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

Sex In The Holy City Zoo (Part 2)

by John Cantu ©

As I mentioned, the first component of the Holy City Zoo/San Francisco comedy scene was cooperation and that pretty much was the mode for the first couple of years. Oh, there were occasional tiffs and petty grievances, but by and large the early days were one of cooperation and support.

Of course that is always the case the at beginning of anything: Basketball developed from a soccer ball being thrown at peach baskets. The phenomena of "Frisbee" came from people tossing pie tins. A computer in virtually every home came from Wozniak building a computer in a garage . . .

At the start of a movement, people do it for the love of it and there is nothing at stake.

You had comics finding clubs and inviting other comics just to have enough performers to fill the time. We were performers doing it for the sheer enjoyment. We were comedians - what other rewards do you want besides laugher?

Money - fame? We were performing in a 70-seat room that served only beer and wine for Pete's sake.

It's an axiom of all motivation speakers that what you focus on most of the time is what you will get - which is why most comedians die broke. Because they focus on getting laughs most of the time. But money people focus on getting money most of the time.

After a couple of years, we started getting people involved in the comedy scene who weren't comedy people, but who were money people. I was producing, but not because I wanted to make money or be a producer, but because someone had to do it.

(One of the standard laugh lines in my talks: "I have been a cartoon writer, a comedy columnist, a sketch writer, an improv actor, an improv teacher, a comedian, a comedy coach, a comedy club producer, a comedy club owner, a local comedy radio show host and producer, a local comedy television show producer - - I've done just about everything you can do in comedy - except make money!")

But other non-comedy folk simply saw comedy as a way to fill a room - as way to make money. So the dynamics started to change in '77 - '78 and finally by the late eighties when Karoke hit, they couldn't dropkick the comedians out of their clubs fast enough.

In the late 70s the suits came. And what was worse was these non-comedy morons started making creative decisions. They felt qualified to tell comics who was and was not talented.

"You're funny come back next week."

"You're not funny - don't come back until you are."

These Johnny-come-latelies had never stood on stage for 30 seconds let alone five, ten, fifteen, or more agonizing minutes in sweat and pain trying to make a dull audience laugh. But suddenly THEY were the arbiters of talent.

But at the Zoo you had a club being run by comedians for comedians - run by Tony DePaul and by me when he was out of town. (Although by then, I was much more involved in the writing and teaching of comedy than performing. But I actually understood the dynamics of comedy from being on stage not watching from offstage.)

In other words, the Zoo was the only long-running club run by people with real comedy experience and who had an appreciation for comedy. Tony and I had enough experience with how damn difficult it was, to know better than to make pompous value judgements about others.

I remember a comedy team that would come around sporadically to perform. They were on stage one night and Tony whispered, "You know Cantu they don't make me laugh, but they get up - - - and they make the audience laugh." (Note - this was an obscure team - whose name is lost to posterity and is not a veiled reference to any of the well-known comedy teams that came through the Zoo.)

But in all that has been written about the Zoo and the magic of the club, virtually no one has ever really picked up on the real secret to its popularity in the seventies and early eighties. When all is said and done, comedy aside, the Zoo was simply one of the best singles-bar pick up joints in the city.

Both Tony and I are heterosexual and back then we were young and single. So we would have a break every hour, "So the waitress can take your drink orders." In reality, it gave Tony and me a ten minute break every hour to make pitches.

You would note the babes who caught your eye, and during the break, you could approach them and chat a bit. "How's the show?" "How did you hear about us?" etc. And of course, do the most important task of pitching: Ask for the sale.

"So how would you like to hang out with me and the comics afterwards and have some wine, laughs, and fun?" (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.)

In the beginning, the breaks were taken so a couple of guys had time to try to get an after-show date with one of the audience hotties. But that ten minute break also evolved into an opportunity for all audience members to chat a bit about the show. And if there was a connection, great. And if not, well, it was only ten minutes and not the hours and hours one spent in a singles bar until one or both realizes the conversation is going nowhere, but neither wants to be the one to get up and walk away.

So, at the Zoo if you connected fine. But if you didn't and you were a guy, you didn't feel like a jerk because you didn't have to cross the room in plain view and slink back to your seat after being rejected.

Here you were coming for entertainment. And you got it. And if you happened to "meet" someone that was bonus entertainment. It wasn't like a meat market where you went home alone and felt like a loser for striking out.

But here's the major reason the Zoo was so popular for so long. Women in San Francisco have been know to frequently complain about difficult it is to find a heterosexual male in the City. But the Holy City Zoo was an exception to that problem.

It was listening to what women said that made me aware of the real draw of the club. There were two women specifically who first made me aware of the pick-up aspect. One said, "Cantu, when I'm feeling down or depress or unattractive, I just come to the Zoo. Walking through the door is like walking into a wall of testosterone."

The second was a nurse I picked up late one night. I had been striking out all evening and she walked in about 11:40 pm. We hit it off and afterward we were talking and I mentioned how it was unusual that she had gotten there so late.

And she said, "No, I work at the French Hospital at Fifth and Geary and we nurses get off around 11:30. And we all know this is one of the few clubs that you can go to at that hour and still find guys who are not losers and are still sober." Of course there were sober males hanging around. They were hanging around because they were either waiting to do a set or maybe waiting to see a comedian friend do a set.

After that, I noticed a pattern. Unlike most clubs where the males in the audiences would tend to outnumber the women. I noticed very quickly that we were averaging a 60%-40% female to male ratio. And I had never quite noticed the little influx of females who worked swing shift jobs and would stop in for a drink and laughs on the way home from work after 11:00 pm.

I didn't realize it at first. I had been thinking of the Zoo strictly as a comedy club. Thinking that people came for solely for comedy. But from then on, I was acutely aware of how many people were stopping in for a few laughs and how many more were stopping in hoping for what the British colloquially refer to as "a slap and a tickle."

Cantu notes:

Modesty prohibits me from divulging more.

NEXT: The Third Vital Factor That Made it Possible for the Zoo to Flourish - Cantu (Part 3)