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There was an older man whose name escapes me who would come down to sign up for the open mikes. I think he may have been retired, he had a heart attack, and I seem to remember that he had a fairly long drive.
He simply was not that good of a comedian; not embarrassing, but not that good. During the three nights a week we did the open mikes when I was running them, I had to deal with probably 100 different comedians each week (and probably around 200 over the course of a month).
I always reserved the prime slots - 10:00 to midnight - for the drop-in comics who didn't need to sign up, like Kevin Meany and Billy Jaye or Mike Pritchard... The most important thing was keeping the crowd which had built up (we had no cover charge) so they would drink, as that was our only source of revenue on those nights.
It was a Catch-22 situation. We could have used the door charge, but if you charge people even $2 for an open mike and you never know how the show's going to go, they get annoyed when it's bad, and they either leave or sit there very, very angry and really give the new comics hell, who can't help it that they're inexperienced. So we didn't charge. Plus, you got a bigger crowd when there was no door charge, and they knew they could wander in at any time, and that always helped the comics to have a bigger crowd.
Pritchard (who blew away the competition for the SF Comedy Competition one year to win, and has the distinction of opening for the Pope during the Mass at Candlestick) knew he could waltz in at anytime, and I'd put him on around 11:00. And he'd do about 45 minutes and we'd sell a lot of drinks. I always tried to alternate. If I put a comic up late (after midnight) one time, the next time I would try to put him up early before the professionals came in.
I made an exception with the older man. I'd always put him up at either the end of the first set (when the audience had built up to a decent size and was warmed up) or the beginning of the second set (after the first set had closed with a fairly strong beginning comic). I had never made him stay past 10:00.
But one night, we had a good size crowd, but they were probably one of the toughest crowds I had ever seen. I figured that out right away. And I wanted to keep them. So instead of going to the amateurs, I scheduled the more experienced and funnier comics and told them, "Do as long as you want." I couldn't afford to put up the older guy with weak material with that crowd. He would have bombed. We would have lost customers.
He came up to me at midnight and screamed, "When am I going on!" I said, "I don't know... I've got to put up the strongest comics I have right now." He screamed, "You bastard! I brought down my wife and six friends and you purposely wait until after midnight to even consider when you're going to put me on to give me a bad spot so I'll bomb and embarrass me in front of them!"
I had not known his wife and friends were in the room. But that's the typical comedian egocentric mentality. "The other 40 comics? They don't matter! The club surviving? It doesn't matter! Cater to me! Serve my needs! Why are you sabotaging my career! Be telepathic and read my mind!"
Cantu was, in essence, performing a service for amateur comics by running the open mikes. As I mentioned, they were guarantied 5 to 7 minutes. He did it because he loved comedy, he loved teaching it, and he loved coaching them. Billy Farley told me, "Nobody... nobody is better at helping comics than Cantu. Everybody went to him for advice."
Cantu could have done what the only two other comedy clubs in town back then did - make you call in and schedule only 20, and allowing maybe five ringers up, but he wanted to give everybody, anybody a chance to perform if they wanted to subject themselves to it. One guy got a spot in a commercial - he probably made all of about $300 - and told Cantu, "I am now a professional. So from now on, I won't perform here unless I make $300 a night."
Back then, if the headliner got $300 a night on our weekend shows, where we charged about $7 to get in - that was respectable. Well, that was one guy who never performed at the Holy City Zoo again, and I sure didn't miss him. I always survive being called a bastard, but there are better ways to make your day.
Kurtz's material was brainless, vulgar and crude. I don't particularly like comics, but Perry Kurtz was the only one I found disgusting. One night when I had to put him up because he had signed up, it was so revolting, and he was getting no laughs, I had to go up to the office because I couldn't take it anymore. He didn't get a single laugh.
He finally finished with his signature closing joke, which I still can't understand why anybody would laugh at it, because it was in graphically bad taste, but it did get laughs, and it did that night.
He came up to the office. Beaming. In joy. He said to me, "They loved me!" and absolutely believing it. He had gotten one laugh in seven minutes. And to his mind, he killed.
I have written how after a show we would go to the Sugarplum to unwind. I went there one night with Karen Warner, a very good comedy writer (much better than me) who worked at the Zoo. We were talking about the night's show and projects we were working on, and Perry Kurtz walked in and sat at our table.
I'd say something to Karen - and Perry would make a stupid joke that had the most infinitesimal bearing on the subject. Karen and I would sigh, and then she would say something to resume the conversation, and Perry would make another unfunny joke. This went on for about 5 minutes, and I finally snapped. I held up a spoon in front of Perry's face as if it were a microphone and said in my most sarcastic voice - and I've honed it pretty well - "Perry? Karen and I have just sat through 5 and a half hours of jokes. Why don't you just tell us some more jokes?"
He said, "Great!" And did about 5 more minutes of his act we suffered through trying to finish our coffee so we could get the hell out of there. I was going to write about Jim Edwards, but this is getting too long; nobody needs to read the Encyclopedia Stevensinicus.
However, the Jim Edwards story is my favorite story about being attacked (verbally) by a comedian. Now that I think of it, the next time someone calls me a bastard (it happens to me not infrequently), I think I'm going to say, "I am not a bastard! It's just that I was cloned!" That should confuse him enough that I can escape. It's what I've written - say the unexpected, and you can pretty much get away with damn near anything.
"heart attack " Cantu note: He was 65+ and did have a heart attack once during a stand-up workshop I was running. I also particularly remember him because one day he came to my workshop and during our mid-session break he handed me a paper bag and said, "I found this on the street. I thought maybe you'd know what to do with it." I was shocked to discover it was about one-quarter full of white powder. Man did I get excited for a short while (this was 1978-1979 and drug usage hadn't become the scourge it has become today). Had it been cocaine, - it would have been worth a few thousand dollars. It turned out just to be crank (amphetamine) and was worth only a few hundred.
"Kevin Meany and Billy Jaye or Mike Pritchard" Cantu note: The fantastic thing about the 'Zoo' was that professional comedians would be booked at another club for money and as soon as they were done, they would immediately head over to the 'Zoo' to hang out and do a guest set for free. Simply amazing. Glorious times!
"Billy Farley" Cantu note: Billy Farley was the winner of the First International San Francisco Comedy Competition. First runner up was Robin Williams.
"Nicole" Cantu note: Nicole Bilotti, a comedian in her own right, and Stevens' significant other.
"act" Cantu note: I asked Stevens to write out one of my favorite bits of his,' The Texastentialist!' so you could have a taste of Stevens' wit. He comments, "I found this usually worked better when it came completely out of the blue, after a long (thoughtful) pause following a big laugh on a completely different topic."
"Aren't you glad the French settled in Louisiana? We got Mardi Gras, cajun music, creole food... but aren't you equally glad they didn't go further west, into Texas?
The cultures just would not mix.
We'd have ten-gallon Stetson berets, "Remember the a la mode!", which is just stupid... and I think we'd have something like this: "He was a combination of Lone Star macho!... and French philosophical despair. Jean-Paul Buchanan is... The Texastentialist!"
Woo-oo-eee! I love ridin' horses, beatin' up faggots, and chug-a-luggin' six-packs of Bordeaux!... Because life [PRONOUNCED SORT OF LIKE "lie-ife"] is absurd!"
One additional Cantu side-note on an interesting aspect of humor - this bit is a good example of stuff that sounds funny, yet doesn't necessarily read well. While this bit was ALWAYS well received in the clubs, I fear some may read this and balk at the phrase "beatin' up faggots'. But when you heard Stevens deliver it, you realized it was an exquisite satire on mindless bigotry.
"signature closing joke" Cantu note: I'll try to be delicate but essentially it was about how you judge the size of a man's sexual organ and with Kurtz's convoluted premise, the tagline had to do with '...it all depends on how big an a-----e you are."
"Karen Warner" Cantu note: She worked for a while at the 'Zoo' as a bartender and later wrote "The Bartender's Joke Book" but that was years later and not connected with the 'Zoo, and I think it is still in print. She also wrote "What's So Funny About Being Catholic?"
Cantu note: The Edwards essay here.