When comedian Michael Richards launched into his now infamous racist tirade, it couldn't have happened at a more unfitting venue. The Laugh Factory is owned and operated by Jamie Masada who, aside from being a successful comedy club owner, spends most of his time trying to change the world for the better. He runs a comedy camp for underprivileged children, he caters meals for the homeless, and for over 20 years, he has been running the "Laugh Factory Shul," where anyone can come to pray on the High Holidays free of charge. All of his projects are undertaken at his own expense, and he is fortunate to be in the financial position to do so, although that wasn't always the case.
"My first pay check was for $28, and I sent $25 back to my parents to help them get by."
Masada was born in Iran and then spent a few years in Israel before moving to America as a teenager. He admits that the adjustment was difficult. "I had a lot of trouble adapting. My first pay check was for $28, and I sent $25 back to my parents to help them get by."
His career took an unusual turn when he walked into a comedy club one night looking for a job. As it happened, that evening's comedian had just cancelled, so the proprietor announced that the audience was fortunate to be in the company of the Middle East's most famous comedian and called Masada onstage. Still not proficient in English, he started speaking in a mix of Persian, Hebrew, and the few English words he knew.
Despite the awkward first encounter Masada was hooked on comedy. After working a menial job during the day, he would spend his evenings in the comedy clubs, sometimes telling jokes, and other times just listening to them. Slowly, he began learning about the comedy business, and meeting people who would fast become his friends -- people like David Letterman and Richard Pryor amongst them.
Fate again intervened in Masada's life in 1979, when wandering down Sunset Boulevard one night mourning the loss of a friend who had just taken his own life, he overheard someone say that they were going to put their premises up for rent. Suddenly, he got the notion that he wanted to open up his own comedy club. Unsure if he had the requisite funds, he drove down to see his friend Neil Israel. Masada told Israel his idea, and said he would contribute his entire savings to start the project but would probably need some additional assistance. Unfortunately, Masada's life savings was only $700 at the time, which wouldn't even cover one month's rent. Israel told Masada that if he could come up with a good name for the establishment, he would put up the money. After a few failed suggestions (including a breakfast comedy club called "Yolk and Joke"), Masada came up with a moniker to his friend's liking -- "The Laugh Factory," and a comedy club was born.
A club name and location were just part of the equation. Masada needed other, perhaps more critical pieces: comedians and patrons. He began working the phones, trying to find comics to fill his club. As an incentive he offered the comics something they weren't get at any of the other clubs -- he would pay them money. He vowed to split the receipts amongst them, even if it wasn't much.
Opening night came and Masada's friend Paul Mooney agreed to perform. After completing his set, he introduced a friend of his who agreed to make an appearance as a "special guest." That special guest was Richard Pryor, and according to Masada, he "killed."
Masada had a strange run in with Pryor after the show. As promised he gave him a portion of the receipts from opening night which turned out to be $3. "Richard took $100 out of his pocket, and said to me, ‘Good luck boy, you are going to need it,'" relates Masada. "I had never heard of them even making $100 bills at the time, so I went to ask the guy next door if they were fake. When he showed me one, I ran back to Richard and apologized. He said that I was so innocent, so stupid, that he was going to look out for me, and gave me another $500 to put towards my rent."
Thanks to the kindness of Richard Pryor and others during his career, Jamie Masada and the Laugh Factory have been an astounding success. But Masada doesn't measure success in the conventional way. "I remember once, when my friend Neil Israel came into the club, I told him how successful the place had become. He didn't believe me and pointed to the fact that I was using a shoe box for a cash register. I showed him an elderly couple that I had brought into the club. I told him that when those two people walked in they were hardly speaking to each other, and when they left they were holding hands and smiling. People judge success in different ways, but to me -- that's the greatest success I could ask for."
"If you do things from your heart, and do tzedakah, financial gain will come."
Masada credits Judaism as being the force that drives his professional ethos. "My father always told me that the greatest mitzvah (good deed) you can do for anyone is to bring a smile to their face and make them happy. I was able to make my career out of such an important mitzvah, and I think that I was successful because it came from my heart. If you do things from your heart, and do tzedakah, financial gain will come."
Masada encourages others to get involved in social action projects well. "We should always do as much as we can to help out in our communities. We can volunteer at a home for seniors, a food shelter, a synagogue -- whatever. And if we are already doing something, then we can do more."
With people like Michael Richards and Mel Gibson and Don Imus having created so much racial disharmony of late, Jamie Masada is almost like a Hollywood antidote. He has dedicated his entire life to changing the world for the better, one laugh at a time. But for him it's no joke -- it's serious business.