Interview with Nationally Acclaimed Youth Motivator, Comedian and Keynote Speaker Michael Pritchard

Interview with Nationally Acclaimed Youth Motivator, Comedian and Keynote Speaker Michael Pritchard
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Youth Motivator/Comedian Michael Pritchard
Photo courtesy of Michael Pritchard

Michael Pritchard began his career on both the comedy stage and as a juvenile counselor in San Francisco's Youth Guidance Center. In 1980, he won first place in the San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition as well as winning the prestigious California Probation Officer of the Year.

Michael's offers from Hollywood rolled in including a guest appearance on an Emmy Award winning episode of "Taxi." His sensational standup comedy billed him with Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Dana Carvey and Whoopi Goldberg, playing venues as Caesar's, the Comedy Store, Universal Amphitheater and opening for such names as Diana Ross, the Grateful Dead, Kenny Rogers, Mike Mc Donald and Boz Scaggs. But Michael rejected offers from Hollywood to focus on using his comic talents for inspiring youth and adults.

Drawing from his counseling background, Michael Pritchard began using humor to inspire, teach communication skills, anger management, diversity, conflict resolution and overcoming burnout and stress.

His broad audience base - from corporate employees, healthcare workers, and government and state officials - have honored him with countless standing ovations and numerous awards including:

  • President's Volunteer Action Award, Commendation
  • Office of the Attorney General, Paul Harris Fellowship
  • Rotary International, Toastmaster's International Speaker, Outstanding Performance
  • Federal Executive Board, Josephine Duveneck Humanitarian Award
  • The Key to the City of San Francisco
As a result of his work, Michael Pritchard has been featured on CNN, NBC's "The Today Show", "The Tonight Show", CBS "Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt, "Time" magazine and "People" magazine. His seven educational series for PBS and distribution has been seen by millions and focuses on youth guidance in the areas of violence prevention. "The Power of Choice," "You Can Choose", and "Big Changes, Big Choices."

Forming Heartland Media, he continued with "Red Ribbon Week" and "PeaceTalks" teaching students to make positive choices. "SOS: Saving Our Schools from Hate and Violence," featured in both Time magazine and on CNN, was filmed after the tragic Columbine disaster. His series "Lifesteps" builds the social and emotional intelligence in youth and has already received the Parents Choice Award.

For his work in promoting nonviolence with youth, Michael was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hartwick University and winning, 2001 Lewis Hine's Award for Service to Children & Youth Certificate of Appreciation, and the 2002 Marin Community Foundations Beryl Buck Fund Award for achievement in Promoting Nonviolence.

As an extension of Heartland Media, he established Heartland Media Foundation building character and emotional intelligence, violence prevention, inciting motivation and leadership in both youth and adults to improve schools and communities. The foundation provides youth guidance programs, including video, print curriculum, and live presentations by Michael Pritchard to aid in schools and communities where the funding is limited.

Michael Pritchard has helped raise millions of dollars by donating his time and talent to events and various charitable organizations including:

  • Boys and Girls Club
  • Ronald McDonald House
  • Salvation Army
  • Jewish Family Services
  • SF Giants Community Fund
  • American Heart Association
  • Women's Wellness Forum
  • Special Olympics
  • CASA Court Appointed Special Advocates
  • Bread & Roses
  • Recreation Center for the Handicapped
  • DARE
  • Texan's War on Drugs
  • Vietnam Vets of America
  • Guide Dogs for the Blind

Michael, thank you for speaking with me about the important work you've done and are continuing to do. You are an advocate for Social Emotional Learning. What is that?

Social Emotional Intelligence means being intelligent with your own and other people's emotions. An example is a kind and thoughtful child who loves his classmates, winds up a paramedic, attuned and intuitive to patients, and continually saves lives. Yet he never got better than a C on a test, never finished college, and risks his daily life to save and rescue others. That qualifies as genius! By contrast, consider the doctor who passes every test in medical school but is there for wealth and prestige and cares little for wellness or patient care. Is he or she a genius because society loves testing in competition? Genius of the heart is brain wise but heart smart. Consciousness of the heart is what I teach kids. 'Lessons from the Heart' on George Lucas' Edutopia site explains my life's work in 10 minutes.

You were a U.S. Army Medic during the Vietnam War. Any standout experiences? So many veterans returned to the U.S. physically and/or psychologically damaged and then mistreated by the government. What was your experience? What should the government be doing to correct/improve things?

After Vietnam, I cared for my friend Jim Essman, a Ranger and Bronze Star recipient who suffered from malaria. The hospital was depressing, and it took hours for him to be seen. He was deteriorating. Finally, I got angry and made a scene. He got help right away. Forty years later, I still help women and men get the assistance they need. The system needs to honor the sacrifice of warriors and respect their journey. We need emotionally smart people caring for families who gave so much. Gratitude, respect, and appreciation are needed. This is not politics. It's honoring obligations of courage.

You work with Special Affects, an organization that uses documentary films to tell the stories of people with special needs. Is there one person/story that stands out that you'd care to share?

My friend Harold Boxer plays basketball with us a lot. He's in his sixties and a really sweet guy! Years of watching my kids play with him and embrace him as a friend lifts my spirits. I watched my sons Connor and Brian both get outshot on the basketball court by "Hook Shot" Harold Boxer in many a game. We see his goodness and are lifted by his spirit. His sister-in-law is a brilliant community and national leader. His brother Stuart loves him and he has a good life in our loving community.

On November 6, 2013, you were scheduled to appear, as "Chairman of the 'Joint Chiefs of Laffs'", at a San Jose (California) fund-raising event for Walking Point Foundation, an organization that mentors veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, in expression through writing and the visual and performing arts. What have you learned from your work with this organization, and what would you like to share about the people it serves?

My friend Tom Bird, a combat veteran, started years ago helping PTSD vets. We joined him to create a short film that my beloved friend Robin Williams narrated. It's a cool film about laughter's impact on healing trauma victims. These men and women served multiple tours and are such fine and dedicated folks. We hope they find their way through the trauma to healing homes. Our nation needs to learn the cost of war isn't always in accounting logs. After years of helping homeless veterans and families, I feel I could explain it to the public and the Senate and Congress. We need assistance and oversight. People running vet programs take money for their lifestyles while the wounded suffer. The public needs to be enlightened. That's why Tom Bird and I volunteer with the Walking Point Foundation.

You co-wrote a book called Listen to What Your Kids Aren't Telling You. What are our kids not telling us, and how can we best listen for it?

My book with Dan Spencer tells stories of my life's travels meeting loving kids. I filmed many PBS series on bullying, violence, drugs, alcohol, and suicide. My first special aired in 1980, and the book brings insights learned from those programs. What your kids aren't telling you is how much they hurt. But the book also reveals how resilient and funny kids can be. Listening is one of the best things we can do for them!

You've had a long-time marriage. What's the secret of staying happily married (assuming you are) in a world of frequent divorce?

One of the great gifts is being married to a woman who understands your humor, your laughter, your joy, your love of children. I don't know how I was lucky enough to find someone who understood my heart. But that, for sure, is my wife of 37 years, Mary Jo. She understands who I am and why I do what I do. If you're blessed enough in life to find someone like that, hold on and make sure you know she's a treasure.

You're a nationally recognized youth motivator. What made you follow that path and what do you get out of it?

I like to teach kids that the word 'inspire' comes from the Greek term 'to breathe in the spirit.' I try to help kids understand it's important to breathe in the spirit or be inspired. When we find ways of motivating people, mostly it's by heart and not by brain. The biggest journey in our lives is the journey between our brain and our heart. It's only fourteen inches, but it's an important journey to make and an important place to go. As Mother Teresa said, "The heart is where the human being really lives because it is the greatest reflection of the soul." I motivate kids by heart.

Michael Pritchard, motivating kids by heart
Photo courtesy of Michael Pritchard

What made you try stand-up comedy and what do you get out of it?

I never thought I'd get into stand-up comedy, and I didn't really feel I was qualified. I never felt I was worthy, even after I won the San Francisco Comedy Competition. This isn't me being fake humble. I just did it because I'd gotten into recovery and was figuring a way to occupy my time so I wouldn't be bored. Then, through some synchronicity, I won the Comedy Competition and was full-time in show business. But eventually I went right back to working with children after I realized comedy was just an avocation, not a vocation. Children are my vocation. Showbiz was my avocation.

What made you decide to become a probation officer? What does a probation officer do? What do you get out of it?

I saw so many wounded kids, and I knew those probation kids had problems with learning disabilities. Some were dyslexic, some were autistic, some were Asperger high functioning, and some were like me, attention deficit disorder hyperactive. I saw them in struggle, and I realized that, just like me, it was better to be called bad than dumb. They misbehaved in order to distract their teachers from the fact that others would call them dumb because their grades were so low because they couldn't focus or read well. As a probation officer, knowing they were under-resourced, I started helping those kids find their way out of the criminal activity and back to a new method of learning. I'm still doing that presently, forty-four years later.

You won Probation Officer of the Year. Which of your qualities do you feel led to that award?

I helped raise a lot of funds through my comedy routines and brought attention to the needs of probation officers and counselors in Juvenile Hall all up and down the state of California and then eventually across the country. I still work with PAL, the Police Activities League, bringing important work into compassion and connection and prevention for kids in the field. Prevention was my thing then. It's still my thing now. I tell everybody to ICE; intervene, confront, and enlighten.

You rejected offers from Hollywood in order to use your comedic talents to inspire youth and adults. Why?

There was this great moment with my mother. She was old school Irish. I told her I'd signed a contract with NBC for $100,000. She looked at me and said, "Don't quit your city job. You've got dental." That made me laugh hard, but that was how folks from the Depression thought. But I realized I really loved working with children and I did not, I have to be honest, enjoy the show business stuff, like standing around on a set waiting to be filmed. I don't mean to put it down. I have so many friends in stand-up comedy and acting and movies, and I love them dearly. But it wasn't meant to be for me. I don't think of myself as anything other than a performer and a speaker and a heartfelt community person.

Can you share anything about your friendship with Robin Williams? How did you come to know him and why did you both hit it off? What was he like as a person? Did you notice any signs that his life would come to such a tragic ending?

Robin was a dear friend. One of the great things about him was his compassion. No human being I know lifted as many people with his ability as an actor to perform all the loneliness, sadness, and depression in humanity. What made me a great admirer and friend to him was the fact that he could overcome his own depression to bring the light of day in his acting and performing. He knew how important it is to use laughter, comedy, and compassion to help people lift themselves out of their own sadness. He was remarkable in that endeavor. No one close to him knew anything about the way he would pass, but we knew this. In his passing, we became aware of what an impact he played not just locally in our community where we all worshipped him, but globally where people were such ardent admirers of his spirit.

You've been a stand-up comedian opening act for the likes of Diana Ross, the Grateful Dead, Kenny Rogers, Mike McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Any stories that stand out from those days you'd care to share?

I remember this story about Big Mama Thornton. A young reporter said, "Big Mama, how does it feel to know that Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis took your song 'Hound Dog' and made millions off it but only paid you a dollar for the rights?" And Big Mama Thornton at the Last Day Saloon, drinking scotch and milk, said, "Honey, it makes me feel just fine. I'm still around to spend my dollar." That's the best story ever about not taking your career too seriously. It's not about fame or fortune. It's about fulfilling yourself. Big Mama inspired me in that way.

You use humor to humor to inspire, teach communication skills, anger management, diversity, conflict resolution and overcoming burnout and stress. How did you develop the skills to use your humor talents for those purposes?

I became a student of listening to children's pain and suffering. I listened at prisons, jails, mental health clinics, with special needs kids, and in hospices. You gain incredible wisdom and insights from listening to people. And if you laugh with them at life, they'll share more than you'll ever be able to fill your cornucopia basket of wisdom with. The other day, I said to a fellow at the hospice, "Even the man with the $40,000 dollar Rolex doesn't know what time it is in his own life." He and I laughed really hard. Then I said to a special needs man, "Sometimes people think I'm one of you." And he said, "Oh, secretly you pretend not to be, but you are." That had me howling.

Are there ever kids/adults you're just unable to reach despite your efforts?

I've never been unable to reach a kid.

You've received a multitude of honors including:

  • President's Volunteer Action Award, Commendation
  • Office of the Attorney General, Paul Harris Fellowship
  • Rotary International, Toastmaster's International Speaker, Outstanding Performance
  • Federal Executive Board, Josephine Duveneck Humanitarian Award
  • The Key to the City of San Francisco.
  • An Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hartwick University.
  • Which of your honors do you most cherish and why?

All of the awards I've received are sitting in my garage. All of the things that have happened to me become less significant as I age. But in my heart are memories of what is important to me. I can say unequivocally that compassion is the pathway to all of it. Caring about my community, wanting to do nothing but serve in a humble way, and holding onto a servant's heart. That's where the awards are from.

What's your take on all the tragic school shootings? What should we be doing to try to prevent them?

Violence doesn't have a zip code. These school shootings, especially the sadness that happened in Sandy Hook, spur me on in my work to teach prevention, love, compassion, connectivity, and anti-bullying. They're incentives to me, these school shootings, and I've been working on them too long.

For your work in promoting nonviolence with youth, you were awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hartwick University. Congratulations. Your thoughts about it?

The president at Hartwick University who gave me that doctorate is a brilliant woman who works now for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. I'd met her when she was a young girl. I helped her at a camp for children called Teen Institute of the Garden State. She got me that award. The people from whom I've received the most applause in my life were often adults I impacted when they were children.

You've established Heartland Media and Heartland Media Foundation. What are they and how do they function?

We do fundraising in order to teach our anti-bullying work. We're not always as effective at fundraising as I wish we were, but whether we have the money or not we still continue the mission.

You've helped raise millions of dollars by donating your time and talent to events and various charitable organizations. Tell the truth--are you the closest thing we have to a saint? Do you have any flaws at all?

I realize the importance and impact of the nonprofit organizations to build community unity, cohesion, collaboration, cooperation, and connection to the greater good. That's what it's all about for me, and those organizations I help are the ones I always feel are the best in doing that kind of work.

But am I a saint? Every member of my family and all my close friends would roll their eyes and burst out laughing. They've heard me curse and swear. They've heard me yell and holler. But every one of them would admit that when it comes to important things, I can be the anchor for them.

What do you do for fun/relaxation?

I like to be with friends and children and families. I like to go to St. Vincent's orphanage and toss a ball with the kids. I play basketball with developmentally delayed seniors. One night, Robin Williams and I were playing basketball with that group, and when we walked out he said, "Why do I feel so great right now?" And I said, "Because everywhere else in the world that you and I go, we have to give. But when we're here, we receive. These special people love us and don't care who we are or what we've accomplished. They like it that we just want to play ball with them." You don't stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing.

You've done so much; do you have other goals you'd like to accomplish?

Since I'm close to retirement age and don't want to travel as much, I'd like to find a location, maybe a center of some sort, to teach, share, and have folks laugh and learn from each other. Maybe we'd have it filmed by people who see the importance of the work and share it on social media. And we could view films like Upside of Down and BeRobin and the Happy movie and I am, and all the movies I've been involved with that have helped lift up the human spirit. If I had an office space or center or some sort of housed location for that purpose, that would be a great gift. That's my one goal.

Thank you, Michael.

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