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Cantu ran the Holy City Zoo comedy club in its heyday when it probably was the most exciting and eccentric comedy club in town. Paul Krassner had me put him in contact with Cantu a few months ago because Krassner's working on a novel that prominently features the Zoo.
And I still have the fond memory of Robin Williams stopping by one night with Eric Idle of Monty Python. Eric Idle asked one of the comedians, "Do you get paid to work here?" and the comic answered, "Yes, we get a percentage of the door." Idle looked shocked and said, "Oh, so they pay you with wood?" Nudge nudge wink wink say no more say no more (if you don't know that Python routine, never mind, but it is one of Nicolina's favorites.)
I ran the open mikes, under Cantu's tutelage, and for a while emceed the shows until I started training other beginning comics to be emcees. Cantu had a unique way of running open mikes. In other comedy clubs, you'd call ahead of time and then have to call to see if you were one of the twenty they would allow on in an evening.
At the Zoo, Cantu had a simpler program: sign up by 8:15, and you were guarantied seven minutes. Everybody who signed up. You might go up at 10 minutes to 2:00 a.m., but you'd get on. So we'd have 30 to 40 comedians coming down Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The other unique thing was that we didn't have a set lineup. My job was to read the audience and set the lineup based on my perceptions (was the audience into intellectual humor? smut? Sound effect comedians?). Plus, the audience would change during the night, so you had to make constant adjustments and really, really have to pay attention to what was working and what wasn't.
You want the job from hell? Be the producer of an open mike where you have to deal with 40 comedians three nights in a row and they're constantly in your face asking, "When am I going on!" and they're all convinced you're sabotaging their career because you didn't give them the most desired spot of the night.
Cantu also insisted that I ask each comedian how he or she wanted to be introduced. With one exception. Nine times out of ten, a first time comic would tell me, "Tell them I'm the funniest person in the world." Which is absolutely the worst way to introduce a new comic. Because the comic is going to bomb - 99.9% of first time comics do - so it doesn't help to build up audience expectations.
Following Cantu's instructions, I'd introduce one as, "The next comic is making his first appearance as a comedian, so please give him a warm welcome." That way, the audience would cut him some slack and not be as ready as I've seen so many people in comedy audiences do, folding their arms and saying, "Okay, comedian, prove yourself! Make me laugh." Paying money to go to a comedy club and demanding, "Force me to enjoy myself!" is as intelligent as getting in bed with someone and saying, "Go ahead! Force me to have an orgasm!"
People are downright loony at times. And I know that's a setup line if anybody wants to come back at me with it. (If you want to tell me how I'm loony . . . hey, I'll get a story out of it. I always do.)
One night a guy from Southern California signed up; I didn't know him. So I asked, "What's your experience?" It's a standard line Cantu had me ask comedians I didn't know, so I could figure out where I was going to put them in the lineup of the show (and there's no way I can express to you how stressful it was putting that lineup together, trying to judge both the comedians and the audience).
He screamed at me, "Are you questioning my experience as a comedian!" I said, "No, I just need to know what you've done so I know where to put you in the show and how to introduce you." He screamed, "I am a professional comedian! I performed in the San Francisco Comedy Competition! I've performed at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles!"
My bullshit alarm went ballistic. I asked him, "Which year did you perform in the Comedy Competition?" It was the first year, when it was considered, no pun intended, a joke, because it was Frank Kidder's idea, and nobody trusted Frank Kidder to do anything right, and virtually anybody who wanted to could perform in it. I then asked, "At the Comedy Store . . . were you booked there, or was it an open mike?" He said, "An open mike."
So when I was setting the opening lineup I went to him and said, "I'm putting you on first." He said, "I don't want to go on first! Put somebody else on to warm up the crowd up for me."
(Going on first in an open mike is instant death. You would do one of two things when running an open mike. If it was a big crowd, you'd put on a relatively strong performer to make it easier for the newcomers you scheduled to follow, and if it was a small crowd, well, you might do the same, but you'd probably put up the newcomers or really bad comics just to get them out of the way. Callous? Hey . . . comedy is not a pretty industry. You want that, go into cosmetics.)
I explained to him, "No . . . I want the show to start off strong, and what better way to do it than to have you lead it off, what with your extensive experience. I want a professional comedian starting the show." I introduced him with, "Our opening comedian is . . . a veteran of the San Francisco Comedy Competition! And . . . he's performed at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles!"
He bombed. Big time. I don't think he got one laugh. It was pretty malicious of me, but he was in my face. And I have this theory about people who yell at you. There are the frustrated people, and then there are the bullies. I will take 9000 pounds of garbage from frustrated people, because I figure, "Hey, if they have to vent, and I'm the one they want to do it on, let them do it, it doesn't cost me anything." I pretend I'm listening and know how to listen in enough to hear the end of a sentence to say, "Oh, yes," and then go back to daydreaming until the next time I have to say, "Yes, you're right."
But bullies, I'm sorry. I'm intelligent; I come from a very outspoken family; I'm a naturally sarcastic person (Nicole's gay friend Timothy said I'm an even bigger cynic than he is); and I'm trained in writing and stand-up comedy. I know every trick in the book. You want to be a bully to me or to someone around me . . . that's good. Because I'll get a story out of it. And you'll get beat up (verbally). I'm not especially proud of it. But I'm not a Quaker. Hell, I'm not even a Christian.
One last note about the Zoo. One night Robin Williams stopped in when I was running the show and asked, "Could I do a set?" I said, "Sure, Robin, I think I can fit you in" and ran over to the side of the stage and told the comedian, "Get off!" He said, "I've only done six minutes!" I said, "Get off the stage or you will be dead!"
Robin did an hour and a half. He was joined halfway through by Michael Pritchard, who Cantu once told me was the most intelligent comic he'd ever met, and they improvised; it was just amazing. Magical. They were still going on at ten minutes to 2:00, when we had to shut the club down or face losing our license, and there was one comedian left on the list who had signed up for the 8:15 "we guaranty you seven minutes" promise. He was a new comedian. I asked him, "Do you still want to perform?" He said, "Yes, I do!"
You want a definition of insanity? Try being any comedian trying to follow Robin Williams. Especially when the minute he gets off the stage at ten minutes to 2:00, the house is going to get up and walk out as you're delivering what you consider your killer 'A' material and your going to be left with maybe five people who didn't hear your first two minutes of material.
But we had guarantied that if you signed up, you could perform, and I had to honor that, and it was my show; Cantu gave me complete authority. So I went to sit by the side of the stage, which was the cue to get off, and of course Pritchard and Robin paid no attention to me - they just thought I wanted a choice seat. So I finally had to say, "Robin . . . Mike . . . you have to get off the stage. We have another performer."
Robin came up to me afterwards and said, "I'm sorry I did so long." I told him, "That's okay, Robin, I won't hold it against you." And, I'm probably the only person who can legitimately claim, "I threw Robin Williams off stage." I know there are better distinctions - like winning a Nobel Prize - but that's the best I can do.
"Krassner's" Cantu note: Krassner is a comedian, was editor and publisher of The Realist (a terrific satire publication), and was editor of Lenny Bruce's biography. Lenny Bruce was a major influential comedian in the US from the 50's.
"Nicolina's" Cantu note: Nicolina is Nicole Bilotti, a comedian in her own right, and Stevens' significant other.
"Frank Kidder" Cantu note: Frank Kidder was the godfather of the 70's and 80's San Francisco Comedy scene - and known for many off-the-wall production ideas such as 'Comedy in the Dark'. Kidder had performers performing in a closed environment with the lights off so people could 'experience comedians the way blind people did'. Creative? Maybe, but the performers he had booked included a magician, a juggler, and a mime.
However, in all fairness, it must be pointed out that, in the long run, the comedy competition did catch on and did have a lot do with putting San Francisco on the map for a place where great comedians could be discovered..
"Magical" Cantu note: At the time Pritchard was as big a comedian in the San Francisco Bay Area as Robin was nationally so, for the audience, it was as if Jay Leno and David Lettermen both dropped in and bantered together on stage.