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 2)

by John Cantu ©

Back to blowing a golden opportunity to become writers for Saturday Night Live. At one point some guy, whose name has been lost to posterity, approached the three and invited them to submit samples of their writing for a new television show.

Now, 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.

Most beginning comics start with an idea (premise or concept) and by trial and error - by listening to what does and doesn't get a laugh - over time hone their material into a viable body of laugh getting lines. But most also lacked the ability to get an idea, and then sit down with pen and paper, and within a specified time, flesh the idea out into a full bit.

Whereas I could just sit down with a sheet of paper and a couple of hours later have 10 finished jokes. Now, mind you not all those jokes were great. You might even toss five or six or seven of them. But they would have been built on a premise. They would have a setup and a punch line. I am not criticizing here I am reporting.

At this time I was the only Bay Area student of the principles of creating humor and I was virtually the only comedian in the Bay Area at that time, who could actually sit down and write on purpose; who could sit down and write on demand. By this time I was already writing material for Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller.

I could listen to a joke and give suggestions on how to make the joke tighter, i.e., how to polish it to generate a bigger laugh. Sometimes by taking out excess words, sometimes by suggesting another word to make the premise clearer, etc.

So Terry, Marty, and Lorenzo came to me for collaboration on their first assignment. At the time it was exciting to be writing for television (actually we were writing to audition for writing for television). Keep this in mind. We did not know we were auditioning to write for Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live did not exist. And thus at that time there was no excitement at the "glamor" of being asked to audition for Saturday Night Live. The glamor was having the opportunity of writing for television period.

I remember our first meeting. Now I do not remember the details. I vaguely remember that we met at one of the performer's apartments. After the perfunctory greetings, we sat somewhere - kitchen or living room - but anyway I am hot to write. I start pitching ideas.

Even then, while I had not articulated it to the degree I do now in my writing workshops I was a big believer in the "Quality comes from quantity" principle. So I start pitching ideas. And as I'm pitching ideas for possible sketches, one of the trio was rolling a marijuana cigarette.

Once again I don't remember the details. I don't know who was rolling it, but I remember marveling at the time. "Wow, these guys can get stoned and still write? That's amazing!" I found that if I tried to smoke marijuana and write at the same time it didn't work. My mind would not only go off in too many different directions, I also found that I would often write jokes based on premises so obscure, I would sometimes have to take days before I recall the original idea.

Secondly, it just saps your motivation one hundred percent. Writing jokes is hard. Writing good jokes is damn hard. And getting stone just makes you want to get mellow, lie around and vegetate. Anyway, the joint starts around, people are toking.

And that was virtually the scenario for every writing session we had. And it drove me nuts. They would get one idea and because they were stone, start tweaking on it. And spend three hours on one or two or three jokes. Not three premises or three sketch ideas, but just two or three frigging jokes.

They would start to mull it over and discuss and tweak it and I'm saying, "Just get the ideas down, get the beats down and then go back and put in the missing jokes. Let's write a damn TV show straight through then go back and punch it up."

And they are saying, "Cantu we want this to be our best." And I was reminded about the old joke where the writer tells the producer, "It will take me a month to produce a script that's great." The producer says, "I don't need it great, I need it Friday!" Not that I wanted to produce junk, but I knew television was deadline oriented. Good, bad, or indifferent by a certain time you had to have "X" amount of material to turn in.

I wanted to work as if we really had the job. I wanted to write a show day one, and then polish it in 3- 4 days. And I couldn't get them off the dime. Meet, smoke some dope, write 2-3 jokes. That was it.

And then one day they came to me crestfallen and said, "Cantu, you were right."

I said, "What do you mean?"

"You were right about the way we should have been working. Yesterday, the guy came by the apartment about 8 am with Time, Newsweek and all the daily newspapers and said, "Write your sketches based on these and I will be by at 5:00 pm to pick the material up."

Well, they didn't have an idea of how to proceed. They were dead before they started. Okay, end of story almost. As I wrote earlier, we had no idea we had lost a chance to be part of the original Saturday Night Live staff. We just knew we had lost a television writing opportunity.

It was several years later, however, before I understood what the contact guy had meant when he said, "NBC is looking for a new show. A new hip show that will appeal to younger viewers and will replace Johnny Carson."

I'm a writer with an ear for phrasing and one thing that had consistently bothered me was the way he had phrased what NBC wanted. Carson, the host of the Tonight Show was an icon by then. I was absolutely dumbfounded at hear this. I boggled at the idea of replacing Carson.

Finally after years of bewilderment at what he had meant about replacing Johnny Carson (since obviously Carson stayed on television another 20 years or so) I finally found the answer in the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live.

"Ebersol felt the affiliates' reaction to his smoke-and-mirror show had been 'mild' - meaning noncommittal. They could afford to be. The affiliates knew that NBC had put virtually no effort into its late night time slot on weekends for years, filling it on both Saturdays and Sundays with reruns of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. The affiliates had their choice of airing the reruns either night, but less than half had run them at all, choosing instead to fill the time with their own programs, usually old movies. As a result, Carson's weekend ratings were so negligible that the network's sales department often gave away advertising spots in the show as a free bonus in other deals."

That's what the ". . .replace Johnny Carson . . ." comment meant. Not replace the nightly show, but replace the weekend re-runs of Carson's show. For years I had been convinced that we had been invited to write samples for Saturday Night Live. But that "replace Johnny Carson" statement had always been a wrinkle, I could never quite smooth over in my mind. The paragraph in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live both clarified it for me and verified the full magnitude of the blown opportunity.

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