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 4)

by John Cantu ©

As I wrote last month, in a fit of nerves and frustration, I had just given control of the Holy City Zoo Sunday night show over to my good buddy Tony DePaul and was getting ready to leave.

A young, very attractive woman came up to me and gave me her card and said, "I'm a comedian from New Orleans and I understand you run the show. How does a new comic get booked?" I quickly brushed her off. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I can't talk to you now." And I left the club, grateful that I could breathe again.

Keep, in mind that at this time in history, it wasn't the "ZOO" with its famous alumni. It was simply a beer and wine joint as well as an opportunity to perform regularly. The opportunity for regular stage time and the concept of live stand-up comedy was so new, we didn't exactly grasp what "stage time" was let alone what a great value it was for a performer. Later that evening though, after I had calmed down I thought, "What have I done? I just gave up a guaranteed weekly performing slot." I pondered, "Did I do the right thing by leaving?"

I set aside my doubts temporarily and unwound by working on two writing projects. One was writing a batch of jokes for Joan Rivers, and the other was a batch of ideas for a cartoonist to submit to the Wall Street Journal. By midnight I was done.

I sat back and realized the comics would probably be on their way home from the Zoo by now and I had already made $10 or $20 dollars just sitting at home with no muss, little fuss, and in my underwear. (I wasn't exactly sure of the dollar amount because I was writing on spec. However, by then I was experienced enough as a writer to have a fairly good idea what percentage of my work would ultimately end up being bought.)

I mentally contrasted the ease of earning my twenty dollars without the ongoing pain of performing for an hour every week with only five minutes worth of material. And stretching the same five minute act into an hour before the same six or seven comics and their girlfriends week after week.

I came to a clear irrevocable decision: "No, I am better off not being there any more." (That twenty dollars was exceptionally good income when you also realize that I was a no-name comedy writer and as well as the purchasing power of twenty dollars in the 70s.)

Later on while I was rummaging though my pants pocket, I found the card the woman comic had given me back at the Zoo. It simply stated her name and underneath the words "Stand-up Comedian." In the pain of making a hasty exit form the Zoo, I had forgotten about her. But I did remember she was very cute. I sat the card aside and went about my weekly business.

While Tony DePaul and I ultimately became the best of buddies (and remain so today), at that time DePaul and I were just friends. This was very early in our career and we hadn't started to hang out on a regular basis.

So I didn't talk to him for the rest of the week. Then, the following Sunday I was back at the Zoo . I might have been relived at not having to perform with no material, but I did have a passion for comedy. Tony came over to me. "Hey, Cantu, what do you want to do?" I realized he figured I had simply asked him to fill for me last week. In his mind the comedy show was still mine.

I shook my head, "No, it's yours, Tony. Hey, how did it go last week?"

He said, "You know Cantu, I live at the Harcourt residence club... (A residence club is essentially a boarding house. You get a room and two meals a day - breakfast and dinner. The supposition is that for lunch you are at work. The Harcourt was also coed so it was also great way to meet babes.)

"Well," Tony continued. "I've been telling everyone I'm a comedian and they should come see me. And, about fifteen of them finally came down last Sunday after you left. So with them and me and the six comics and their girlfriends and the three or four regulars, Cantu, we damn near had a full house."

If you've never been to the Zoo, it is hard to picture it as a tiny club, especially when you hear the litany of comics who started or developed there. So what Tony was talking about here were maybe twenty people tops. But DePaul considered it a full house.

That fact illustrates two things. One, any improvement, no matter how small or insignificant looks vastly greater when it follows a very wretched previous result. And more importantly it demonstrates how miniscule the Holy City Zoo, as a venue, really was.

Twenty-five people would give you a sense of being in a totally full house in those early days. But the popularity would grow to such a degree that we could instantly have 150 people crammed into that tiny club when Robin Williams would drop by to do a freebie guest set.

(In 1980 we got busted by the fire marshal for being over crowded when I was doing a special theme show, "New Yorker" night with Bobby Slayton as the head-liner. They told us the legal limit was 49 people without sprinklers. And after we got sprinklers it was still only 79 legal capacity. But that story will come later.)

But back in those early days, the thought of performing to twenty-five people! Why the enormity of it took my breath away. I had a momentary twinge of regret about giving the room up, but I thought about the twenty dollars and the twinge quickly passed.

As I mentioned earlier two things happened that night. I said one changed my life completely and the other changed the tenor of comedy in San Francisco and ultimately generated the comedy boom of the eighties.

Well, those people from the Harcourt residence club are primarily responsible for the 80s comedy boom. They provided us with a "real" audience when we had none. They went back to the Harcourt and told their friends that they had gone to a cool "comedy club." ("Comedy club?" To us the Zoo was just the latest bar where we could get up and perform.)

Then the next week some of them would come back and bring new people from the Harcourt and we would have another "big" house. And for several weeks we were getting real audiences of fifteen to twenty-five people. Damn that was orgasmic. I mean I was only writing and no longer performing, but I was thrilled.

Well, passerbys on the sidewalk would glance in though the open door and do a double take at seeing someone on stage not singing, not playing an instrument, but just talking and being funny. It was something new. They would hear the laughter and come in. The Harcourt crowd soon faded away, but by then we had developed a following with the folks in the neighborhood.

If you want to know when and how the national comedy boom of the 80s got started, it was that night with the Harcourt crowd. That night the Zoo's comedy shows really started taking off. And over the next few years comedy at the Zoo grew from that humble single night to seven nights a week of comedy and into the club that launched the careers of literally hundreds of comics (and sank a few as well).

Then freelance writer, Craig Vetter wrote an article on the Zoo that was published in the March 1979 issue of Playboy magazine. Across the country a couple of dozen bar owners read about this new concept of live entertainment happening in San Francisco: Stand-up comedy.

Those bar owners, like we comedians who started in the early 1970s, thought of stand-up comedians as performers you saw only on television. Unless you lived in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, a comic only played in your hometown if he or she was a name act performing in an auditorium or theater.

But there in Playboy they read about a way to feature live entertainment in their neighborhood bar - just start an open mike. And it was an unbeatable combination. The beauty of an open mike was that you got immediate access to live entertainment (no negotiating with a temperamental star for an open slot on their booking calendar), you imbued your club with a concept that was at that time, new, fresh and exciting. And best of all, with an open mike YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO PAY ANY ONE. You got a live entertainer who performed for free.

You will read more about how the Playboy article came about later on and you will read as well about how Hugh Hefner himself got involved in the story and made some major editorial decisions with regard to it. (John did not live long enough to write this story.)

But at the end of last month's essay I wrote "And that night two things happened; one changed my life completely and the other changed the tenor of comedy in San Francisco and ultimately generated the comedy boom of the eighties."

You just read about people from the Harcourt residence club who came by the Zoo that first night I left the club in DePaul's care and how they kindled the barely flickering comedy flame. So what happened that changed my life?

Well I did mention that a new comedian from Louisiana stopped by.

Her name was Patricia Daniels. She ended up becoming my first wife.

NEXT: Holy City Zoo the Early Years (Part 5)