``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.
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.
``I was the youngest of four BIG `mutant' boys,'' he begins. ``I was as big as they were, but I had never been allowed to use the family lawn mower. The Power Mower. The POWER Mower....''
Desperate to prove he is no longer ``baby,'' he pleads with his mother:
``Mom, I know you're afraid I can't handle this, but I'm 14 years old! I'm growing up, and I'm ready to do this.''
His mother reluctantly agrees, and he is ecstatic.
``I ... am a MAN!'' he exclaims, only to find that now he is expected to be the family's permanent groundskeeper. And Pritchard doesn't forget the moral:
``When you want your parents to let you do something, you've got to let them know you understand that they have fears. And you've got to let them know you're growing up and can do it.''
The television series, which developed from an hour-long ``Power of Choice'' show that appeared last fall, will air this coming October and November. The shows are underwritten by Nestl'e and produced by Elkind and Sweet Communications.
``To get through to today's kids, you have to entertain at the same time,'' Pritchard remarks.
And he practices what he preaches.
``What's great is when you look at 1,000 kids in a high school auditorium, and none are fidgeting. It's because you're telling them the truth, and they know it. Kids are the best in the world at detecting a fake.''
While the TV series promises to be successful, Pritchard is modest about his own career goals.
``What I want to do after this is to spend about a month with my family. I regenerate with my kids.''
He and his wife, Mary Joe, have two boys and a baby girl. ``I've always loved kids,'' he says.
Pritchard didn't start out as a comedian. And although he's done voice-overs for ``Sesame Street'' and the Ewoks in the last ``Star Wars'' movie, he still considers himself first and foremost a social worker.
In his home state of Missouri, he earned a degree in social science and worked as a juvenile officer, before moving to San Francisco, where he worked as a probation officer at Juvenile Hall. He was named ``Probation Officer of the Year'' in 1980 by the California Probation, Parole, and Correctional Association.
``My family had nothing. Their country club was the Catholic Church. My dad was a pump salesman, and my mom was a schoolteacher.
``We had love, and that was it. If I didn't know what that was, I don't know how I could do this.''
He now works with patients considered terminally ill. He also gives seminars to teach and inspire other social workers, including police.
He says social workers are paid less and asked to do more than anyone else on the planet, and this pressure took its toll on him, causing him to take to drink in his days at Juvenile Hall.
It was at this low point that he began work on stage, as a release from his stressful work. Eight months later he appeared on ``The Johnny Carson Show.''
At this period of his life, he remembers, ``I had a powerful spiritual awakening - like I'd been picked up and dusted off by God. I never had the urge [to get drunk] again.
``Only in America could the class clown come back to his old high school as a guest speaker.''