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

May I Have a Suggestion For a Title Please?

The Holy City Zoo the Early Years
Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs - Thus Was Born the San Francisco Comedy Boom (Part 6)

by John Cantu ©

As mentioned earlier in this series, when I first started MCing, I just thought of myself as the guy who put together the lineup and who killed time on stage waiting for the audience to show up.

While I was no longer MC/producer for the Zoo, as a freelance performer I was, (as some unimaginative comic MC might say when introducing another performer) "Someone who has played all over the place." For the next few essays, you will read bits and pieces of various events that happened from 1970 to 1978 that shaped my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about performing, creating, and producing which I would utilize in 1978 when I returned to the Zoo as full-time producer.

One such bit of flotsam and jetsam took place backstage at the Union Street showcase Frank Kidder was running Wednesday nights at the Intersection For the Arts. I had been away from the Intersection for a couple of weeks and when I stopped by all the comics were raving about this new comic on the scene.

None of them could remember his name, but all felt he was just fantastic. So I stayed around in the hope that this hot new talent would drop in. Then a comic said, "There he is." I looked and said, "Where?" He pointed and said, "There."

I said, "I don't see anyone but Robin." My friend said, "That guy there with the rainbow suspenders." I was shocked. I couldn't believe he meant Robin Williams. Robin and I had been performing together in improv workshops at the Committee for a couple of years.

The thing about Robin that stuck out in my head at the time were the notes he'd get after our Committee Workshop scenes from our director, Cindy Kamler. Cindy would say something along the lines of, "That was a good call for good angel, bad angel. Bob, you jumped in when the scene was floundering and gave it really good support, and mercifully Ted cut the scene and started the bank robber scene . . . and now we come to Robin's weirdness. Robin, you can't just get boggled and eat the gun in the middle of the scene."

Yes, if there is one thing I remember the most from my Committee Workshop days, it was those notes from our director Cindy Kamler and her oft-told refrain ". . .and now we come to Robin's weirdness." I also certainly didn't see the star power in Robin then either.

In those days, I thought I would be a future superstar. The improvisers who impressed me the most were Joe Spano of the Committee Workshop, and from the Committee proper, Jim Cranna and Howard Hesseman really knocked me off my feet. When it came to improvising scenes, each had such a wondrous mix of easy fluidity and ever present grace that it was just magical to me to experience.

Even though there were a host of much better known celebrities who would pop in on a regular basis at the Committee Theatre on Broadway hangout and sometimes even do guest sets (Peter Boyle, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland come to mind). Those three, Spano, Cranna, and Hesseman represented the height of improv greatness for me.

By the time I became a member of The Committee Workshop, we had eight performing members: four men, three women plus Cindy Kamler as director and we used an improviser in training as a lighting person. For props, we used only eight bentwood chairs on stage.

And with just those eight chairs, you could take people to all sorts of universes. We used to close our shows with a piece called a Harold that ran 40-50 minutes. The Harold is the creme de la creme of improv performances

The Harold was created during workshops run by Del Close. Del was trying to get a group of people to improvise an entire play from start to finish - on the spot. Well, it soon became apparent that was impossible.

People would forget key bits of information, characters would get changed in subtle and not so subtle ways. . . but there was some sort of theatrical presentation that had evolved. And the group realized they had created a new form of theater.

One of his students said, "Del, you've invented something, you get to name it." Del said, "Well, the Beatles called their haircut Arthur, so I'll call this Harold." He later regretted his flippancy. "Probably my most significant contribution to theater and it's got that stupid name."

Now, back then when I was still doing improv the Harold was, to me, what improvisation is all about. The Harold is the creation of a large piece cobbled together from individual unique smaller scenes with a common thematic thread. The scenes can be comedic, or not. Probably the most sophisticated method of scene changing is where the players simply block each other out on-stage.

After getting a theme from the audience, the Harold starts with a chorus line of eight players. One or more players will step forward and start a scene. Players still in the chorus line can step forward at any time and support the scene in progress.

Or you can step forward, go down stage to stand directly in front of the active players, stopping that action, ending that scene and starting a new, different scene.

How does a Harold end? Hopefully the individual scenes will organically start to flow together with recurring characters such that one story is dominating all the scenes and new scenes are in support of the singular story. This may sound very Zen, but the Harold ends when the piece ends.

And I especially remember one Harold that we, the Committee Workshop, performed in the early 70s that had a profound effect on me. It was a one-nighter in San Diego and at the end of the show a couple approached us. It was their five year wedding anniversary. They had gone to the movie, The Graduate on their first date and it was a tradition with them to find out where it was playing between San Diego and Los Angles and to go see it. But when they read about our show they felt compelled to come. And after seeing us, they felt that the show had been improvised just for them.

It hadn't been, but this power to affect someone's life was just amazing to me. Also in that same audience was a 12 year old boy who had come with his parents to see us. He had that awestruck look in his eyes when he approached us afterward and he softly repeated several times in a shy uncertain 12 year old's voice, "You guys WERE WONDERFUL."

Later in the motel room we were still high on the performance and someone brought up how moved that 12 year boy had seemed. One of the members jokingly said, "We changed his DNA."

And that phrase stuck with me. I have used it many times to start my comedy classes. "I'm here to change your DNA."

The most common comedian's rush is you make someone laugh uproariously and perhaps you even make that person forget their cares for a while. And there is nothing wrong with that. As a club owner I supported that element of comedy for years

But for me, I want to do more than just make you laugh. When I communicate I'm always trying to change your DNA.

And I also learned something very important about performing. One of the things I liked about our group was that we never used props. Nothing. Period. Not a wig, not a mask, not a cape, a boa, or a hat. We did IMPROVISATION. So we improvised our scenes with improvised props and improvised costumes.

As a member of an improv group that NEVER used any props & costumes, I experienced firsthand the power of the mind and imagination. I learned how to plant an idea in an audience member's imagination that superseded reality and took them on a journey of the mind into a place where the magical was the norm. All by suggestion.

I learned that if you use "space" props, totally imaginary props, people will see the most miraculous things. In their mind they could see on the stage in front of them the Statute of Liberty or they could gape at a Miss American Contestant or maybe gasp at the immense crater known as the Grand Canyon.

But these two points: the ability to change a person's DNA through a performance and to do so without the use of props would play a big part in the later success of the Zoo.

Too Many Larrys

Cantu was co-founder and director of Too Many Larrys! A San Francisco based comedy improv troupe. Unfortunately, John died one year after their founding, leaving them orphaned. However, co-founder Karen Warner has brought them back to life and is now their Director.

NEXT: My Love Affair with Paula Poundstone