Comedian Restores Hope With Humor
Michael Pritchard is a mentor and friend to troubled children
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Burdened by problems, the teenage girl slouched at Michael Pritchard's kitchen table in San Rafael, Calif., sobbing that suicide was the only option. Unknown to her, she was seconds away from laughing. "I'm saying calmly to her, 'Now just listen to me,' " recalls Mr. Pritchard.
Suddenly the kitchen door flew open. Pritchard's three-year-old son came in with a squirt gun and squirted the girl in the face three times. "Brian, no!" yelled Pritchard in a voice that could pierce asphalt. Brian turned, squirted his father in the face once and banged out the door.
The girl laughed and laughed. "Brian was a messenger that day," Pritchard says, telling how the girl's despair was broken. "He broke the spell."
In the early 1980s, Pritchard was California's Probation Officer of the Year, and at the same time he won the renowned San Francisco International Standup Comedy Competition.
A few years later, he made the full-time switch from juvenile probation officer to stand-up comic, and the opposites of humor and tragedy have been like bookends in his life ever since. His experiences with teens in trouble, and his own string of suspensions in high school, now sharpen his understanding of the growing-up years and feed his humor.
Funny enough to share the stage with Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jay Leno, and good enough to be in Emmy-winning TV shows, Pritchard is at the same time an unrelenting advocate on behalf of troubled children and teens everywhere. His Emmy-nominated PBS specials about teens, "The Power of Choice," continue to air nationwide.
Unlike a lot of comics today, Pritchard has one foot in the tradition of Red Skelton - the clown without a costume who makes faces - and the other foot in the world of the warm, self-deprecating humorist rooted in family values.
But for more than the last 12 years, while appearing occasionally on "The Tonight Show" and "Today," he has traveled the country like Johnny Appleseed, listening to kids and planting seeds of hope and help. Along the way, Pritchard disarms the unsuspecting - on streets, planes, and hotels - with irresistible friendliness.
"There is nobody quite like Michael Pritchard," says Joel Goodman, founder and director of the Humor Project here, where Pritchard is the keynote comic at the 12th Annual International Conference on the Positive Power of Humor and Creativity.
"The way that he can use humor and speak from the heart is wonderful," says Laurie Hultberg, attending the conference from Ithaca, N.Y. "When I told him he did a great job, his expression of warmth to me was memorable. It took me back."
On stage Pritchard is a wonder. His hulking frame - 6 ft., 6 in. and close to 300 pounds - comes with a maniacal voice capable of exact duplication of the sounds of airplanes, jungles, Darth Vader, Big Bird, John Wayne, little kids, and every accent or stereotype known to the civilized world.
At Saratoga Springs High School, more than 1,000 students are captivated by Pritchard's performance. Blending sheer goofiness, stories from his family, gritty, true examples of teens under pressure, and cracker-barrel philosophy, Pritchard urges the young audience to make choices from strength and understanding. The world may not be fair, he says, "but respect each other, and blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape."
He paces back and forth. "Who teaches us to be ourselves?" he asks. "Little kids are the best teachers in the world."
He tells the story of a girl running a race in the Special Olympics: "She's winning the race," Pritchard booms into the microphone, "but she stops just before the finish line. I tell her, 'C'mon, you've won.' She says, 'Nope.' 'Two more steps and you've won.' 'Nope,' she says, and reaches back to another girl who reaches back to another girl, and six girls holding hands cross the finish line. The girl says, 'Together we all win.' "
"The common thread with kids in trouble," Pritchard says in an interview after his classroom appearance, "is unaddressed grief. Shakespeare said, 'Always give sorrow words. Grief that does not speak whispers to the overfraught heart and bids it break.'"
He tells the story of a little boy he met at an Alabama school. "We were talking about responsibility," says Pritchard, changing his voice to the cadence and flatness of a seven-year-old. "The boy said, 'When my dad gets drunk and beats my mom, I have the responsibility to hide the baby in the closet so he won't hit it.' "
Pritchard listens to the boy and tells him that it was good for him to talk about it. "Yes," says the boy, "everybody needs to meet a kind stranger to tell their secrets to."
Pritchard is a kind and funny stranger who wants to prevent the unaddressed grief of children from turning to anger, rage, and violence as they grow older.
"It doesn't matter what their economic status is," he says. "Each kid needs a compassionate, caring adult in their life."
At a home for abandoned boys, after one of Pritchard's performances, a small boy asked if he could speak with Pritchard privately.
"I asked him how everything was going," says Pritchard. " 'Fine,' he says, and just sits there. 'OK,' I say, 'what do you want to talk about?' 'Nothing,' he says. 'I just wanted to be with you.' "
In a Saratoga Springs fourth-grade class, Pritchard talks about respecting one another and asks students to tell about when they were made fun of by other students. One girl says she was called a "dumb blonde," and Pritchard talks about stereotypes and the need to see one another as individuals with differences.
But when a smaller boy says he has been picked on because he is Jewish, and breaks into tears, Pritchard - the size of the Jolly Green Giant - weaves his way through the little desks, and places a meaty hand on the boy's shaking shoulder. "You are the bravest person in the room," he tells the boy softly, and praises him for his courage.
Pritchard has just finished a 10-part video series about violence prevention for the Bureau for At-Risk Youth in Plainview, N.Y. "I went around the country talking with youth," he says, "and we discussed solutions to such things as gangs, using drugs, and conflict resolution."
Following his trip to Saratoga Springs, he traveled to schools in Kentucky and West Virginia; then on to Richmond, Calif., to appear with California Gov. Pete Wilson at a Boys & Girls Clubs event honoring a community effort to bring computers to inner-city kids.
Pritchard has also helped raise millions of dollars for worthy causes around the country, including the Ronald McDonald House, the Red Ribbon Campaign for the state of California, the United Way, and Invest in America, an organization helping underprivileged kids.
At dozens of business and education conferences, he always leaves audiences laughing. "I don't live in Hollywood," he says, "because I wanted to avoid all the egos and wasted energy there."
He lives in San Rafael with his wife, Mary Jo, and four children. The youngest in a family of five boys, Pritchard says, "My brothers beat on me unless I made them laugh, so I did imitations of my dad."
Suddenly he assumes the demeanor and stance of John Wayne in "The Fighting Seabees." Wayne (Pritchard) is firing a machine gun at the Japanese soldiers, and then he stops, enemy destroyed. He mimics Wayne perfectly: "That will teach you to mess with construction workers."