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

John Cantu's

Aardvark's odd ark, Robin Williams and the Gay Church Joke, The Holy City Zoo... & other stories I've lived. Backstage Secrets and True Confessions of a San Francisco Comedy Club Producer
by John Cantu ©

- John never got to write the Robin Williams and the Gay Church Joke story. In short, John’s dream was to write a joke that everybody would know. And with the Gay Church joke, he accomplished just that (...knew it was a gay church, every other person was kneeling.)

While still producing the Holy City Zoo, someone from Herb Caen's office called John for material, John tossed it off and attributed it to Robin Williams saying he had used it at the Zoo. John was always plugging the Zoo. I understand this joke is on the web, but without saying who created it. It was John Cantu.


  1. The Holy City Zoo Introduction

    The Holy City is legendary in comedy circles for the talent that either started there or developed their persona there during the fifteen-year San Francisco Comedy Renaissance (1975-1990). This includes well established, nationally known comics, Comedy Central guests and regulars, and comedy club headliner favorites such as:

    The Amazing Jonathan, Buzz Belmondo, Rob Becker (Defending the Caveman), A. Whitney Brown, Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Dana Carvey, Margaret Cho, Gil Christener, Marty "Party Hearty" Cohen, Evan Davis, Tony DePaul, Nora Dunn, Will Durst, David Feldman, Dr. Gonzo, Jake Johannsen, Mark McCollum, Kevin Meany, Mark Miller, Mark Pitta, Paula Poundstone, Michael Pritchard, Bill Rafferty, Rick Reynolds, Bob Sarlatte, Rob Schneider, Steve Kravitz, Bobby Slayton, Carrie Snow, Barry Sobel, Fran Solimita, and Robin Williams. (If you consider yourself part of the SF Comedy Scene and I have inadvertently missed you, I apologize...)

  2. A brief history of a place that launched a thousand quips.

    Johnny Carson owes it a debt of gratitude. So does David Letterman. As well as the casting director for Saturday Night Live and dozens of other television shows. Who or rather what is "it?" "It" was the uniquely named Holy City Zoo, San Francisco's longest running comedy club and the nation's fourth oldest comedy club. The Zoo has produced more televised showcased comics than any other club in the San Francisco Bay Area...

  3. What The Heck Kinda Name Is Holy City Zoo for a comedy club?

    The club was created in the 60s and the concept of the club was a folk-singer/hootenanny theme. The original founder was driving thru the Santa Cruz mountains coming back to San Francisco from a trip to Los Angeles. Along the way he saw a sign "Bankruptcy Sale - Cafe chairs & tables for sale"...

  4. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom. (Part 1)

    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...

  5. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom. (Part 2)

    So here we are, in the mid 70s, maybe 1975, performing comedy every Wednesday night doing alternating sets with a belly dancer. The owner has told Darryl Victor Dubin, the producer and MC of our fledgling comedy showcase, "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 up on stage. You have to get a new MC."

    It is to Darryl's credit that he didn't just tell the club owner, "It's my show. I am the producer and if I can't MC, there's no show!" The San Francisco comedy boom of the 70s/80s (which also led to the nation's comedy boom which I will tell you about in a future essay) came that close to being snuffed out before it even started...

  6. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom (Part 3)

    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.

  7. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom (Part 4)

    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?"

  8. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom (Part 5)

    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...

  9. The Holy City Zoo the Early Years - Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom (Part 6)

    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...

  10. My love affair with Paula Poundstone

    I had discovered a lot of comedians had no perception of the reality that I was running a fast-paced business. I wasn't watching the comedians. I was watching the audience to make sure that they were happy, that they were buying drinks, they were gonna stay for a while...

  11. It Ain't the Jokes Folks

    There is simply no way to teach wanna be comics the important principle that the jokes don't matter.

    I have said and written many times that The Great Comedians by Larry Wilde is simply the best book EVER about comedy.

    (I have been touting Larry Wilde's book The Great Comedians for years. Franklyn Ajaye's book matches it and is the 2002 version of Wilde's book. In Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-up Comedy by Franklyn Ajaye you get candid and insightful comments. Both are carried in

    Probably one of the ten major turning points in my comedy career was reading the following. Larry Wilde asks Woody Allen, "What counsel can you give comedians?"...

  12. Male or Female, White, Black, Brown Yellow or Red - Just Be Funny!

    I've had various minorities list a host of OTHER minorities that one had to be in order to get noticed. (Of course the list never includes their minority group. And the next comic, recites the same list with the ethnic group of the previous comic listed, and theirs removed.)

    I always said the same thing to them all - "Here's a novel, but simple solution. Be funny. Make the audience piss in their pants laughing."

    Oh yes and one more thing - ignore the feedback of other comedians. It is the kiss of death to be admired by comics...

  13. Some of the Unfunny Sides of Comedy

    Because of my longevity in the world of comedy, I get contacted a lot by the media. As recounted elsewhere in Backstage Pass, I was interviewed for and appeared on the E! Entertainment TV show Paula Poundstone The True Hollywood Story.

    Here's an example of a request for information where I could provide no firsthand info, but got into a wonderful email discussion with a former Boarding House waitress.

    It started thus...

  14. I Have Three Chinchillas in Heat!

    I got the following email recently from a sometime comedy writing partner Dan Gremmer in response to last issue's essay "Comedy from a Wait Staff Person's Point of View."

    Subject: I have three chinchillas in heat!


    Enjoyed your ezine article about Steve Martin at The Boarding House, circa 1975. I was there every night! I agree with the staffer who said he was the funniest human being he'd seen before or since. We forget what a Big Bang his comedy was at the time.

    At one point, when he had the audience falling out of their chairs with laughter, Steve went back into the sound booth, the small room in the back hidden from view. We could still hear him as he talked with the sound guys:


  15. Laughter in a Comedy Club Does Not Make You a Comedian. You Can Be Funny Anywhere. Even on the Bus.

    One of the major differences I see in the budding comics today versus when myself and Tony DePaul, Robin Williams, Dana Carvey and the rest of the ol' gang were starting out, is that today there is an over emphasis on playing in a comedy club - as if that were the only legitimate venue.

    If you want to be a comedian, you must write AND perform - Period! Set some type of quantifiable weekly performance goal and hit it daily.

    It's all about stage time. Perform anywhere you can wrangle stage time. Comedy clubs, but also in coffeehouse poetry open mikes, opening for a friend's band, for local charity events . . .

  16. Women Comics Can't Stretch

    In early 1979 in response to repeated cries of female audience members "Why aren't there more women comics?" I tried an experiment with a weekly "Women Comics Comedy Night" every Wednesday. This was introduced with great fanfare and yet lasted less than three months.

    When the idea was announced: comedy featuring only women, doing whatever material they wanted to do for as much time as they wanted, the moaning and groaning from the male comics began.

    Ah, the negative feedback from male comics was incessant, ongoing, and vitriolic. (Didn't bother me though, I never listened to male comics because I had discovered that by and large most male comics are dickheads...)

  17. Cooperation, Sex, and Cantu (Part 1)

    Here's an excerpt from a post by Rob Becker on the Holy City Zoo Alumni's bulletin board:

    The Zoo Was The Place To Be

    I did my first comedy set at the Holy City Zoo back in 1981. I remember watching Jeremy Kramer, Ken Sumori, Barry Sobel, Kevin Meaney, Billy Jaye, Murphy St. Paul, and Larry "Bubbles" Brown perform that same Monday night.

    The comedy scene was different then. Sort of underground, sort of bohemian. The audience was just discovering the San Francisco comedy scene and I remember them coming in with an air of anticipation, wanting to be part of it.

    The Holy City Zoo was the focal point, Mecca...

  18. Sex In The Holy City Zoo (Part 2)

    At the start of a movement, people do it for the love of it and there is nothing at stake.

    You had comics finding clubs and inviting other comics just to have enough performers to fill the time. We were performers doing it for the sheer enjoyment. We were comedians - what other rewards do you want besides laugher?

    Money - fame? We were performing in a 70-seat room that served only beer and wine for Pete's sake.

    It's an axiom of all motivation speakers that what you focus on most of the time is what you will get - which is why most comedians die broke. Because they focus on getting laughs most of the time. But money people focus on getting money most of the time...

  19. The Third Vital Factor That Made it Possible for the "Zoo" to Flourish - Cantu (Part 3)

    Let me give you an overview of the three phases of my involvement with the Zoo.

    1. 1975 first MC and producer for maybe three months. Then I turned club production over to my buddy, Tony DePaul. I would occasionally run the club for Tony when he was booked, but for all intents and purposes it was DePaul's club. However, I still did perform for about a year and I was also the local comedy gadfly giving unsolicited advice.
    2. Because my writing career never really took off, I took a job as bar manager around 1978. Became manager/producer in 1979 and co-owner 1980 -1981 until I had partnership problems.
    3. In 1988-1989 I returned briefly as workshop leader and part-time producer.

    My major influence on the Zoo was during the #2 time period. And I recently made the bold claim that the three reasons for the Holy City Zoo mystic was Cooperation, Sex and Cantu. I firmly believe that I had a major role in the success of the Zoo - but how...?

  20. It's 9:15 pm, an Empty Room, and Panic. My First Night as Manager of the Holy City Zoo

    For the first couple of years of comedy at the club, most comedians thought Tony DePaul owned the Holy City Zoo. The owner rarely showed up and he let Tony run the "Zoo" as Tony saw fit. And when he did show up, he kept a low profile.

    By 1978 the copycat clubs had started. The Other Café in the Haight and the Punchline in the Embarcadero were both gaining steam. There also were maybe a half-dozen more comedy venues in the surrounding communities. The competition for the local comedy audience was starting to drain people away from the "Zoo."

  21. A Comedy Club and a Comedy Club Show - What's the Reality?

    I learned very quickly, that low-level grunts can screw you sixty ways to Sunday. If you piss them off and they are more familiar with the terrain than you, they can readily cover their tracks. No matter how powerful and full of yourself you are, you never really fully know the situation.

    I also discovered another aspect of power. Every organization has its own "Deep Throat." He or she is not necessarily the most well placed in terms of position and/or power, but they have the uncanny knack of either always being in the loop or always being able to get info from someone who is in the loop...

  22. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 1)

    NOTE: Comedy Day is the FIRST of all the comedy festivals. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival added review comedy in 1953, but cannot say when "stand-up" was first performed there. The next earliest appears to be Just For Laughs Festival Montréal which started in 1983. Comedy Day is different from all the other festivals - it's FREE!

    The audience consists of thousands of San Francisco residents, visitors from neighboring cities, and any tourist lucky enough to be clued into this fun San Francisco insider's event that has been held yearly since 1981. Many people turn it into a picnic and come as early 9:00 am to stake out a spot for their blankets and food baskets for the comedy show that starts before noon.

  23. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 2)
    To the Unsung Heroine of Comedy: "A million thanks, What's-Your-Name?"

    I started getting some ideas together. Now, what you have to realize is at this point in time the concept of Comedy Day didn't exist. I was working on a concept for a one-hour show in Union Square at noon on a Friday featuring Robert Shields, the mime and half-a-dozen local headliners. The name "Comedy Day" didn't even exist - well how could it when I had only been planning for a one-hour show. (In fact if you look in the archives for Chase's Calendar of Annual Events for 1981 you will see it lists the event as "Comedy on The Green" one of the earlier working names.)

  24. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 3)

    Ascending the steps to the stage, I walked out and took a position center stage. I noticed there were a large number of green benches where people could sit and watch the stage. I didn't count the number of benches to guesstimate just how many people could sit on the benches. I just did a quickie calculation off the top of my head and assumed there were enough seats for an audience of 500. (This off-the-top-of-my head estimate would later came back to haunt me.)

    I had a distinct vision of all the benches filed and, in my mind's eye, I could envision three additional rows of people sitting on the ground. Where this idea of so many audience members came from, I don't know. At the "Zoo" I could rarely pack in more than 120-150 people (and legally only 75). But I was certain that if I could scrape up the necessary rent, I would have a show bigger than any ever produced in San Francisco. After all, the biggest club in the San Francisco Bay Area at this time was The Punchline and it only had legal capacity of about 200.

    As the volunteer driver took me back to the Zoo I percolated with ideas. For the first time, I had a palpable sense that this event could actually happen. And happen on a scale that made the original idea of a single noon show at Union Square puny in comparison...

  25. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 4)

    In order to understand the many obstacles in creating Comedy Day, you have to realize that this was a brand-new event with no precedent. And to fully understand that, here's your mini-lesson in producing a live event.

    There are three mandatary parts. I call them the three Ps of producing: Place, Publicity, and Production. This is also their order of importance.

    Your place (venue) is the most important. A note to would-be live event producers: Your location is always the most important aspect because if you have to physically change a venue location at the last moment not only is it difficult, but you also, more than likely, will lose most of your audience who didn't get the word about the change.

  26. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 5)
    The Political Humor in Producing Comedy Day

    Two things to keep in mind although they have been touched on already. One, my main motivation for Comedy Day was to have an event to compete with the Comedy Competition. The impetus for this came from booking a comedian as a headliner and offering him one of his biggest fees ever for a one-nighter outside the city. At the last minute he canceled on me to do six shows for Jon Fox at the Punchline for half as much money because Fox controlled the Comedy Competition.

    I wanted to have an event associated with the "Zoo" the same way the Competition was associated with the Punchline that was as well-respected as the Comedy Competition.

    And two, back then I just didn't have the confidence that if I invited any name acts, even if they agreed, that any would actually show on performance day. Yes, today it is a big deal. Yes, today in fact Comedy Day is one of a couple of dozen comedy festivals, but back then this was a never-before done idea.

  27. Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 6)
    Chicks' Schtick?

    I might not have much formal education (never finished 11th grade), but one thing I do have is an innate understanding of people. And I was quite certain how the proclamation would be perceived by most of the comedy community.

    Now, people with Becky's level of political savvy would of course recognize it for what it was: simply an "atta boy" trophy, and for all real intents and purposes worth about the cost of the sheet of paper it was printed on. But I knew, for the non-politically savvy, (and most of the comedy community fell into that group and I include myself in the unsophisticated group. After all, it was Becky who took the lead in us getting the proclamation) it would have an inestimable value on the symbolic level.

    The comics would give the proclamation a much, much, much higher credence than the reality. They would treat it as if the great leaders of the city had reviewed the Comedy Day idea, found it desirable, and had bid Cantu "go forth with our best wishes in bringing glory to the city..."

  28. Comedy Day - Getting to the Nitty Gritty (Part 7)

    I presented the proclamation to Jose Simon at one of the annual free Thanksgiving turkey dinners we did at the Zoo for comics who were away from home. And I remember maniacal Warren Spottswood reading it aloud to the gathering.

    Now here are a few more bits and pieces that followed the 1980 Thanksgiving dinner, but preceded the first Comedy Day. As noted previously, it originally was called Comedy on Green after Bill Graham's Day on the Green, but somewhere along the line it got changed to Comedy Day due to fears of a copyright infringement lawsuit from Graham.

    The main focus for me between Thanksgiving 1980 and July 1981 was three fold: money, publicity, and putting together the line up...

  29. Passion and Commitment and Desire - the making of Comedy Day (Part 8)

    Ah yes, raising money. If it wasn't for this onerous, thankless task, there would be no need for the title "Producer."    I was so naive back then I thought the main hurdle would be getting that FIRST dollar. I thought once I had my first sponsor, it was simply a matter of duplicating the process.


    Ask any producer and they will tell you raising money is $-%^&*# hard from dollar one to dollar last. I have since produced many events that required a budget. I've discovered it's never, ever easy...

  30. Comedy Day: The One Big Mistake I Made (Part 9)

    The big mistake I made was not budgeting any money for publicity. I figured there would be no need for any until one month before the show. Why publicize something taking place in July 1981 any sooner than thirty days out?

    I just figured a month before the event I would send out a Comedy Day news release along with my regular Holy City Zoo news release, and all the sponsoring clubs would start making announcements 30 day prior to the event at their club and that would be enough. I was thinking of this show as the "Woodstock of Comedy."

    However, back then I didn't understand the importance of creating a "buzz on the street." In my mind the idea was so good I had no doubt that the idea itself was big enough to generate a buzz. But I was thinking in terms of buzz for the event itself, not the pre-event buzz needed to sell your industry insiders...

  31. Jeni, Maher, Seinfeld, Shandling on Bombing; Ajaye, Anderson, Degeneres on Hecklers

    Are You a Beginner Bummed on the Fact That You Are Bombing So Much?

    Here's something I wrote December 1, 2000 in a CCD essay titled "Mistakes Newbies Make."

    Putting WAY too much emphasis on the audience response on any given night: I talked to one comic, whose performance I had enjoyed, after the show and he said he had been feeling a little off since the last few shows hadn't been going well. I asked, "How many times have you performed?"

    "About 12 or 14."

    I said, "Your first 100 times on stage don't count. It doesn't matter if you do good or bad because you are so new you really can't tell why the audience is laughing...

  32. Bullfights and Fool Fights

    People do not think of bullfighters as being scared. Neither do they think of successful comics as being nervous when they perform. Here's a peek at Johnny Carson before one of his shows. In Comic Insights Ajaye says, "I was a guest on the show that night and I was more nervous than I usually am on club dates. I was backstage and saw him nervously fiddling with his shirt cuffs a few minutes before the show.

    "Don't tell me you still get nervous?" I asked him incredulously.

    "Every night." he replied...

  33. Bits and Pieces: Drew Carey, Aisha Tyler, Stephen Wright, Joan Rivers

    I am a humor coach. I teach people how to tap into their innate creativity to be funny. And I love to collect examples of performers who are stars now, but who weren't natural comedians in the earlier stages of their careers.

    Given the fact that for years, I ran the San Francisco comedy club called the Holy City Zoo and that was the club where Robin Williams, Kevin Meany, Paula Poundstone, Rob Schneider, Dana Carvey, and other name comics started, I know a bit about the myth of being naturally funny...

  34. The Difference Between the Amateur and the Professional

    This was an interview I read sometime ago. It reminded me of some principles I learned running a comedy club. The interview with Billy Joel is about a four-week tour he did with Elton John. The interview was done by Aidin Vaziri for the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Cantu says, this first part is a good example of real world synergy and audience desires and perceptions...

  35. Success in Comedy. More than Just Laughter from the Audience

    I  once had a conversation with my comedy buddy, Tony DePaul. This was very early in our comedy careers and he made an astute observation.

    He said, "You know Cantu, there are a lot of factors that go into being a successful comedian. They can be your on-stage delivery, your physical appearance, the way you dress, your length of time in the business, your agent, the fact that you have fresh material, etc. There might be twenty or thirty elements."

    And he went on to say, "No one masters all twenty or thirty. You sometimes see people succeeding who have only mastered ten or twelve or fourteen..."

  36. Backstage Secret from the Tonight Show

    Both Jim Giovanni and Frank Olivier are comics who started at the "Zoo." I was at the Bohemian Club last week for its comedy night and while I knew Jim G was a member and was performing that night, I was surprised to discover Frank was also on the bill.

    During dinner Frank Olivier came over to my table to say "Hi."

    Frank and I had a few minutes to chat and I got a chance to ask him a question I had been dying to ask him for the longest time. It was about a Tonight Show appearance I had seen him do a few years back...

  37. Stories about Tom Finnigan, Paul Giles, Mike Bizarro, and Robin Williams

    Once it was ten before 2:00 am and I was rushing the wait staff to get all the drinks off the tables since we had to close by 2:00 am and there was a $1000 fine if you were open after 2:00 am - bigger if you were open after 2:00 am with open drinks on the tables.

    Robin turned and looked at me and I could see his maniacal mind thinking. He turned back to the crowd and said conspiratorially, "Hey let's see if we can get Cantu busted."

    We had a legal capacity of 75 and we had 190 people in there belly to belly. Talk about mixed emotions. At that time he was at the height of his Mork & Mindy fame - literally the best known comic in America and he was performing on my stage for free.

    And I was petrified that an officer in a police squad car would drive by and bust me for being open after hours - in those days a thousand dollar fine was three weeks profit...

  38. Saturday Night Dead

    In 1980 most of the original Saturday Night Live cast, Belushi, Ackroyd, Radner, et al. left the show and Saturday Night Live also got a new producer, Jean Doumanian.

    We got a call from Rose Gramalia who had been with George Schlatter when he came to San Francisco and hired five performers for the New Laugh In Show. She said, "Most of the cast members are leaving and the new producer, Jean Doumanian, is going around the country looking for new talent."

    "She'll be coming to San Francisco on such and such a date." (I don't remember the exact date.) Co-owner, Jason Christobel and I immediately realized that while we had our favorites, Bob Ayes of the Other Café had formed a management company and had most of the top San Francisco talent under contract.

    Jason and I felt it wouldn't be fair to the comics if we had the SNL people only come to our venue, so I called Bob and said, "Listen, there is a major TV show coming to town on such and such a date and we want to co-ordinate a mutual audition..."

  39. A Few Tricks of the Pros

    I saw Woody Allen live at the Circle Star Theater, in San Carlos, California thirty some years ago. I still remember when he pulled out an ornate pocket watch midway through his set.

    Holding it lovingly and with reverence he said, "This watch is a family heirloom. On his deathbed (pause) my grandfather (pause) sold me this watch." At the time, I thought what a great joke.

    Years later, I read On Woody Allen and Being Funny by Eric Lax and discovered that Allen had used that joke to disguise the fact that he was taking a time-check on his set. He'd pull out the watch at what was supposed to be the midpoint of his act.

    Depending in where he was in his monologue, he would immediately know if he had enough material left to finish on time. Or if he would have to have to close with a Q& A session to fill his allotted time...

  40. Comics and Their Writers - Mistakes Newbies Make

    All comics use writers - Woody Allen (and I'm talking about his brilliant standup act, not his movies that I can't understand half the time) had Morrie Brickman. Richard Pryor has (or at least had for the longest time) Paul Mooney. Don't know who Robin William uses, but my former some-time partner collaborator Tom Finnigan at one time was asked to submit material for consideration. Finnigan also wrote material for Jonathan Winters on some television specials. Carrie Snow, one of my regulars at my former comedy club the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco, went on to write for Roseanne (Tom Arnold was one of Roseanne's original writers). Chris Rock has Wanda Sykes. Former students of mine Karen Warner and Mike Iapoce have sold material to Dangerfield, and another former student, David Feldman writes for Denis Miller. . .

    And the bleat "I do all my own stuff" goes on. As the late Jim Samuels used to say. "All the stuff I do is my own material. I have the receipts to prove it...!"

  41. Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 1)

    On audition night I and one of my best buddies, comedian Tony DePaul were in the back of the room watching Schlatter. Tony was watching to see what Schlatter was responding to in a comedian in preparation for his audition. I was watching Schlatter to find out how a real life Hollywood producer talked, walked, and acted since I was evolving more and more into a producer and fading out my performing career. Schlatter was sitting in the back of the room with his assistant, talent scout Rose Gramalia.

    The first comedian performed and left the stage. Same for the second, third, and fourth funny folk. Then the fifth comic showcased and as soon as he finished, Schlatter turned to his assistant and said, "I want him." Without even waiting to see the next act Schlatter got up and went backstage to talk with the guy who had just finished. I write "backstage," but since it was a coffeehouse, there was no backstage so he met him by the espresso machine...

  42. Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 2)

    There are a lot of ins and outs to running a successful open mike. The Holy City Zoo probably had the most successful open mike in the Bay Area. In another essay you will learn the tricks to running a good open mike.

    But I want to write about an open mike I screwed up at a club other than the "Zoo," and how it led to my first talent discovery. This was in the spring of 1979 and I was running the Boarding House Comedy Room at the time. Open mike Thursday nights and booked shows Friday & Saturday. (And I don't recall exactly how I was involved with both Allen's Alley and the Zoo at the same time, but I was.)

    I had tried an experiment one night. People were always bitching and bitching and bitching about the time slots they got for open mike so on this particular night, I decide to do it democratically. I put all the names in a hat and drew them out one-by-one...

  43. Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 3)

    It's one thing when you discover talent. But does the world share your view?

    The day I met Finnigan, I called my buddy Tony DePaul and told him, "I'm bringing over a funny comic. Put him in the line-up. His name is Tom Finnigan." As Finnigan and I approached the fifteen to twenty comics always hanging around out front of the Zoo shooting the breeze, "This is Tom Finnigan. He's funny. Make sure you come inside and check him out when he gets up."

    Now Tom Finnigan was a terrific writer. Original. Brilliant. But he had no understanding of how to sell his jokes on stage. He would simply stand there and lay the lines out one after another to the club audience. However, a successful comedian does more than just tell a series of jokes. A successful comedian has to learn to deliver his/her material. Sell it to the crowd and make them laugh...

  44. Exposing One's Self In more ways than one (Part 1)

    In 1977 when George Schlatter was doing a revival of the 60s Laugh-In show and came to San Francisco in search of talent. Because the original Laugh-In show had been such an icon of the 60s decade, Schlatter was determined to put together a cast to exceed the quality of the original show.

    George Schlatter has a tremendous eye for talent. He had been all over looking for talent . . . London, New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas. But as the tag line of the classic famous motivational speech goes, "One can often find acres of diamond in one's own backyard."

    By this time Robin Williams had relocated to LA and when Schlatter first saw him, Schlatter naturally went nuts. I have already written about this and about how Schlatter discovered Dana Carvey when Dana was a college freshman.

    But, after the New Laugh-In show was cast and they were in rehearsals, Schlatter got a promo idea...

  45. Exposing One's Self (Part 2)

    In this room was a lively group of comics in full cocktail party chat mode raiding the various bowls of standard party noshes. So I'm chatting and BS'ing, but after a while I made an observation.

    Robin Williams, Bill Raferty, "Toad", Roberta Bleiweiss and Jim Giovanni, local Bay Area stars, would chat a bit and then would individually leave to go into the other room. Ten or fifteen or twenty minutes later they would return.

    Two things about me. I am insatiably curious. And I am an astute observer of patterns. I quickly noticed a pattern. The only people going back and forth between the two rooms were the five local stars. And while I could sometimes hear laughter and chatter from the other room, no one but the five local stars would migrate between the two rooms.

    So, after about forty or fifty minutes, I went in the other room...

  46. Spotted at the Comedy Competition Finals: a New Trend in Comedy

    After being a judge for one of the preliminary nights of the San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition I went to the finals. I did my handicapping and I was both pleased and surprised with the final rankings of my first and second choices. I also made a significant observation about a new direction in which I think comedy is heading.

    I realize that if you are not from the San Francisco Bay Area, you may not realize the significance of the competition. Let me backtrack a moment to 1976, the first year of the "Comedy Competition."   Bill Farley took first place. Bob Sarlatte, currently the on-field Master of Ceremonies for the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park, finished third. Robin Williams came in second...

  47. Blowing Smoke When Offered a Chance to Write for Saturday Night Live's First Season (Part 1)

    I and three pals had a golden opportunity to become writers for Saturday Night Live. We were offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to audition as writers for the first season and it was blown because of blowing too much weed. Here's the never-before told story of that debacle...

  48. Blowing Smoke When Offered a Chance to Write for Saturday Night Live's First Season (Part 2)

    A side note about how creating comedy works. People think that comics just get up on stage and riff, i.e., say anything that comes into their head on the spur of the moment. In reality, most comics develop their acts over time. While it is true that many comics start that way, they soon discover this hit or miss method leaves a lot to be desired.

    It tends to produce long stretches of spots with no laughs. So comics quickly learn to remember lines that get laughs and bring them back during the lulls and over time they develop a set act. They may vary the order of the chunks or bits, but the jokes within that bit are set, not ad-libbed...

  49. The Ins and Outs of Running San Francisco Longest Running Open Mike

    On the Entertainment Channel's Paul Poundstone: The True Hollywood Story Gil Christner said, "When Paula showed up at the Zoo, she was new and Cantu did what he did with all new comics. He put her up last."

    Well, it may or may not be true that for Poundstone's first performance at the Zoo I put her up last. But in general, here's how the Zoo's open mike was run.

    It was noticeably differently from all others. Most producers would ask comics to call in or come by early and sign up. By show time the club producer would post a line-up for the entire show: The order in which the comics would be performing and length of time.

    Many of these producers were also "wanna be in comedy, but not funny enough to be a comedian" types. And they seemed to think that their lack of funniness had been replaced with a special providence for discerning talent.

    So house favorites were welcome and given time slots. And just as often, newbies after their first set, were told to go away and either never come back or at least "don't come back until you're good." (There's a real Catch 22. Criticized for being inexperienced, and then have any opportunity to become experienced immediately taken away.)

    But at the Zoo you could come down and sign-up by eight o'clock, and you were guaranteed a slot. Period! No ands, ifs, or buts about it. Whether it was your first time on stage, or you were Robin Williams dropping in to take a break from shooting the movie Popeye...

  50. More Ins and Outs of Running a Comedy Club

    Normally, you present your acts in increasing order of energy (and not, as many people think, in order of "name" recognition). Performer A, then stronger performer B, then stronger performer C, etc. The concept of a headliner is that one is so dynamic, no one can follow him/her. Theoretically, his/her act reaches such a peak, no one could possibly match and then exceed his/her energy.

    Now, one Monday, a friend to whom I owed a favor asked if he could go on first to leave early for a paid gig. (Many comics performed at the Zoo out of love, not for any monetary reward - except for the Friday and Saturday shows.) Technically he was too strong for that spot, but I said, "Yes." Then I was amazed when he got the crowd going - stronger than any previous Monday. I thought it was a great energy crowd relatively speaking.

    Then my regular first comic went up - and pffft. All energy dissipated. But I had an idea. And within in few weeks I had turned my Monday shows into a decent energy level show.

    I turned my line-up up-side-down...

  51. The Open Mikers Versus The Pros

    While I was at both shows I did a mental comparison between the two shows. And I observed a fundamental difference between the comedians in each show. Both had about a dozen performers. The Ireland's 32nd Club had two women performers, the competition none.

    But here was the major difference between the shows: the open mikers performed about 20 minutes each and The 25th International San Francisco Comedy Competition contestants spoke about seven minutes each. And laugh for laugh, the contestants were three times or more funnier.

    Sounds like an anomaly, doesn't it? One third the time in front of an audience, three times as funny?

    But it was a perfect example of the difference that stage time makes in one's career. It was not that the experienced pros who had been accepted into the comedy competition were universally funnier than the inexperienced open mikers. It was that each pro's material was ten times tighter...

  52. Running a Comedy Club It's All in a Night's Work (Hecklers, Heart Attacks, Horny Women & Other Distractions)

    So you want to know about real-life interruptions and what was said to handle them? Gee interruptions? - I know some people say they have them - but at first I couldn't think of a single one. Then.... slowly, but surely... they came trickling back. And I realized I dealt with them by using selective amnesia - trying to forget the pain as quickly as possible. Kinda like my mother who had 12 kids (no joke - I am oldest). She used to say, "After a few weeks you sorta blot out the pain of childbirth - - - until the next one."

    I have been very lucky. I have had very, very, few disruptions personally (seriously). But running the Holy City Zoo and other comedy clubs, well yes, there have been a few interruptions and distractions. Oy vay, such memories, a nice girl like you shouldn't be subjected to - - - (See how traumatic it has been for me - - - I am a non-Spanish-speaking Mexican American now kvitching with a Yiddish dialect.) So, here are a few situations in no particular order and what was used to deal with that situation...

  53. Industry Jokes

    A woman walks up to a comic after the show and says:

    • "That was the best show I've ever seen. You are sooooo sexy. I watched you and I got hot and excited. I want to take you back to my place and make mad passionate love to you."
    • The comic looks at her and says, "Did you see the first show, or the second?"

    Cantu says, "Now that's VERY funny and VERY true!"