slayton was a contestant in the annual San Francisco International Comedy Competition and many of the lines that were getting Slayton rave reviews were Finnigan's: "In San Francisco, they have quota to hire a minimum number of gay cops. I got arrested by one the other day. Read me my rights over brunch. . . He insisted on wearing the handcuffs . . ."

Slayton was also a writer for a local talk show host on radio station SFO. Within two months, Slayton had offered his writing duties to Finnigan and bowed out. Now, here's the crux of this tale. At the time, there was a young Australian comedienne (whose name escapes me) that Carson's people thought had a lot of talent and Carson's production company was thinking of managing her.

They wanted to book her on the Tonight Show and after her five-minute comedy monologue, they wanted Carson to panel her, i.e., call her over to the couch and chat with her. But the Tonight Show liked to be sure someone could panel well. The protocol was to book the latest up and coming comedian on a small town talk show to see how he/she paneled there. They chose SFO to try her out.

Tom McCauley (I may not be spelling his name properly), a well-known Tonight Show talent scout accompanied her to San Francisco to see how she did. This was in October or November of 1980. I don't recall if she did good or bad, but after the taping, Finnigan got into an elevator at the television station and McCauley happened to be in it.

Craig Harrison, a friend from the National Speakers Association (NSA) gives a talk on always having your "elevator speech" ready - i.e., be ready to talk to some one important in an elevator for a minute or so and make an impression on them. Well this was before any of us in the comedy world had ever heard of NSA.

Finnigan simply said, "I write for Steve Jamison, the host of SFO. I have always wanted to write for Carson. How would one do that?"

McCauley said, "Coincidentally enough, we just had a vacancy open up. A writer just quit. Here's my card. Send me a sample of your stuff and I will see that Ray Siller, head-writer gets it." Finnigan sent some material down within a week. And a week after that Finnigan got a call from Ray Siller.

Siller said, "I just came from talking with Carson. He paid you a great compliment. Carson read your stuff and said, 'This guy has funny mind.' We would like to give you a couple assignments and see if you can write sketches."

Tom finished the assignments, mailed them in (this was obviously before fax or email). And then he crossed his fingers, held his breath, and waited. A couple of weeks later, Tom answered his phone and heard, "Hi, this is Freddie DeCordova, producer of the Tonight Show. We'd like to hire you as a writer. Have your agent get in touch with us to negotiate your contract." Finnigan said, "I don't have an agent Mr. DeCordova. Send me the contract and whatever it is, I'll sign it."

Finnigan started as a Tonight Show writer in January 1981. And I couldn't help but think back to when I first met Finnigan in the spring of 1980. "I know the story behind this guy" I had thought. "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."

Well it didn't quite turn out that way. Finnigan didn't exactly get on the Tonight Show as a comedian. What he got was much better. A comedian can be on what, maybe once every six or eight weeks at best? Finnigan was getting laughs with his material every night of the week. And getting a weekly paycheck.

Oh yeah, it wasn't exactly within six months. It took him more like eight or nine months - big deal.

Two interesting facts: In discussions with the other writers, Finnigan learned that in spite of his willingness to accept any offer in order to write for Johnny Carson, the contract that he got from Carson Productions was a fair and equitable contract. Carson was not one to take advantage of an inexperienced writer.

Finnigan later found out that the vacancy he had filled was caused by the departure of Pat McCormick one of the truly great comedy minds - Finnigan told me, "Cantu, if I had known I was being considered to replace McCormick, I might have been too intimated to do well."

As for me, when Finnigan told me he had been hired by the Tonight Show without ever having once traveled to Hollywood, auditioned at any Los Angeles comedy club, or taken a meeting, I realized I had made my first "discovery."

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