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Comedy Impresario: Use Government Funds for Comic Bailout

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The founder of the Laugh Factory, a comedy club in Hollywood, says the United States needs some humor in these tough economic times.  We spoke with founder Jamie Masada about comedy, what it has done in his life and what it can do for the country.

Jamie Masada says comedy has helped him through some hard times.  Masada grew up in Iran and Israel, and came to Hollywood at age 14.  He was hoping to earn money to send back to his family.  By chance, he got a job at a comedy club, telling jokes when the scheduled performer failed to arrive.

Late one night, the manager called him on stage for his first performance.

"And the spotlight hit me," said Jamie Masada. "And the time the spotlight hit me, I went blank.  And I couldn't see anybody.  So I started speaking Farsi.  I started speaking Hebrew.  And my jokes started going that way.  And that's how it got started."

He says the audience couldn't understand him, but thought he was funny.

Masada would eventually make his name not as a comic, but as an comedy impresario, after he founded of one of the top comedy clubs in the country.  

With financial backing from a friend, a young writer-producer named Neal Israel, he decided to open a club, and struggled to find a name.

"So the next thing you know, I came up with a name of a place called 'Joke and Yolk.'  You go to a place, you might have some omelet and some eggs, 'Joke and Yolk.'  I explained, it's a great thing," he said.

His friend didn't think so.  So they settled on the name  Laugh Factory, opening in a building where the comedian Groucho Marx once had his office.

Comedy clubs in those days didn't pay comedians, who appeared on stage just to get exposure.  Masada wanted to pay his comics, splitting the club profits 50-50.  The first comic to perform was already a big star, Richard Pryor.  At the end of the evening, the young club owner offered the famous comedian $3.50.

"I said, Richard, I want to try to pay comedians," said Masada. "He said, aaah.  And then he put his hand in his pocket and he brought a big stack of 100 dollar bills.  And he took a 100 dollar bill out and he wrote on it, 'You need this for your rent, boy.  Richard Prior, 1979."  

Masada did need the money for rent.  Many nights, he slept on chairs in the club, joined by struggling comedians.  Some, he says, are now big stars in Hollywood.  The biggest names in the business have appeared at the club, from Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx to Chris Rock.  

Profits were slim in the early days, when Masada and some of the comics would share a $1 ticket and take turns getting showers at the YMCA.  At evening performances,  Masada crossed Sunset Boulevard to an old Hollywood landmark, Schwab's Pharmacy, to buy drinks for his patrons.

"And if I had 10 people come in, I would go across the street and buy 5 cans or bottles of Coke," said Jamie Masada. "I took their order and buy a bag of ice and that's how I made my living."

Masada has seen comedy brighten people's lives, both audiences and comics.  He recalls that his friend, the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, insisted on performing after brain surgery.

The owner helped the ailing comic on the stage, but as the audience responded, Dangerfield found renewed energy.  Masada said the color came back to his face, and he finished his act and he walked off the stage unaided.

Masada says the same thing can work for the country.  With big banks and corporations getting bailouts, he suggests creating a government-sponsored comedy corps, with comics fanning out across the country.  The famous ones, he says, would donate their time and struggling young comedians could receive a small salary.  

"If we go to a town hall or sports stadium or somewhere and then put this whole thing together bring some sandwiches, some burgers and give them to these people, and at the same time, give them a little bit of hope, I think that's going a long way," he said.

The idea is no joke, Masada explains.  He recalls that President Franklin Roosevelt created positions for writers and artists as part of his Works Progress Administration or WPA, a 1930s national jobs program.

The economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed last month includes $50 million in funding for the arts.  Masada wants something devoted to humor.  He suggests a $700,000 national comedy project, which he says is a small price to pay to cheer up the country.  

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