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

A Few Tricks of the Pros

by John Cantu ©

I saw Woody Allen live at the Circle Star Theater, in San Carlos, California thirty some years ago. I still remember when he pulled out an ornate pocket watch midway through his set.

Holding it lovingly and with reverence he said, "This watch is a family heirloom. On his deathbed (pause) my grandfather (pause) sold me this watch." At the time, I thought what a great joke.

Years later, I read On Woody Allen and Being Funny by Eric Lax and discovered that Allen had used that joke to disguise the fact that he was taking a time-check on his set. He'd pull out the watch at what was supposed to be the midpoint of his act.

Depending in where he was in his monologue, he would immediately know if he had enough material left to finish on time. Or if he would have to have to close with a Q& A session to fill his allotted time.

One night I watched Barry Sobel step onto the stage, set his drink down on a stool, and began his act. After a few seconds, he picked his drink up and continued his monologue. Later he stepped back to the stool, put his drink down, and continued his set.

After a he had delivered a couple of more bits, he picked the drink up again. This erratic pattern continued throughout his set. I intuitively felt there was something going on. I'm sure it was nothing the audience noticed, he was getting good laughs. It was just something that caught my attention.

I watched him do 30 minutes a night for three nights in a row before I realized - he had his notes on a small card that he would set down on the stool at the beginning of his performance along with his drink.

He was using the drink pick-up, set-down drink as a ruse to cover the fact that he was reviewing his notes. I have never seen anyone hide their notes with better subtlety.

Miscellaneous Quick Tips

When rehearsing, talk your material into a tape recorder. Then, when listening to the playback, correct your written notes to match what you said, not vice versa. It'll help you sound more conversational and less formal or stilted.

When using a hand-held mike, if it ever goes dead, drop your hand with the mike to your side immediately. Nothing looks dumber than talking into a non-functioning mike. Every minute or so, tap the mike-head with your index finger. The thunk-thunk will let you know when it's working properly again. Tap mike head softly, so you don't blow out the ears of the audio engineer.

In conjunction with the above, whenever you talk, with or without a mike, always project your voice to the audience member furthest from you and everyone else in between will be able to hear you.

You are more likely to have a lost notebook returned to you if you post an address label on the front with the words: RETURN POSTAGE GUARANTEED. DROP IN ANY MAILBOX. And include a post office address or your work address. (Maybe, I'm overly paranoid, but I'd never put my home address on it.)

In response to the last issue, Don Stevens wrote:

If my memory serves me well, I think Barry Sobel, who was supposedly an Other Cafe regular, somehow got frozen out of their audition. So that's why he (sheepishly) came to the Zoo asking to be part of the Zoo's auditions.

I also think you told him to go home and put on a shirt and TIE. But I could be wrong about that.

(Cantu again:I did vaguely remember saying come back in a shirt and tie. But I wasn't 100% certain about my tie-memory.)

I think the Zoo experience has helped me locally. I believe that my reaction to panhandlers and the lowlife is based on dealing with open mike comics. Once you lose all patience from consistent whining, it's easy to transfer that same attitude to aggressive panhandlers and lowlife and just respond, "No, just f*** you."

So in one sense my comedy experience has been very rewarding and useful.

And one more post from Stevens:

"Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first." -- Mark Twain. But then, I'm kind of biased toward Twain. I never read him until I was 24.

I picked up a used paperback copy of Huckleberry Finn and started reading it at the airport as I was waiting for the flight to move me to California. I smacked myself in the head and thought, "What have you been doing with your life?" Since then, I devour everything I can find by him or about him.

Stevens' second segue: somebody asked Jackie Gleason, "Why do you think The Honeymooners is such a treasured program?" He answered, "Because it was funny." Sometimes that's all it takes.

Cantu notes:

I once read an interview with Bill Cosby who said Mark Twain was a major influence in his humor style.

And in another interview Kurt Vonnegut said:

I would like to say something about American comedians: they are often as brilliant and magical as our best jazz musicians, and they have probably done more to shape my thinking than any writer. When people ask me who my culture heroes are, I express pious gratitude for Mark Twain and James Joyce and so on.

But the truth is that I am a barbarian, whose deepest cultural debts are to Laurel and Hardy, Stoopnagel and Bud, Buster Keaton, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin, Easy Aces, Henry Morgan, and on and on.

They made me hilarious during the Great Depression, and all the lesser depressions after that. When Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding agreed to work on this TV show, I nearly swooned. I would have been less in awe of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

I wrote some of their jokes in this script, and they delivered them gracefully. But they also made up a lot of new stuff, even when the cameras weren't operating, which made me laugh so hard that I thought I would spend the rest of my life wearing a truss.

One of them said this about Stony Stevenson's mother: "She certainly has nice manners for a welfare deadbeat." When they were asked out of the blue what an astronaut's favorite food as out in space, there was no hesitation. The prompt answer was, "Dehydrated artichoke hearts." And so on.

NEXT: Comics and Their Writers: Mistakes Newbies Make