Work in the Humor Place

Some Hot Get-Ahead Tips for Speakers, Comedians, Humorists and anyone interested in Comedy History from John Cantu

John Cantu is a comedy legend and was producer at the famous Holy City Zoo in San Francisco from 1975 to 1981 and co-owner from 1979-1981. He told me how the comedy club got its name and how the philosophy of a young comic can help any of us achieve maximum success. Although these events happened many years ago they are part of the comedy history of the super stars of today. There are lessons for life and all performing. Hope you enjoy reading of my conversations with Cantu.

“The Holy City Zoo,” he told me, “is the only comedy club named for a municipal institution. Before the club opened, the owner saw a poster about a café bankruptcy sale in the Santa Cruz mountains. He followed the map to Holy City and found the zoo where he bought the redwood tables and chairs from the out-of-business zoo café. Then he realized that he’d spent his entire decorating budget and still didn’t have a sign for his new club. The seller was eager not to lose the sale. ‘We won’t be needing this,’ he said, and gave him the zoo sign. That’s how the club got its name.

“When we opened, I was just like you. You start doing business, confident that although no one knows you, you’ll be recognized as soon as everyone sees how creative, industrious, and inventive you are. So you wait. And wait. What I’ve learned in the comedy club business and in life is just how long it takes for talent to be recognized.

“The Holy City Zoo was an incubator for many future stars. For example, it was amazing what people said about one young comedian: ‘He’s not too bad. Some of his jokes are actually funny.’ (It helps if some of the audience thinks your acts are actually funny.) ‘What was that new act?’ they’d say. ‘The maniac with the girl’s name? That Robin Wilson-somebody?’ Robin Williams talked and moved so fast that it took awhile for audiences to understand him. That’s true of all of us. It takes time for others to get to know us and to find out what we’re all about.

“Especially if we do things differently than people are used to. Once this new guy walked out on stage, and I thought, ‘This fellows going to have a hard time.’ Number one, his stage persona didn’t strike me as being marketable. Number two; his stage name would be a disadvantage among Midwestern religious conservatives. ‘He’s not going to make it,’ I decided. The audience was polite but not enthusiastic–until they got to know him. It was ‘Father Guido Sarducci,’ played by Don Novello. I was used to stand-up comedians in suits and ties, so I was blind to the potential of a different type. Don Novello was so talented that he was soon on the Smothers Brothers and Saturday Night Live TV shows.

“Talent in the raw isn’t always easy to spot. Another act that I failed to appreciate was a young comedienne. She had flopped at The Boarding House, a major room that launched a lot of musical acts. I ran a comedy room downstairs. The owner told me, “I’ve got this new act upstairs who’s not doing well. Why don’t you try her?” Her lack of success didn’t bother me because an audience coming for the music might not be in tune with the comedy. However, she was so bad that some people asked for their money back. She didn’t tell jokes, just stories about her life. She let the audience find the humor themselves. Years later, when I saw her rave-reviewed performance in King of Comedy, I realized how brilliant Sandra Bernhard was.(The film came out in 1983)

“One night at the Boarding House, I saw the beginning of a success story with a real moral. It was tryout night, and the last act was getting ready to go on. He was typical of the hundreds of comedian wannabees. He hated his day job, and his friends had all told him he was so funny that he should go on stage. ‘In a few months, you’ll be on Saturday Night Live!’ they said. Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. Usually.

“A year earlier, this young man, Tom Finnegan, had tried out for the Holy City Zoo and flopped. Now he was trying again. Practically no one was there, but I resolved to give him a fair hearing. Some beginners, facing an empty house, decide not to go on. Others get up and read me the riot act for not providing them with a huge audience.

“Instead, this guy walked on and presented his material as if there were a thousand people out front. His first story was about being robbed by a New Age mugger who threatened him with a Perrier bottle if he didn’t assume the lotus position. ‘Wow, this guy’s material is really fresh,’ I thought. It was some of the funniest stuff I’d heard in months.

“I had been hoping to leave that evening with a beautiful brunette at my table, but I realized I needed to take care of business. I gave her a bus token to get home and dragged Tom Finnegan right over to the Holy City Zoo. A bunch of comedians were standing around outside,including Michael Pritchard, Paula Poundstone, Dana Carvey, and Rob Schneider. I told them to come in and watch this guy. Because Tom Finnegan had been willing to get up and do the best he could with what he had, he was now performing in front of well-known comedians with many years of experience. A few months later he was writing for many of those comedians. That would be a good ending to the story, but, like the Ginsu commercial, there’s even more.

“Through his new clients, he quickly connected with and was hired as a writer by the Tonight Show. One day, he got up in front of an empty house and did his best, and a few months later, people were laughing at his jokes on national TV.”

John Cantu is a professional humor coach/writer/consultant and professional speaker. You can find him at his Humor Mall Website: