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

The Ins and Outs of Running San Francisco's Longest Running Open Mike

by John Cantu ©

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.

But we never posted a line-up for more than one-set-at a time at the Zoo, a set being a fifty minute slot. And while most clubs started at 9:00, we would start at 8:30 pm.

The comedians would get furious that I only posted one set (i.e., one hour's worth of scheduling) at a time. But the comedians, by and large not having an ounce of business sense, didn't understand how different the Holy City Zoo was from other comedy clubs.

Because we had no cover charge, people could come and go at will with no penalty. People would come in and watch comedy and if they got bored they'd go next door to the Last Day Saloon, which is a hot city dance spot. Then to take a break from dancing they'd come back and listen to comedy.

When they got tired of both comedy and dancing they'd go one-half-a-block up and across the street to Churchill's which was a popular singles talk bar. (In fact, Churchill's is where Robin Williams met his first wife Valerie.)

But the end result was we had no cover charge and a lot of walk-by traffic. Audience members came and went at will. We had fifty-minute performance sets with ten minute intermissions, starting at 9:00 pm (you could take a break that early and not lose people). Then break at 9:55 - 10:05 and at 10:55. But from then on no breaks till the end of night, lest they use the free time to look at their watches and realize how late it was.

We were a small club, with a legal capacity of 70, but a real seating capacity of about 100. When a guest headliner dropped in to do a freebie, we'd crammed in 150+ people, shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only. Our audience make-up could radically change in a matter of minutes. In the first set you do a mix: a one-liner comedian, a prop comedian, an impressionist comedian, a musical parody singer.

If the prop comedian got the best laughs, then in the next set you would open with a prop comedian and you'd put a prop comedian up a third of the way through and then two thirds of the way though.

However, if a one-liner comedian, or the impressionist comic had gotten the best response that's what would dominate the next set. So house MC Don Stevens and I were constantly studying the house and noticing what was and wasn't working. We kept adjusting the set lineup, making changes as soon as we noticed a change in what the audience laughed at.

While the comedians hated this one-set-at-a-time procedure, (and often comics left in a huff), our Tuesday open mike nights did the third best business behind Fridays and Saturdays. For years we were the only comedy club in the city that would be totally full until 10:30 or 11:00 every Tuesday. Most clubs were either closed Tuesdays or were done by 11:00 or 11:30 pm.

We were the only club that more often than not, still had enough people to be open till 2:00 am. And we consistently put up twenty-five to fifty comedians in an evening, whereas other clubs were lucky to manage to get up fifteen to twenty-five.

Cantu notes:

In all my history of running comedy clubs, I only banned one comedian. He had date-raped one of my waitresses and she simply would not wait on customers when he was in the house. He was a loud, rough, crude, S.O.B. and I never felt much compunction about banning him.

In the very early days of comedy at the club there had been an attempt to institute a cover charge, but the comedians didn't understand the idea and threatened to go on strike. It so scared the club owner that he squashed the plans immediately.

The comedians had stupidly shot themselves in the foot financially and for years after other clubs were charging a cover, the Zoo was still a no cover venue. And thus the comics had cost themselves hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I will write about the comedians' strike in a future essay.

But they returned the following week because they knew that unlike other clubs, if they had stormed out they most likely would have been banned. But they could still come back to the Zoo and sign up to perform. I might give them a later time slot, but I never banned them for having feelings.

Letter from Paul Giles Re: Paula Poundstone

I read your essay on Paula in your last CC Diaries column (November 15, 2001). Interesting. I remember one night in San Francisco, you had just opened a room on Columbus in the New Boarding House downstairs again just like Allen's Alley in the original Bush Street Boarding House that was torn down for condos.

I MCed for Paula and Ron Lucas. Great time. The sound system kept failing and I had to stall for 10 extra minutes on stage with no material and keep them laughing. But I remember it because (and I blame you) Ellen and I gave Paula a ride home that night and spent the time comforting her (she was in tears) because you had criticized everything she did, and you did it in a way which was less than tactful. You were probably drinking heavily in those days, so I don't necessarily think you knew you were being tactless.

So I just told Paula what I told her the first time I saw her do a set, which was at Bob and Chip's place in the Haight, the Other: "YOU are going to be big!" Then I told her not to worry about what Cantu said, his opinion doesn't count and who the hell cares what happened in the basement of some hotel or wherever the hell it was we were.

Well, of course your opinion counts, but that night it didn't, and besides, what do you say to a talented young woman who's in your car crying because someone told her she sucked? Now when Paula wrote that letter to the Chronicle, I think she probably was thinking of that John, not the guy who tries to help young comics with their stagemanship and material.

That's it. Sorry this note is ungrammatical and badly written, but just wanted to speed this off to you. Paul

Cantu says: I never ever once told Poundstone she sucked. But I did tell she was doing a grave disservice to herself by performing without a bra. If you are old enough to remember Sing along with Mitch - "follow the bouncing ball,' then you might have an idea of what her bobbin' nipples reminded me of.

NEXT: More Ins and Outs of Running a Comedy Club