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Sound effects - and sound advice - for teen-agers. Michael Pritchard teaches kids `the power of choice' with humor

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 1988

Newton, Mass.

``The closest distance between two human beings is a good laugh,'' says Michael Pritchard. But to his teen-age audiences he offers more than just laughs.

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His flamboyant sound effects and hilarious facial expressions make him a show-stopping comedian in the vein of Jonathan Winters.

Mr. Pritchard's stage presence surges with warmhearted humanity as well as humor. His years of experience in social work are brought to bear in helping young people learn to make wise choices.

``The Power of Choice'' is his topic as he tours high schools in 22 cities around the United States. Segments of his ``shows'' will air this fall as a 10-part television series on public broadcasting stations.

At the heart of the series will be the open discussions he leads with small groups of students, for which his stand-up comedy serves as warm-up.

His talent for mimicry is his prime teaching tool - developed not on stage, but in reaching out to troubled youths at San Francisco's Juvenile Hall.

Pritchard introduces a repertoire of many memorable caricatures, such as a young tough he worked with at Juvenile Hall:

``You're always telling me what to do! I'm sick of being told what to do. I'm going to leave here and join the Marine Corps!''

Pritchard mimics the rage of this youth so forcefully that it takes the young audience a moment before the joke sinks in.

With masterly control of the emotional thermostat in the assembly hall of Newton North High School near Boston, Pritchard shifts to a more contemplative climate:

``All of life is a choice. You guys are faced with so many choices. The important thing is knowing what you value; knowing what you believe. It's not up to me or anybody else to tell you what to believe.

``Be the hero of your own movie.

``People are going to pressure you to do this or that, but you can say to yourself, `That's not me! In my movie I don't do that.'''

This core of his message is the same in all the high schools that Pritchard tours in the process of filming.

But at each school, he works intimately with a group of students on a number of more specific topics, such as drugs, sex, self-esteem, or drinking and driving.

``Boy, are they honest!'' Pritchard observes. Young people open up about their lives in spite of the TV cameras rolling. What comes out in this group of 16 kids is ``a living history book of the 1980s,'' he says.

``I tell them they can make a difference in millions of lives.''

The focus of discussion is on communicating with parents. With most of the tour now behind him, Pritchard says he knows the needs young people have:

``What kids in America want today more than anything else is to spend more time with their moms and dads, and to know that their moms and dads want to spend time with them.''

And here Pritchard, a Roman Catholic, quotes Mother Teresa, ```They're suffering from malnutrition of the spirit.'''

Pritchard feeds teens with stories both comic and touching, drawn from his own family and professional experience. One example he delights in recounting to them is a rite of passage with the lawn mower.