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

A Comedy Club and a Comedy Club Show - What's the Reality?

by John Cantu ©

So, I'm the new manager of the Holy City Zoo: tenth grade drop out, an army vet, and holder of a series of dead-end jobs one after another while trying to succeed as a comedy writer. But I did have an awareness of a couple of leadership principles that I had learned in the army.

From time to time, both in the states and when I was in Vietnam, we'd get a new commander. Each commander would take one of two general approaches. One would come in, leave the status quo alone, and then after two weeks or maybe even a month he'd start making changes.

By then we were used to him as a leader and while the changes might have generated some under-the-breath grumbling, there was usually little resistance.

The other type of officer would take command and within 24 hours - change many of our standard protocol and procedures and expect us to accept the changes unflinchingly because by God, he was the commander and that was the way things would be from then on.

I had never heard of the concept of positional power versus personal power, but I realized (without having terminology for it) that personal power was ALWAYS the better one.

I was a company clerk. And I was so VERY busy. And when a yahoo commander made changes right off the bat, I had to do things in a hurry. And doing things that were new and unfamiliar to me, oh, gee, things seemed to get misfiled, misplaced, or sent off without all the required signatures and/or incomplete information.

So, I learned very quickly, that low-level grunts can screw you sixty ways to Sunday. If you piss them off and they are more familiar with the terrain than you, they can readily cover their tracks. No matter how powerful and full of yourself you are, you never really fully know the situation.

I also discovered another aspect of power. Every organization has its own "Deep Throat." He or she is not necessarily the most well placed in terms of position and/or power, but they have the uncanny knack of either always being in the loop or always being able to get info from someone who is in the loop.

Kowalski, was the guy in my first company that always knew everything that was going. Everything. The guy was always plugged into the latest info. So I hung around Kowalski until we finally became friends. Then I asked, "How do you do it - always have the inside info?"

Like most things, it was simple, but not easy. He said, simple, "People talk, I listen. But then after the conversation, I never talk. So people get comfortable with me. They know I'm not a blabber mouth."

I said, "What do you mean you never talk? People always come to you for advice and to get the scuttle butt." He said, "Yeah, but I never drop anything until there is at least a couple of other sources talking. Then I just confirm what they've heard elsewhere. Since I'm simply someone who confirms, and often confirms only with a shrug, a nod, or even just silence to certain questions, people don't think of me as a blabbermouth, which I'm not. So - people keep talking to me."

From then on, I made it point to find the Kowalski (the Deep Throat) in every organization I was involved in. And I tried as quickly possible to become a Kowalski myself in every organization I got involved with. And in the beginning days of San Francisco comedy in the 70s I was more or less the comedy community "Kowalski."

But when I took over as bar manager in 1978 what I needed to know was what was the business status then and there.

Today in the 2002, I listen daily to a set of motivation tapes by Brian Tracy. On one he said, Jack Welch, the legendary manager of GE, used to start every meeting with "What's the reality?"

And I thought, yes that has been my modus operandi for all my life. One thing I have learned - the world IS the way it is. Not the way it should be, could be, or ought to be, but simply the way it IS. And you can't change, or affect, or modify anything until you first understand the way it is.

In the case of the Zoo I knew intimately what comedians did and thought and felt.

But what I needed to know was what did each employee really do and think and feel?


What does each customer really experience?

Then I could make decisions. That seems like common sense, but I can't tell you how many MBA bosses I have had during my series of dead end jobs that gave mindless orders without evincing an ounce of common sense.

So that was my first objective when I became manager of The Zoo - discover the reality.

I did not write a mission statement, "We will be the favorite comedians' club in the San Francisco Bay Area." I did not write a goal such as "Within 12 months we will increase our attendance by X% revenue by Y% and our profits by Z%."

No, I began asking people - Why? "Why is it done that way and do you have any ideas on how to do anything better?"

And I had never read any books on internal and eternal customers. I simply sat down one day and thought about the different ways a person could relate to the Zoo other than being a comedian. You could work there (be an employee), hangout there (be a wanna be comedian, or be a boyfriend, girlfriend, or best bud of a comedian), or an audience member.

So I started asking members of the various subsets. Oh, the answers I got were a shock. And they forced me to make a choice and to paraphrase Robert Frost, "Taking the road less traveled has made all the difference."

The bartender said, "Well, Cantu you know if we just did . . . " And he had several ideas that made great sense. But I am not one to rush into things. So I said, "Thanks for the input. I'll think over what you said."

The same thing happened with the waitress. She also had several great ideas that made great sense. Then I asked some of the hangers-on, and I asked one of the regular customers and after the second or third show, I queried a newbie. And all had great suggestions.

But as I said, I was shocked. I was looking for ways to make the Zoo and the show better. But what I got from the bartender were several great ways that would make his job easier and increase his tips, but at the expense of the waitress having to work harder and possibly make fewer tips.

And vice versa with the advice from the waitress. Several great ways that would make her job easier and increase her tips, but at the expense of the bartender having to work harder and possibly make fewer tips.

Same with the advice from the comedians - would have made the show better for them, but less money for the club and the wait staff.

And the audience members wanted the show designed to cater more to them.

Many suggestions - and not a clue on which to implement and which to abandon. Now most other clubs and venues that were doing comedy tried to build their shows around the comedy and the performers.

But I thought and thought and suddenly I had an epiphany. I asked myself, "Where's the money?" Damn sure wasn't with the comedians. It was in the pockets of the customers!

And from then, all I have ever listened to are customers. In any case of conflict, I would support the customer hands down over any comedian - assuming the customer was not a stupid or obnoxious drunk.

Stupid and/or obnoxious drunks were tossed out without fanfare. But having a comedy club and not focusing on the comedy was the road less traveled and that made all the difference.

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 2)