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 3)

by John Cantu ©

So that was my life for a couple of months. Every Sunday I would be at the club. The owner would look at his watch at 9:00 pm. There would be me and six or seven comics and a couple of comedian girlfriends in the audience. And every Sunday, I'm getting up at 9:00 pm - - - knowing I only have about seven or eight minutes of material and knowing I'm gonna have to do probably another hour till the audience shows up (all five to ten of them).

Now, if you've never done stand-up, let me ask you a question. What do you think doing stand-up is really like? If you are like the average person with no experience you figure, hey you get up and you tell some jokes, or talk about something funny that happened to you, or maybe you just get up and riff with the audience and talk spontaneously. And if you're funny the audience laughs and if you're not funny they don't laugh.

And you worry a little bit that a heckler might give you a rough time. But you feel that a person is funny and gets laughs or is not funny and doesn't get laughs. Period. End of it.

But the reality is that when you get up for the first time, no matter how much you make your friends laugh at parties, your co-workers laugh on the job, or your relatives laugh at reunions, all you really have is some rough material (with maybe a handful of good laugh lines) that has to be polished and developed.

When you are going up for your first, tenth or twenty-fifth time, it actually doesn't matter if the audience laughs or doesn't laugh. Because you can't objectively judge an audience's response in the beginning. When you do well in the beginning, you don't really know why the audience laughed. You can't tell how you've really done.

If they laughed, was it because you were really good, or was the audience really easy? And if they didn't laugh, was it because you were bad or was it because the audience was bad? While, by and large, too many comedians too often blame the audience for a bad set, sometimes there really is something known as "the bad audience."

And other times, your material and delivery was good, but it was delivered to the wrong audience. But that will take you months and months to learn. Your various "bits" are not all equally funny to all people. That is a major shock. At first you get totally baffled when a bit kills one night and then just dies the next night. But after a year or so of trying it out and testing it - killing with it sometimes and bombing other times, you slowly learn that some bits work better with some audiences than it will with others.

After a while, you realize that a chunk of material works well with men, but not with women. So when you have a predominately female audience and a little experience, you might not do that chunk. After a lot of experience, you can look at all your material and see those patterns: this is for a city audience; this is strictly for the suburbs; this is for twenty-something and this for a sixty+ audience; this is for blue collar audience members and this bit is for a white collar audience, etc.

The trouble is that I didn't know these things starting out. I just didn't know any better. In those days you got up and performed and after maybe a dozen times you were a comedian. Good, bad, or indifferent you were a comic. So I thought I was a comedian like everyone else. Keep in mind there were no classes, no books, no workshops, no web sites - no nothing about comedy.

You just got up, did your bits and got off stage. Oh, you knew there was room for improvement, but you got up and told jokes. And if you made your friends laugh how difficult could it be? You were funny or you were not funny.

So there I am with maybe 50 performances and I think I am a comic. I am the producer as well and every week for a couple of months I am going up and stretching my weak eight minutes into 60 minutes. And every week I am humiliated in having to perform the same seven or eight minutes. Oh I would add a few jokes, but I didn't have time to write as much as I wanted to write for myself. None of us in those days had ever seen a comic riff with an audience and I didn't have a clue how to disguise the fact that I had run out of material.

I wish I could describe to you what it was like to try to stretch 8 minutes of material into 60 minutes of material when you had been on stage maybe 50 times. In my classes today, I tell students you really won't have any sense of what you are doing until you've been on stage for at least 100 times. It takes you that long just to get a body of performances behind you so you can start to perceive some patterns.

Now, it wasn't that I was much worse than the other comics. Other comics would come off stage after playing to silence and complain about how bad the audience was and I would think, "No, the audience wasn't especially bad. You just weren't especially good." Or they would come off stage and take the real laughs they had gotten and mentally magnified the laugh. "Cantu, did you hear those laughs? I killed!" And I would think, "Hey you got three laughs in five minutes. That doesn't seem that strong to me."

When it came to comedy, I was more analytical. And objective. At one point I actually started diagraming and parsing my jokes just like you parse a sentence. I would write on an erasable board (I have no idea where it came from) and I would say, "See this is the setup. This is the punch line. The punchline is based on this concept see?"

(Note: Years later I was running Cobb's Pub, and Paula Poundstone was just starting out. At one point in her career, she pulled a board on stage from off-stage (the one I used for my weekly comedy writing classes) and diagramed a joke. I was dumbstruck that she used the same premise. I got the feeling it was a riff she had just thought of when she saw the board, but she kept it in the act for a while.)

But I noticed the difference between her approach and mine. She was trying to get a laugh with the concept, whereas I would diagram a joke when I got frustrated at a brilliant joke of mine not getting laughs. My buddy DePaul said, "Cantu you don't perform comedy as much as you do a mini-comedy seminar."

Back then, my "comedy act" was a weekly pain. A brutal pain that I started anticipating every Friday night.

Then one evening I watched Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show getting laughs with a couple of jokes I had written for her. That weekend I again went to the club and struggled to make a handful of people laugh.

I had gotten to the point where couldn't take it any more. At the time, it was a no-brainer to me. Quit the performing and focus more on the writing. So one Sunday night, maybe three months after I had started as MC producer for the Zoo I had made up my mind to leave the performing arena and stay strictly with the writing.

I told to my buddy, Tony DePaul, "Hey, you want to run the show?"

"Sure Cantu, what's the matter?"

"Man, I just can't hack it. I got to get out of here." I handed him the line-up and got ready to leave.

And that night two things happened, one changed my life completely and another changed the tenor of comedy in San Francisco and ultimately comedy throughout US in the eighties...

NEXT: Holy City Zoo the Early Years (Part 4)