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 5)

by John Cantu ©

The following week when I was back at the Zoo after I had turned control of the open mike over to DePaul, I actually enjoyed being there for a change since I didn't have to produce or MC. And I also noticed that the female comic who had approached me the previous week was back. And I definitely noticed she was cute, but I didn't chat with her then.

After that night, for a while I would drop in at the Zoo sporadically. Sometimes people have asked me, "Cantu, how did you feel after you realized you had given up total control of the Zoo."

Well, in those days it wasn't the Zoo with all its glorious comedy history. It was simply a beer and wine folk music Hootenanny club that let comics get up on stage and tell jokes on Sundays for no money.

I had started attending Saturday improv workshops taught by Cindy Kamler in 1970 at the Committee Theater (San Francisco's version of Chicago's Second City). I also was a founding member of Improvisation Inc., the group Kamler formed after we were asked to leave the Committee Theater.

After I was in Kamler's workshop for a couple of years I was sometimes invited to perform in one of the occasional gigs she booked up and down the Coast as part of the Committee Workshop. Then the Committee Theater proper decided that they wanted to do touring shows also and that people were confusing us workshop players with the actual Committee workshop.

But in any event, I had been performing for years in improv to much larger audiences than we got at the Zoo at the time. And when I turned the Zoo over to Tony, I had been writing comedy for about five years and I had only been performing standup for maybe 15 months. By then I had a budding comedy writing career established.

Today I have a reputation as a humorist on the platform and as a comedy/humor coach for speakers and a few select comedians. But I actually started my comedy/humor career as a "gagwriter." "Gagwriter" is a common term referring to someone who creates ideas for magazine freelance and/or syndicated cartoonists.

In 1970, I sold my first cartoon idea to Jeff Keate for his syndicated sports panel Time Out: College professor in front of blackboard covered with complex equations to another professor: "However if the track is muddy, it's an entirely different equation." I got $5 for it.

And after the sale to Keate for Time Out I began to sell cartoons regularly and started to see my ideas published nationally: Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Playgirl, New Woman, American Medical Association Journal, Saturday Evening Post, etc.,

For the first couple of years after my start in 1970, I thought of myself as simply a cartoon gagwriter. I had been branching out a bit as a writer and had attempted to write greeting card ideas since many cartoonists worked in that field as well. I didn't think of myself as a monologue comedy writer, someone who wrote jokes - even though I was spontaneously funny with friends.

But I would sometimes get a partial idea - a caption. And I would mull it over and try to find the appropriate picture. Sometimes this might come to me in a month, two months, sometimes twelve or more months later. A major principle I discovered was: Hang on to a good idea IF YOU BELIEVE IN IT. You never know when something will jell.

So here I am, simply thinking of myself as a gagwriter (cartoon writer), with these ideas that I can't seem to make work. I can't visualize a picture to go with the idea. And here is an interesting side wrinkle to my beginning comedy writing career. I suddenly discovered that I had been writing jokes and didn't even know it.

After two years of cartoon writing - it dawns on me. Those ideas that I have been unable to connect to the right picture - - - do not NEED a picture. They're not cartoons. They are jokes. ONE-LINERS. No illustration needed. They work by themselves. DUH!

That was a major breakthrough for me. The techniques I was discovering through observation, copy catting, and trial and error, the techniques that I thought of only for gagwriting cartoon ideas COULD BE USED IN OTHER MEDIUMS.

Once I realized I was writing JOKES, I began trying to sell jokes. My first sales were to Bob Orben for Orben's Current Comedy then Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. I started to sell ideas to local comics as well.

So while the Zoo was getting off the ground as a comedy venue, I really thought of myself essentially as a comedy writer who was trying out stand-up. By then I was making $200-$400 a month as a freelance comedy writer. That was decent part-time income for the early seventies in the comedy world.

I knew a half-dozen Bay Area gag writers and joke writers who were making money selling comedy material by mail. I didn't know one person making money doing stand-up. You did stand-up because you liked it and to meet babes, not for money or fame. Money and fame was to be found in New York or Los Angeles.

Okay, back to the Zoo story. After couple weeks, I started hanging out at the Zoo again. At the time I was writing and oh I was still performing. I just wasn't producing or MCing the Zoo shows.

By accident and trial and error and being more analytical than my comedy peers I discovered that there were specific techniques for cartoon writing. And based on that, when I started performing, I thought if there are techniques for writing cartoons and jokes - well why wouldn't there be techniques for performing?

Today, you can find numerous books, classes, workshops, and comedy coaches on how to write and or perform comedy. But back then the idea that comedy could be learned or taught was heresy. When I would try to engage other comics in analytical conversations about the hows and whys of comedy techniques, I was ridiculed with withering sarcasm.

"Oh Cantu thinks you can learn comedy out of a book. Hey dude, it's simple. Tell the truth. Only the truth is funny. Just get up on stage and say what is real." So I learned very quickly to shut up about my belief of humor as a learnable skill. However, I didn't stop observing and noting and looking to see if I could abstract principles for being funny. I had no empirical evidence, other than a one-time aha experience - with cartoon writing.

But I was convinced that there must be underlying principles for writing jokes and there must be underlying principles for performing jokes. What never entered my head at the time was that there were also underlying principles for PRODUCING a comedy club show. I had been a producer, but it was so early in my career, I didn't realize it.

Originally I had thought of myself as the guy who put together the lineup and who killed time on stage while waiting for the audience to show up. I was writing for name comics like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller which gave me some prestige. And while I wasn't running the Zoo, I was still performing standup.

As a result, I got invited to perform standup here and there at every new room that some comic opened and at the Zoo as well. Along the way I started "making suggestions" to comics. "What if you kept that joke, but shortened it by three sentences?" "Hey what if you took that joke and moved it from the beginning to the middle of your chunk?" "What if you changed the punch line of that joke form 'wolf' to 'coyote?' " It was all pretty much intuitive in the beginning.

Eventually all my observations about creating comedy on all levels, writing, performing, and producing evolved into comedy coaching. I quantified, qualified, and converted for others benefit my observations on writing comedy and performing comedy via weekly drop-in classes. I also was beginning to be analytical about the various shows that the local comics would launch and watch wither and die.

The typical protocol would be for a comic to get a venue and then invite his friends down and, roughly speaking, let them perform whatever material they wanted to perform for as long as they wanted. Which was OK because most of them had only five to twelve minutes of material or so total.

But I begin to realize that a show could be more entertaining if certain acts were put in certain spots. I didn't know the word at the time, but I began to become of aware of synergy. I noticed that if you had two comics of equal ability, but one moved around on stage and one was dead pan. The dead pan performer would do better if he preceded the moving comic, but would look more inexperienced, stiff, and stilted if he followed the moving comic.

If you had two comics who both just stood at the mike and told their jokes, but one was high energy and one was low energy the principle was the same, high energy first - lower energy second. And often two comics' material could complement each other or contrast well depending on their position in the line up.

I also started to notice that there were different types of audience energy: high energy, medium energy, and low energy and the energy level would affect the show. And the day of the week could affect it. I noticed comics rarely got a big response on a Monday night no matter how good they were and they often would get big laughs on a Friday or Saturday with the very same material even if they were having an off night.

And I began to make suggestions there as well. I was an opinionated son of a gun. So, for the next couple of years, I became San Francisco's comedy gadfly. Here, there, everywhere giving advice solicited or unsolicited about material, about performances, and about productions.

NEXT: Holy City Zoo the Early Years (Part 6)