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

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

by John Cantu ©

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.

In 1974 three comedy buddies, Terry Hamburg, Marty Marmor, and Lorenzo Mattawaren (who went on to appear in many television shows as Buzz Belmondo) collaborated on writing a ninety minute comedy show. It was essentially a series of sketches held together by a loose plot virtually all of which now escapes me. They called it the Terry, Marty, Lorenzo Show (we were oh so clever and arch in our formative years). For the rest of this essay I will abbreviate it to the TMLS.

In North Beach (a San Francisco district known in the past for its Bohemian favor and bordered by the famed topless/bottomless district of the 70s) there is a coffeehouse called the Savoy Tivoli. At the time there was a back room that was available for rent. My pals rented the space for their production and hired a fourth member, Roger, who handled the sound system.

I am, and always have been, a one-liner entertainer. So the trio thought it would be fun if I dressed in a tuxedo and started the show with a monologue, but instead of my regular act I was to do a vaudeville type, "Here are the jokes, folks!" kind of shtick.

So, I opened the show in a tux, doing a solo spot. Here's my opening with some of the old stock jokes I told. (Remember, this was a deliberate parody of a borsht belt comic's style, not my real act.) And the sound man punctuated the punch lines with a recorded rim shot.

Good evening ladies and germs (RIM SHOT)... But serially, folks (RIM SHOT)... It's good to have you here tonight. (PAUSE) But you should have been here last night. (PAUSE) Someone should have been here! ... (RIM SHOT) Guy calls up at 10:00 pm, says, "What time does the show start?" We said, "What time can you get down here?" (RIM SHOT)... He was the only guy who showed up and we still made money. We rolled him. (RIM SHOT)...

Well, you get the drift.

Then Terry, Marty and Lorenzo performed their show. We performed Fridays and Saturdays and I don't remember how long a run we had. I recall it as being rather brief, maybe two, maybe three months at the most. But at some point a guy approached the three stars and invited them to submit samples of their writing for a new television show.

A show that he described in such an odd manner, it puzzled the heck out of me for years. Not until just recently did I finally understand what he really meant.

He said, or rather this is what the guys told me he said, "NBC is looking for a new show. A new hip show that will appeal to younger viewers and will replace Johnny Carson (then host of the Tonight Show)."   I was absolutely dumbfounded at hearing this. Carson was an icon even then. I boggled at the idea of writing for a show to replace Carson. More about this key line later. But still, replace Carson or not, it was a chance to possibly write for television.

Well, they were offered the writing assignment, not me. But since I could sit down and write on demand, they came to me for help on their first assignment. And it was clear to me that I was just going to help them flesh out their material. If the gang of three got hired, it would be without me.

But they were friends. Comedy pals. I was flattered that they thought enough of my writing talent to approach me so it was okay all around.

Now, this piece is about our Saturday Night Live writing opportunity. But before I get into that let me tell you about something that, while it has nothing to do with comedy per se, (although it is a practical example of puns) has affected my life to a great degree. And something that came directly out of my being involved with the TMLS.

It was an article I read about puns. Specifically about how to use puns in analyzing your dreams. It was a wildly new concept so let me detour for a few paragraphs and then return to our Saturday Night Live fiasco.

I had just gotten some new business cards. I was so excited. For the first time in my life. I had cards that had the word "Comedian" after my name. I stopped by a comedienne's friend's place to show off my new cards. Lorenzo was also visiting. I made small talk until I finally was able to work into the conversation that I had just come from picking up my new business cards.

Of course they both asked to see my cards and as I gave her and Lorenzo each one, he said, "Hey the TMLS have cards also." Then he pulled out a card and handed it to me. I was surprised to see that it had Terry Hamburg's name on it, and over that in pencil was written Terry, Marty, & Lorenzo Show. And the phone number had also been crossed out and a new one written in pencil.

All in all, it didn't seem very professional to me. I went about the rest of my daily tasks. I am a voracious reader and later that night for whatever reason I was reading a Reader's Digest magazine on Dream analysis by Ann Faraday. It was an excerpt from her book, The Dream Book.

While there were several pertinent aspects to her method of analyzing dreams - there were two that were of particular importance. One principle was that if you dreamed about a person you know, chances were that person was to be taken as being his or herself and not to be taken as a symbol for something.

And the second principal and the crux of her theory was that dreams are often ideas being expressed in visual terms - often visual puns. Wow! What a concept! This "dreams as visual puns" idea has stuck with me over the years.

Here's an example from a man:

I am walking down a village street. I notice the tailor, who is hanging out suits on a rack in front of his shop, is wearing a clerical collar.

Interpretation: A first glance, nothing clicked at all. Jim had not been to town the previous day or visited his tailor. A great part of the day had been in fact, spent with his lawyer in a vain attempt to wrap up his divorce proceedings, now in their fourth year.

Associating to the tailor, however, Jim was reminded of a tailor who had been an authority figure in his childhood. The man's name was Ash - and he realized with a start that this was his lawyer's name. The dreamer then saw the obvious pun: the lawyer was "hanging out the suit" which referred to the dreamer's protracted divorce case.

Jim had been blaming his wife for the delay, whereas, his heart evidently saw the situation quite differently: The lawyer was responsible because of his religious preference as represented the clergyman's collar.

The next morning when I awoke, I remembered a dream I had had. Now up until then, I would have dismissed it as just one of those weird, off-the-wall dreams one has with no real connection to reality. But now that I had read Faraday's article, I was eager to see if I could "interpret" the dream in context of something real happening in my life using the concept of puns in a visual context.

In the dream I was playing seven-card stud with Lorenzo, Terry, and Roger, the sound man. Marty was standing off to the side watching us bet. I noticed that instead of the traditional king, the image was that of the little rolly polly banker in the monopoly game and the image for the jack was a young, sleek looking executive with a brief case. I really didn't remember what the queen looked like.

So we did a round of betting and raises and betting and raises until finally the hand was over. I don't remember what I had, but I did remember that I had won the pot. Raked in the cash. End of dream.

I wanted to see if I could find some real life connections using the principles I had read in Reader's Digest and I began to think about my dream. And I began to think about puns, wordplay, and visual puns. I started to free associate.

We were gambling. We were betting. We were playing seven card stud. We were playing - - - and I realized that "playing" is a common show business term. I am playing here... I will be playing next... Okay, I felt I was on to something because all of the people in the dream were part of the TMLS production.

And the minute I realized the dream had something to do with the TMLS, I then realized why Marty was standing off to side instead of being in the game. I really felt that Terry and Lorenzo were much, more serious about the production. I felt that Marty really didn't feel as strongly about the production as Terry and Lorenzo. Thus he was just watching the "real" players.

WOW! I was amazed that this unconscious thought had been made conscious by the dream. Oh, I was excited!

But I couldn't figure out why, instead of the traditional king, the image was that of the little rolly polly banker in the monopoly game. And why, instead of the traditional jack, that image was of a young sleek looking executive with a brief case.

So I started brainstorming again, The monopoly character was a banker, was a financier, dealt in high finance, dealt in business matters...

I didn't seem to be getting any where so I focused on the jack/executive. The executive was a young businessman - - - business AND a deck of playing cards - Eureka!

The cards were "business" cards and I had won the pot because my "business cards" were "better" than TMLS' "business cards." When we had exchanged business cards I felt my cards were better. Thus my winning hand was a visual pun that my "business cards" were better than their "business cards." (There was a second pun on my cards being "better" than theirs and the fact that I was a "better.")

I was so amazed that what seemed like pure dream nonsense, had a real basis. I never forgot that article. And have I used those dream principles over and over and over again. I have analyzed many of my friends' dreams and I still get a kick out of occasionally analyzing my dreams from time to time.

Here was an easy dream to analyze:

I was dreaming that I wanted to buy another comedy club. So I was looking at various properties and I finally found the perfect location. It was a recently closed Safeway supermarket that was also located in the Richmond district the part of SF that I live in. This was a Safeway that had closed for real and was only about 10 blocks from my apartment so it would be an easy commute. It doesn't take rocket science to realize I was looking at a "comedy store" location.

By the way. Faraday states, "The dreaming mind uses puns continually to make its points whether one makes puns in his waking life or not." And I have found that to be true of my non-comedic friends who have asked me to help them interpret their dreams.

Anyway, I have followed those two basic principle to this day. And all learned and remembered because of my business cards and the ratty, tatty ones of TMLS. Well, thanks for indulging me on my pun/dream obsession.

Next installment - You actually learn how too much dope ruined our hopes to be writers for Saturday Night Live's first season.

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