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One night after I had started running the open mikes and had gained some respect, a bunch of comics and I were standing outside the Zoo just relaxing after a long evening...by Don Stevens ©2000
The Zoo was a dark, dingy and smoke filled little room with no windows, and it stunk of beer that had been spilled over the years and which soaked into the wooden floor. Cantu would schedule only five comics at a time of the 40 signed up, because he simply did not know what the audience wanted, and as I've said, it would change drastically during the night as people left and others came in - which is the job I eventually took over from him.
But before I did that and one set of five comics was set, I would go across the street with Danny to a bar that was well lit and had huge windows. That's where I met my ex-wife, Linda; she was a waitress there. I told Danny, "God, she's gorgeous." Danny, always being the supportive friend, told me, "Forget it. There's no way she'd ever lower herself to go out with you." (For once, he was wrong.)
Once I started dating Linda and hanging out there more, I got to know everybody who worked there. The owner, a Persian named "Charly" made it a point of hiring only women, and only beautiful women. One was named Barbara, and she was very sweet, but a total space cadet. But to her credit, she knew it. She once told me, "I'm not very bright, but at least I'm cute. That helps make up for it."
One night after I had started running the open mikes and had gained some respect, a bunch of comics and I were standing outside the Zoo just relaxing after a long evening, and I saw Barbara leave the bar, get into her car, back out without looking (I said she was a space cadet) and smack into a car driving up Clement Street. I told the comics, "I have to check into this!"
There were two guys in the car who got out to inspect the damage. By the time I got there, the one guy, a big black guy, was telling Barbara, "There's no damage, but you did hit us, so before you can go, you have to kiss me." (Car bumping forced-kissing - now there was a new concept.) I told Barbara, "Don't listen to this loser. Just drive off." The guy screamed, "I want her to kiss me!" (And I can't blame him - I would have loved to kiss Barbara.) I said to him, "Would you just shut up! She's not going to kiss you!"
So, being a reasonable guy, he attacked me. The problem was, he was the worst street fighter in the world - probably even worse than me. He kept swinging at me, but I just held up my arms parallel to my face in defense and all he could manage to do was hit them - which isn't exactly pleasant, but it is a lot better than getting your face bashed in.
His friend, a white guy, ran over and pulled him off me and then calmed him down. He came back to me and said, "I'm really sorry about my friend! It's just that he's drunk!" I said, "Good! Barbara, you can leave. Just go." He said, "I'm trying to tell you I'm sorry about my friend!" I said, "That's all very fine and good, but just go away. Barbara, drive away." He said, "Oh, so you're a real smart guy, aren't you." I said, "Yeah, I'm goddamn Einstein. Barbara [you bloody space cadet], drive away." He screamed, "Okay, smart guy!"
That's when the pacifist part of the pair of them beat the hell of me. The first guy probably need to look up "punch" in the encyclopedia to get a better idea how to do it. But this guy knew how to punch - quickly and with precision. He didn't bother punching me in the head - I guess he didn't want to risk making me any stupider than I already had proven myself to be, but he pounded my ribs, midsection, and sides.
The 15 or so comedians standing outside of the Zoo were watching me getting beaten to a pulp and their reaction was, "I've written three new jokes I think I'll try out tomorrow. Something's going on over there but wait, there was that fourth joke maybe I should do."
The only comedian to try to do anything - kind of - was Kevin Meaney. He ran over to within about 30 feet and screamed, "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" Which in terms of defense was about as effective as the Maginot line was against the Germans. But I finally managed to break away and run back to the front of the Zoo.
It's hard to explain Kevin Meaney and his humor. The best I can do is "intelligently bizarre." (Part of his act once featured him ironing peaches. I don't want to try to explain.) But he's done several HBO specials, so check them out if you notice they're repeating them.
But after I got beat up, that's when the fun began. A police car was driving by and Kevin Meaney ran out into the street and forced them to stop. The two cops got out and Kevin started pacing around, and then said, pointing to me, "Officers! Officers! This man was brutally assaulted by a couple of thugs! I want them caught! I want them apprehended! And I want the full force of the law thrown against them!"
I was in a tremendous amount of pain, but Kevin was being so absurd, I burst out laughing. So you have two policemen dealing with Kevin Meaney and seeing the victim laughing, and they just rolled their eyes as if to say, "Why does part of our beat have be where comedians hang out?"
One last thing about getting beat up... Steven Pearl, a very brilliant Jewish comic who wasn't there that night, came up to me a couple of days later and said, "I heard you got really beat up." I said, "Yeah, the black guy couldn't punch at all... but the white guy, who I think was Jewish, he beat the hell out of me." I only made up the "Jewish" because I was talking to Pearl. He said, "No, no, no, there is no way he was a Jew! Jews don't fight with their fists! Do you know how Jews fight? They say, 'You'll hear from my lawyer!'"
Like I've said, I never like getting pounded to the point where I'm ready to black out, but the pain subsided after a couple of weeks, and I got a story out of it. And Barbara thought I was pretty cool for defending her, and it never hurts to have a really cute babe owe you one.
"it stunk of beer" Cantu notes:
If you have never been to the Holy City Zoo there is simply no way to contrast the drab dinginess of the club with the quality of talent. There was a spot just inside the door about two foot in diameter that had an absolutely WRETCHEDLY foul smell! We simply could not get rid of it. I called in an expert for a recommendation and he could only suggested tearing out the entire floor and having it rebuilt.
The cost of tearing out the entire floor was prohibitive. We kept the stink. People put up with it because of the extraordinarily quality of comedy.
Cantu notes: "Danny" A great friend of Stevens and someone with connections to people. "Someone giving you a hard time, Stevens? I've got some friends who maybe could take him for a ride and straighten him out, if you want." Danny has been and will be a reoccurring character in these essays.
"Kevin Meaney" Cantu notes: My comments have nothing specific to do with Stevens' comments regarding Kevin, but Meaney was also one of my favorite performers from the first time I saw him. There is expression in the comedy world about the difference between a comic and comedian: "A comic says funny things, a comedian say things funny." I immediately felt Meaney was very funny comedian. He essentially had no jokes. As Stevens has written it is hard to describe what he does.
More established comedians were miffed when I started giving Meaney better slots very quickly. Even my partner, Susan Cerce, was baffled by my enchantment with him. "Hey Cantu, Meaney doesn't do jokes. He just gets up on stage and talks goofy about his family, and does impersonations of famous people's dogs, and things." But I knew he was not a joke a comedian per se, but rather was as much funny because of his attitude towards life. I used to tell my established comedian friends, "Meaney could read the phone book and make it funny."
The lesson here is be funny your way. Don't look at other comics and try to figure out what is hot or what works and then try to do your version of that, "Oh Gallagher and Carrot Top both use props and they are hot. I will use props." Or "Dave Letterman and Jay Leno, do topical stuff. I will do topical stuff." etc. No. Use props ONLY if you like props. Do topical stuff only if you like topical stuff. First things first. Start with your natural sense of what's funny and build from there.
When I started performing I made the disastrous mistake of essentially mimicking three comics that I found funny as heck: Jackie Vernon, Stanley Myron Handleman, and Woody Allen and as I say, "I went from terrible to mediocre. "I had so ingrained myself with their offbeat style, that I unknowingly buried my own style.
It took me about twenty years to recover from that mistake. Today, I do John Cantu. I feel my lines from my point of view are probably three times less funny than any of the lines of these three comics whom I idolize - - - BUT - - - I now get three times the laughs that I used to get. People aren't comparing me to any of the three, they are simply responding to me.
I have really only come into my own as a comedian in the past five years and I'm 52 now. So the second lesson here is never give up. Phyllis Diller was 36 when she started performing. Rodney Dangerfield didn't hit until he was in his forties. And after Redd Foxx hit with "Sanford and Son" he used to say "Man, let me tell you the first 40 years are the hardest!"
"Steven Pearl" Cantu notes: Pearl wrote what I think was one of the best ever drunk-heckler put downs of all times (and years later I saw it attributed to him and published in L. M. Boyd's "Grab Bag" column.) Once when being heckled by a drunk who was being more incoherent than funny, Pearl snapped, "Out of 50,000,000 sperm, it's hard to imagine you were the fastest!"