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

Saturday Night Dead

by John Cantu ©

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."

Bob said, "What's the show and who's the producer?"

I said, "I'd rather not say right now. But Jason and I want to work with you so all the good comics get considered."

I was so naive. I knew nothing about the Hollywood back stabbing mentality. My mind simply doesn't work that way. Unbeknownst to me, after he got off the phone Bob called around and found out it was Jean Doumanian from Saturday Night Live and then he tried to totally squeeze us out.

He told his NBC contacts that he had all the major San Francisco comics under contract. The Holy City Zoo was a third rate beer and wine club and there was no need to go there. I of course didn't hear this from him, but others at NBC did tell me later.

But by this time we had hosted auditions for Fernwood Tonight and other Norman Lear productions. As well as for some fifty-plus other Hollywood based producers, agents, and production companies. And of course Rose remembered the talent she had seen at our club when working with George casting for The New Laugh-In Show.

So Bob's attempt to totally cut us out failed miserably. But because he did have management contracts with Dana Carvey, Michael Pritchard, Lorenzo Matawaran, et al., he got his café positioned as the prime audition venue.

When we got another call from Rose she said, "They are going to go to the Other Café first, and when they are done, they'll come to the Zoo for one hour. "

Fine, we were still in, despite Bob's attempted coup. Within a couple of days I got a call from a Saturday Night staffer who briefed me on how they wanted the audition run. He emphasized two things:

We will be at your club for ONLY one hour.

We don't want to see anybody for more than three minutes. In reality we'll know if we're interested in 30 seconds, but we realize that politically you can't tell your comics to only do 30 seconds.

I scheduled fifteen of my top comics plus I slotted ten minutes for two improv groups to perform together. Until the day of the audition I repeatedly kept telling the comics, "Three minutes and no more. Three minutes and no more. If you go over three minutes, I will cut the mike. If you go over three minutes, ten seconds I will turn out your lights."

The grumbling and resistance I got from the comics about the three minute limit was ferocious, but I had my orders from the SNL staff. I wanted to make as good an impression as the comics did. I realized if I presented a good audition selection and stayed within the time limits, I would have positioned my club for future talent searches.

The auditions just happened to fall on a Tuesday. For years, Tuesday had been our regular open mike night. We ran a pure open mike. Anybody, and I mean anybody regardless of how good or bad could sign up and get five minutes. We used to introduce the show as, "Featuring twenty of the BEST (pause 1-2-3) and WORST comics in the Bay Area."

I ran a tight schedule and while we used "twenty" in our introduction that number was simply used for the rhythm it gave the sentence. Every Tuesday I actually would put up thirty to fifty open mikers - plus assorted drop-in guest headliners.

This night I only had about twenty open mikers sign up because Bob Ayes' clout with NBC gave others the impression he had an inside track with SNL. With the exception of the fifteen comics I was showcasing, anybody who was anybody in the San Francisco comedy scene was at the Café figuring that's where the real action would be. And the Zoo audition would essentially be an after thought.

My twenty open mikers were either so new they didn't even know SNL was in town or so bad or socially inept that the Zoo was the only club they could perform at since we gave everyone five minutes if they showed up on time and signed up. We had no quality requirements. (Who am I to judge what's funny or not? The audience is the ultimate judge.)

In other words, that night I DID HAVE TWENTY OF THE WORST San Francisco Bay Area comics waiting to go on. I said to them, "As soon as auditions are over, we'll have our regular open mike - and you will get your time. And since only twenty of you showed up instead of our usual thirty to fifty open mikers we'll have extra time so you can all do six minutes each."

I only remember two eventful things happening before our audition started. First, even though he was under contract with Ayres, headliner Michael Pritchard came by and did a fantastic thirty or forty minute set. At the time Pritchard was second in local popularity only to Robin Williams. I think Pritchard was just blowing off steam and getting rid of some pre-audition jitters. Our audience went nuts over his set.

Secondly, Barry Sobel showed up in jeans and a T-shirt. There is nothing wrong with wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but I felt that when you are on stage auditioning for a national television show you need to at least look like a comic.

Barry was twenty something and looked young. And in a T-shirt and jeans he looked like a kid who wanted to be funny, rather than a professional comic. Actually he looked like a high school senior whose friends had told him he was funny and he had just decided to "try this comedy thing out for a night." I made him go home and come back with a shirt on.

Jean Doumanian arrived on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle. We seated them, took their drink orders, then started the audition. House MC, Don Stevens did a great job of keeping the auditions moving.

We put up all fifteen comics and the improv combo and we finished in 65 minutes. I was very pleased. I figured 65 minutes was close enough to the hour limit we had been given. I was also pleased that all the headliners had kept to three minutes.

I went to Doumanian and said, "Well that's our audition. How can I help you now? Do you want me to make a reservation at a restaurant, or something else?"

She asked, "What happens now?"

I said, "Oh, we're gonna have an open mike for the beginners."

She said, "I guess we'll stay."

My blood froze. I had just showcased fifteen of my top comics, limiting them to three minutes each. I was now about to present twenty of the most inept or inexperienced comics in the San Francisco Bay Area and they were to each have six minutes.

I kept my word. Each one got to do their six minutes. I can't describe how awful the rest of the evening was. One wretched comic after another doing six painful minutes - in front of one of most important television producers at that time.

They all had their shot at stardom. Doumanian stayed til the end, thanked me, and left with her entourage. At that moment I almost wished I was dead.

Now there's two after-thoughts to this horrible event. One, you can imagine the buzz in the San Francisco comedy scene for about the next six months. "Hey, did you hear what Cantu did for the SNL people? Put up fifteen headliners and only gave them THREE minutes. Then put up 20 open mikers and gave them SIX minutes!"

But what was far worse was that for the next few weeks I also kept getting calls from the various open mikers asking, "Did SNL ask for callback for me yet?"

I can laugh now - but back then - oh the pain. . . the pain.

Cantu notes:

Jean Doumanian. Yes this is the same Jean Doumanian that Woody Allen sued along with her business partner Jacqui Safra - alleging he had been cheated out of twelve million dollars plus interest on eight films.

I slotted ten minutes for two improv groups. One was the house improv troupe, Papaya Juice, a local favorite that played to a packed house every Friday. The other was Femprov, an all women troupe. There were five players, but I can only remember four: Patricia Daniels (my ex-wife), Susan Healy, Terry Sand, and Jeannene Hansen.

NEXT: A Few Tricks of the Pros