Heroes of Marin 2016
Lifetime Achievement: Michael Pritchard
By David Templeton
“I don’t laugh because I’m happy,” says Michael Pritchard, recipient of this year’s Heroes of Marin Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m happy,” he says, “because I laugh.”
Pritchard, for the record, is actually laughing as he says this, wrapping up a story, this late February morning, in which he describes his day so far—a day that the rest of us would not find the least bit funny.
“I drove all the way down to Mountain View, for a gig at a middle school,” he says, “and when I got there they told me the gig is tomorrow, not today. So I wasted the trip. What could I do? I turned around and drove all the way home.”
And that’s when Pritchard takes his sad story and turns it inside out.
“It turned out to be a great thing,” he says, “because I have this really nice car—someone actually bought me a car because of all the driving I do in my work—so for one thing, it was a pleasure driving home. And then, once I was back home, since I had the day open, I could give the car to my kid for the rest of the day, to go look at wedding sites in Mendocino.
“The timing was impeccably good,” he confirms. “Except for my wife yelling at me for being an idiot.”
Pritchard starts laughing again.
Raised in Missouri, Pritchard, 66, gained a degree in social science before being drafted into the Army. He served as a medic in Vietnam, and immediately after returning home, started working with returning vets with serious PTSD. In the ’70s, while working in hospitals, he simultaneously worked toward becoming a probation officer for the state of California and took tentative steps into the world of stand-up comedy.
“I had recently gotten into recovery, and I got into comedy as something to do to occupy my attention,” he says. “I worked at Whole City Zoo and other clubs, appearing alongside people like Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Dana Carvey. They were just the sweetest people. Even Bobby Slayton. He has a reputation of being acerbic and caustic, but behind that mask was always a sweet, sweet guy.”
As his comedy star rose, Pritchard somehow continued his work with troubled kids, occasionally feeling the pull between two very different worlds. As an illustration of the strangely bifurcated life Pritchard was living, in 1980 he was named Probation Officer of the Year. Then he won first place in the San Francisco Comedy Competition.
“That was all such a weird time,” he recalls. “I found myself winning the SF Comedy Competition, and next thing I knew I was going on Johnny Carson, and doing really well. Then I was there on the set of Taxi, the number one show at the time, playing a gay disco dancer in an episode that went on to win eight Emmy Awards. Suddenly, my comedy career just exploded.”
Pritchard opened for some of the biggest acts in the country, and even voiced a fuzzy Ewok named Chuka-Trok in the TV movie The Ewok Adventure. And then NBC offered him a contract for $100,000 to develop comedy projects for television.
“Suddenly, I found myself trapped with that $100,000,” he admits. “My mother, old school Irish, was not impressed. She told me, ‘Don’t you dare quit a steady job, Mister. With a job, you get dental.’ I looked around and thought, ‘I’m looking at some pretty sad stuff.’ Hollywood is a place where people spend all their time looking for people’s weaknesses. I really wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Pritchard eventually dropped out of active stand-up comedy as a profession, recommitting himself to working with kids. Even so, he has found a way to combine the two skillsets. Now a sought-after motivational speaker, Pritchard uses his award-winning humor to teach about bullying, addiction, conflict resolution, stress and diversity. He’s found creative ways to draw attention to the issues that he is most concerned about, including creating a number of documentaries and PBS television programs. In the ’80s, he made a film for teenagers called Condom Sense, about safe sex.
“I played a character named Condo the Magnificent, and I let the late, great Jane Dornacker pull a giant condom over me,” he says, clearly still delighted at the ingenious comedy of the image. “This was at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Did that video save any lives? I think it probably did.”
His 2000 series Saving Our Schools from Hate and Violence was made in response to the Columbine school shootings. In 2011, he helped create Special Affects, a documentary film project producing a regular series of films telling the stories of “special needs” children.
“I grew up in a time when all Down syndrome kids were called idiots, kids with cerebral palsy were called spazzes and everyone else was retarded,” Pritchard says. “The world has changed for the better, fortunately—but unfortunately, it hasn’t changed enough.”
Though strongly motivated by his own faith, Pritchard—who currently works with hospice groups in Marin and speaks at local schools and beyond—makes a point of avoiding debates about religion and politics.
“If I’m arguing with you about politics or religion or anything else, then I’m not doing my job,” he says. “If I’m busy arguing with you, then I’m not taking care of the wounded.
“And that, ‘taking care of the wounded,’” says Pritchard, no longer laughing, suddenly dead serious, “that is my job. For that matter, it’s everyone’s job. And if I do mine, I’ll help people remember that we’re in this together, and it’s up to all of us to make this world a better, kinder, more forgiving world. Do I think that’s possible? Of course I do—because it is. And guess what? Creating a kinder world is addictive. It is. I’m hooked on it. I’m addicted. I can’t not do this.”