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

(Hecklers, Heart Attacks, Horny Women & Other Distractions)

Running a Comedy Club It's All in a Night's Work

by John Cantu ©

When Susan suggested I write this monthly column I thought, hey not a bad idea, it would be a snap. All I'll have to do each month is simply write 1,500 to 2,000 words about some memorable event. After 25 years in the comedy business and having spent time with a ton of comics - from trembling terrified first-timers to seasoned pros such as A. Whitney Brown, Nora Dunn, Will Durst, Jackie Mason, Denis Miller, Paula Poundstone, Margaret Smith, et al., I figured how hard could it be?

So here's a little irony for you. The first subject that I chose to write about in-depth is what I consider to be the highlight of my San Francisco comedy career. That is, the idea, development, and production of Comedy Day Celebration. And I have to be honest, I do get a kick out of knowing I created the event that produced San Francisco's largest audiences ever for a comedy event. The only competition to it was Fox's San Francisco International Comedy Competition whose biggest audience was at the Louise K. Davies Symphony Hall which seats only 2,743 (and someday I will tell you about my conversation with Tree when he was a finalist and his experiences in that venue).

But, in deciding to write about the creation of Comedy Day, I chose probably the one event where dates, times, places, and other people played a most critical role. And feeling an obligation to credit one and all who had a part in the development of Comedy Day, I have run into a problem of research. Simply put, I have not allotted enough time and energy.

So I am about a week and a half late for my May deadline. Rather than miss a month entirely, I have, in the immortal words of Monty Python, opted this month for "Something Completely Different."

The following actually is a slightly edited and expanded email reply to someone's request for my possible participation in a National Speakers Association presentation regarding hecklers and/or other distractions. While I was forced to ultimately decline due to a pending operation, I did make some initial notes. I hope you enjoy this article. (Another episode of the history of Comedy Day Celebration will be presented next month, actually - later this month.)

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.

star During the heyday of my Holy City Zoo Saturday afternoon comedy workshops, I had a man have a heart attack midway through one of my exercises. But it was easy to know what to say that time, "CALL AN AMBULANCE - NOW!!!"

star Gil Christner was performing up stairs at the Boarding House opening for Talking Heads. Now, the Boarding House is the club where Robin Williams recorded live part of Reality - What a Concept! and where Steve Martin recorded live his first comedy album. At the time I was running the comedy room downstairs in the basement called Allen's Alley. On Gil's first night one of the audience members threw a beer bottle at him. Missed him, but broke a chair next to him. Gil's heckler stopper? "Thank you very much," left the stage and went to the owner to get paid saying, "By the way, find a replacement, I quit."

star I remember the guy who got mad when a comic insulted his sister. He left the club, got into his pickup and drove up on the side walk to the door of the club, floored the gas pedal, burned rubber and filled the club with tire smoke.

star Then there was the guy who started a fight with me in the club because he thought I was *CENSURING* his ex-wife. I talked him into going outside so as not to disrupt the show. God, he was strong. He grabbed my arm and by just squeezing it, brought me to my knees. I only beat him because his leg was in a cast hip to knee (seriously no-joke) and I kept kicking it to knock him off balance.

star By the way, I wasn't *CENSURING* his ex, another comic was. However, because of my reputation back then as somewhat of a womanizer, when he said, "Hey, you're the guy who's *CENSURING* my wife!!!" All I could think of was the punchline to the old joke, "Well, which ONE is your wife?"

star How about the good-looking female comic whose act was punctuated by repeated loud cries from a drunk audience member, "Show us your t---s, baby." Which was alternated every so often with, "Show us your t--s, honey." For once in my life, I simply didn't know what to do. Why didn't I stop it? Because I was totally taken off guard. I had never been in a situation like that before. The heckler was a female and it was my first experience with a drunk, dyke heckler.

star Let us not forget the lawyer who was intelligent, but very argumentative in one of my classes. I calmed him down saying, "Let's get on with the class and I will discuss this with you afterwards." A couple of days later he was arrested trying to enter then governor Jerry Brown's office with a rifle. He got committed to Atascadero, the state institution for the criminally insane. One month later I got a collect call from him, "Hey, Cantu, the next time Robin (Williams) stops in give him my number, okay? I've got a great idea for him to do a sit-com based on a mental institution and I wanna be creative consultant."

star And finally - one of the most unusual - no - one of the most WEIRD interruptions. The Zoo was a small club with only two single-stall bathrooms, Male & Female which you locked with a hook from inside. Every hour, we would take a 5-10 minute break in the show so people could order drinks and/or use bathroom. A woman goes in the "Female" bathroom and within a few seconds, we start hearing noises - loud noises and everyone's first reaction was she is having major, serious trouble of some sort. And then, Honest-To-Heaven, we realized it was the sounds of a woman in passion, if you get my meaning.

star She pleasured herself for 20 minutes and then came out of the bathroom as if nothing had happened. Normally we never had a break that lasted longer than 5-10 minutes. That night we took an unprecedented additional 30 minute break. No comic wanted to get up immediately and try to follow that impromptu performance. And I had no saver line for it either. (PS - To add insult to injury - - - up until that point she had led me to believe SHE AND I would be leaving together, if you get my drift.)

NEXT: Industry Jokes