Youth Counselor Mike Pritchard Brings the Comedy of Hard Knocks to White-Bread America
A very large and angry kid was threatening to poke counselor Mike Pritchard's eyes out with the only weapon he could find in the maximum security wing of San Francisco's Juvenile Hall—a pencil. And he could have done it. "I wrapped some blankets around my arms and picked up a mattress—that's standard operating procedure," Pritchard recalls. Then Mike—a 6'6", 260-pound "Coke machine with a head," as his mother calls him, put on a squeaky, childlike voice and began prattling, "You're my bestest friend in all the world, and I love you very much." It worked. "The kid was shocked. He dropped the pencil and said, 'Man, you're crazy as hell, and I ain't coming near you.' "
Pritchard, 31, tells the story often—on the stage of local nightclubs, or on shows like NBC's Today, Tonight and Tomorrow. Not only is he a counselor to juvenile criminals, he is also the winner of last year's San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition and the holder of a six-figure contract for a future show on NBC. Typically, Pritchard warms up a crowd by turning his rubbery face into a frog or a turtle. Once the audience is his, he may become Julio, a Latin kid accused of armed robbery: "I didn't rob nobody. This guy, he was standing next to me and he say something. So I say something. So he say something back. So I pull out a gun and he gives me his wallet."
Pritchard concedes that some may find his street-wise brand of humor unsettling. "My comedy is about all those things white-bread America doesn't want to hear about," he says. Himself a slice off the old loaf, Pritchard was raised in St. Louis, the youngest son of an industrial-pump salesman and a parochial school teacher. Comedy came easy. "I knew I was funny when I was 7," Mike recalls. "I was the class clown." But after graduating from Southeast Missouri State University in 1973, Pritchard went to work as a juvenile officer with the St. Louis police and then as an investigator in the public defender's office. "I saw the world as it was," he says grimly. "There'd be 22 inches of snow on the ground and a windchill factor of 40 below zero. We'd take some kid home to a place with a dirt floor and no heat. Most people don't know what deprivation is."
For a while, Pritchard tried moonlighting as a bouncer in a cowboy bar, doing stand-up comedy routines between shows. He moved to San Francisco in 1979 and went to work at Juvenile Hall, while becoming a regular at the city's comedy clubs.
A year ago he made his Tonight show debut—"I haven't seen Johnny laugh so hard in years," said a cameraman—and since then, says Mike, "It's been like an explosion. I was making $11,000 a year at Juvenile Hall and taking the bus to work. Now I'm a corporation." He has already made enough to buy a house near the ocean that he shares with his wife, former actress-bartender Mary Jo Bannon. He has quit his job at "Juvy," though he still works with the kids whenever possible. "I'm happy now that I can help more people through my comedy," he muses, "but I miss Juvy. Some of the happiest moments in all of my life have been spent with convicted felons."
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