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Tom Finnigan was a fairly mediocre comedian. It wasn't his material. He just didn't have a lot of stage presence. Cantu knew Finnigan was out of work and had a family to support, so he gave Finnigan a job as the bartender. Which at the Zoo was no big deal, because we only had a beer and wine license, so the hardest thing you might have to do in a night was install a new cask of draft beer.
But Finnigan is absolutely the best comedy writer ever to come out of San Francisco. He soon was writing for tons of comics, because the word got out, if you needed material, call Finnigan. Or let me put it another way. On a whim, he sent two pages of his material to the Tonight Show when Carson was still there, and got hired. So he went from being paid $5 an hour to making $200,000 a year.
Now that is a career leap. Finnigan wrote one of my favorite lines that I heard during my years in comedy: "I was talking to my parents, and they told me my grandmother is upset because she found out I'm doing stand-up comedy. You see, my grandmother had a horrible experience with comedians... she was sexually assaulted by the Three Stooges. A senseless crime. They dragged her in an alley and... threw pies up her dress. To this day, she wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, 'Woob woob woob woob!'"
He also wrote about how his wife was dissatisfied with his sexual performance, and added, "But hey, it's not been so good for me, either, with her. For the last six months, I've been faking an erection."
Anyway, after we closed the Zoo at 2:00 in the morning, to unwind we'd often go to the only restaurant open nearby, the Sugarplum on California Street, which really was just a glorified Dennys. Cantu says that night it was me, him, Finnigan, and Warren Spottswood; I seem to remember Karen Warner being there, which means I'm probably wrong; I'm almost always wrong. At another table was a group of comics. Barry Sobel is the only one I remember (although Stephen Pearl might have been there).
Our table was writers. Writers couldn't stand to be around comedians. (Karen Warner wrote something like, and wrote it much better than I'm going to remember it, "Being a comedy writer means you write brilliant things for comics who can always remember them but can never remember to pay you.") But writers can have a conversation, it could flow, it wouldn't get interrupted. (Michael Robertson at the Chronicle wrote about driving with a bunch of us comedy writers and said, "The surprising thing is that they were polite. They didn't try to one-up each other. They didn't make fun of each other."
That's because we were writers, not comedians. You cannot have a conversation with a comedian. I've written a lot about Robin Williams, and what a good guy he is, but don't try talking with him. It's impossible. Robin is always performing. That's just the way his mind works.)
Our table was talking about comedy writing; the comedians at the other table were being comedians. Finnigan was telling us about a guy who called him to write material for him. Finnigan told us that the guy said, "I hear you're really good, and I need some jokes. (REST EDITED BY REQUEST...)
...which, granted, is a pretty sick joke, but comedy writers write off the wall material. I have two funny jokes I've written that popped off the top of my head that I've told to maybe just five people who would understand that I wasn't trying to be offensive... it's just when you have the training, and someone gives you an opening, you have to write the joke. It's impossible to resist.
So our table was laughing, but because we were having a conversation, and the humor kept building with each story that flowed from the last one. The comics at the other table were laughing, because they were throwing food at each other. Each to his own method of entertainment.
That's the difference between comedy writers and comedians. And why comedians depend so desperately on comedy writers.
One last note about Finnigan. While he was writing for Carson, he told me, "I used to love writing jokes. But now I have to do it everyday, under pressure and deadline. Writing jokes isn't fun for me anymore." He also told me, "The editors reject a lot of the stuff I do, but what they do accept, if 25% of those things I write for Carson's monologue works, I'm satisfied."
That's the brutal reality of comedy. If you can succeed 25% of the time - which would mean you'd be fired on any other job - you feel a sense of accomplishment.
"Cask of draft beer." Cantu notes: Stevens is right. How hard can it be to work in a beer and wine club? And yet Finnigan was the WORST bartender in the history of the 'Zoo'. He constantly kept having drinks returned. People would ask for red wine and he would serve white wine. They would ask for white and he would give them beer. His mind just wasn't in it. But he had a wife and two kids and I couldn't bring myself to fire him.
No one was more happy than me when he got hired by the Tonight Show.
"Barry Sobel" Cantu notes: Jeremy Kramer and Al Clethan Jr. were also there. Not sure of the exact number but I seem to remember eight or nine comedians at the comics' table.
"Michael Robertson" Cantu notes: Robertson was writing about an outing the Comedy/Humor Association went on. Sort of a pilgrimage to see a performance by comedy great Sid Caesar. There were maybe 15 of us.
"Robin is always performing." Cantu notes:Tony DePaul, a close comedian friend of Stevens and myself was much closer to Robin than Don and I. Tony spoke once about being with Robin in Hollywood. They were BSing at Robin's place late one night after a show. And at one point Robin happened to look out the window and saw the moon rising. He said to Tony, "Yonder hangs the moon in the sky like an undescended testicle." And Tony had to say, "Hey - Robin. It's me Tony. Don't do shtick now."
"Writing jokes isn't fun for me anymore." Cantu notes: Finnigan told me once when he first went to Hollywood to write for the Tonight Show about a week a half went by and he hadn't gotten one line on the air.
Ray Siller, the head writer came to him and said, "Hey, Tom we're paying you a lot of money and you're really not producing much."
Finnigan (who had been turning in twelve to fifteen lines daily) said, "Ray, I'm sorry but I'm giving you my best lines." Siller, said "No, Tom, don't give me your best lines each day. Give me fifty lines a each day. I will pick the best."
In my comedy writing classes one of the principles I have always emphasized is that 'Quality comes from quantity."