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

The Holy City Zoo the Early Years
Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs - Thus Was Born the San Francisco Comedy Boom (Part 1)

by John Cantu ©

"Hey Cantu, what is all this dream crap you're writing about? Backstage Pass is supposed to be about your experiences as a comedy club producer. You worked for years with some of today's top comedians and all you can think about is some dream you had 20 years ago? Sheesh! Write something interesting about comedy! Or I'm not doing the web stuff any more!"

That gentle chiding (cleaned up and edited for public consumption) was delivered to me by my partner, the indomitable SM Cerce, after my last two Backstage Pass installment.

So with that in mind, here's the story of a couple pivotal events in the history of San Francisco Comedy. As I have written before, I was the original MC and producer of the first Sunday night all-comedy shows back in 1975 at the Holy City Zoo Comedy Club, on Clement Street in a part of San Francisco known as the "Richmond District."

But for about three months before the Sunday comedy shows started we had actually been doing comedy at the "Zoo" on Wednesday nights and,"I kid you not," as Jack Parr, used to say, doing alternating sets with Zania, the belly dancer. Darryl Victor Dubin, a budding comedian, meandered into the Zoo one evening and saw a performance by Zania, a belly dancer featured every Wednesday.

Smitten by her sultry good looks, Dubin quickly invented a reason to be there on a regular basis. He said the owner, "Hey. You have people just setting here during the break watching nothing, why not have some comedy between her sets."

The owner replied, as all owners do, "I have no budget to pay comedians." To which Daryl replied (as too many comics are wont to do), "Give me the stage during the time between Zania's sets and I'll persuade my comedian friends to perform for the EXPOSURE." With that promise, the owner agreed and soon every Wednesday night eight or ten comics would be hanging out at the Zoo.

The Zoo was discovered by Dubin, so the comics considered it Dubin's venue and as is the protocol he was, unfortunately, accepted as the MC. You will learn more about his MC skills and material shortly. Anyway, this was the schedule. Zania would dance, then take a break. Daryl would then introduce a couple of comics.

Remember, this was early in our career and virtually none of us had ever seen a comic perform live, so we had no idea how to put together a full set. On a television talk show, you saw a comic do five minutes, so most of us had five minutes or so, but that was all. You can't imagine how difficult is it to incorporate natural transitions between bits if you've never been exposed to how a professional would transition from one chunk to another to another.

Most of us were lucky to have a passable five to ten minutes. Two notable exceptions were Jim Giovanni and Bob Sarlatte who stood out as pros from day one, both of whom could have done an easy thirty minutes.

Now, I don't remember if it was two sets a night of belly dancing and two sets of comedy, or three and three, or two and three, but whatever the exact number of comedy sets, the comedy was positioned between the sensual hip rolls of Zania. And it worked great, except for one thing. Daryl Victor Dubin performed from the combined philosophies of "Only the truth is funny" and "Comedy comes from pain." (My philosophy is only that which gets a laugh is funny and comedy comes from jokes.)

So, Daryl would get up and tell painfully true stories from his life. And as far as being angst-ridden he had some doozies. But as Michael Pritchard once said to me in a casual conversation about four years later when he arrived on the scene, "Cantu, when your students are talking about the truth, make sure they sprinkle some jokes throughout their material. Tell them it will increase their laughs immensely."

Well, Daryl didn't sprinkle any laughs throughout his material. Now, I have always been very analytical about humor. Most comics would try out a joke once, twice, maybe three times and if it didn't get a laugh drop the line. But I would always ponder, "WHY isn't the audience laughing?" And I would look at the joke. Was it clear and understandable? Maybe it had too many words and the punch was getting lost.

Sometimes it was obvious to me what the problem was. Maybe the performer was doing a joke that didn't fit him or her. For instance, women comics often make jokes about their weight problem and they are only 10-20 pounds overweight. It might be an issue for them, but it's not really a problem from the audience's perspective. Now, they could have done jokes about the difficulty of dieting, but they just weren't heavy enough for the audience to buy into their overweight jokes.

Anyway, the teacher in me came out and I made some suggestions to Daryl and he got extraordinarily offended. He wouldn't add, embellish, or change anything because then he "wouldn't be telling the truth." (As I tell my students - "Hey, you're doing comedy, not a documentary. It's called poetic license.")

So, a comic would get the audience going and then Daryl would bring them down. And another comic would get the laughs going again and Daryl would bring them down. Our shows went on like this for six weeks before the owner took Daryl aside and dropped a bombshell on him from which he never fully recovered.

The owner said, "You are the most depressing person I have ever heard in my life. I don't mind the comedy. You can keep the comedy show going, but YOU CAN'T PERFORM HERE ANY MORE! You can't get upon stage. You have to get a new MC."

NEXT: Holy City Zoo the Early Years (Part2)