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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Laugh Factory Serves Up Laughs To Go With Thanksgiving Feast

Shotgun Spratling |
December 1, 2010 | 12:32 a.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

A line forms around the building as people wait to get a free Thanksgiving meal and comedy show at Jamie Masada's Laugh Factory. (Shotgun Spratling)
A line forms around the building as people wait to get a free Thanksgiving meal and comedy show at Jamie Masada's Laugh Factory. (Shotgun Spratling)

A mentally ill man confused Paul Rodriguez for fellow Latino comedian George Lopez. Rodriguez laughed about wishing he had Lopez’s bank account to go with his own looks.

Dane Cook joked with a woman as he dished out slices of the turkey Rodriguez had carved.

Arsenio Hall plopped large servings of creamy mashed potatoes and steamy brown gravy onto the plate of a homeless man, whose oversized, faded green jacket sagged loosely off his wrist when he extended his arm, asking for green beans

And Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada beamed a tired, but satisfied smile as he handed out plates at the door of his world-renowned Hollywood comedy club.

For the 32nd year, Masada opened his doors to those needing a helping hand for the annual Laugh Factory Thanksgiving Feast. Several high-profile comedians stood alongside Laugh Factory employees welcoming the homeless, underprivileged, unemployed and anyone alone on Thanksgiving.

“We want to give back,” Masada said. “You came to this world with nothing, you leave this world with nothing. You can’t take it with you, so let’s give it to people to enjoy.”

Those who waited in the three block-long line were treated to a free traditional Thanksgiving meal served by some of their favorite comedians. Several of the comedians then hopped onstage and performed during one of the day’s four comedy shows.

It’s one of Los Angeles’ unique Thanksgiving traditions, and it seems to be growing every year.

“Sadly enough, it has become special. It’s sad to say that this is one of the only things that has continued to grow,” Rodriguez said of the event that now feeds 2,800 after beginning as a humble gathering of around 50 people in 1979.

“It’s a good barometer of how things are. You hear about the economy this, economy that. But none of that rings true until you see it. You can take all the polls and whatever else, but when you see these people here, they weren’t homeless a couple years ago. They weren’t in dire needs.”

Rodriguez, a co-owner of the club, said he has attended the event for 28 years. He and Masada said they see some of the same people that previously volunteered to help with the event now standing in line needing the free meal.

“People are out of jobs,” Masada said. “They [are] all willing to work -- all trying to do everything they can. But it’s hard. It’s very, very hard to find people jobs and it just breaks your heart.”

Masada knows about job hunting and needing the occasional helping hand.

In 1976, at the age of 14, Masada arrived in Los Angeles speaking little English with barely more than the clothes on his back and the $580 his Iranian family had saved to send him to Hollywood.

An American producer who was supposed to look after young Jamie abandoned the teenager. Masada found home on the couch of a compassionate apartment manager.

While taking night classes at Fairfax High School, Masada supported himself with a number of odd jobs from painting apartments to working at comedy shops on Sunset Boulevard.

One night he was thrust into the spotlight when a comedian cancelled. Masada took the stage. “My nerves hit me, and I started speaking in Farsi and Hebrew, and my legs were shaking,” Masada told the Los Angeles Times in an interview last year. After a couple of minutes, a woman began laughing and others followed.

Masada was hooked. Some of the comedic geniuses of the era, including Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney, took him under their wings. Two years later, Masada founded the Laugh Factory with a $10,000 loan from producer Neal Israel.

Comedians and comedy club owners in Los Angeles were locked in a dispute over wages, and Masada vowed to always pay entertainers fairly by dividing the door receipts. Pryor was the first to take to the stage. When Masada attempted to pay Pryor his split of the profits, less than $5 that night, Pryor wrote “You need this for your rent, boy,” on a $100 bill and handed it to Masada.

Having never seen a $100 bill, Masada was confused. He thought it was fake. Pryor handed him four more and with the instant credibility Pryor lent to the new comedy club, the Laugh Factory took off.

Masada remembered how he had needed support just a couple of years earlier. He said that after reading about an actor committing suicide when he couldn’t get a job, Masada told himself "Oh my God. We should open a home [for those in need] and be a part of their family."

From that sprang the idea for the Laugh Factory Thanksgiving and Christmas Day feasts that are now a Los Angeles mainstay for many.

“It’s kind of been a tradition. I don’t have any friends or family out here,” said Joel Reid, a North Carolina native who has been coming for three years.  “They really try to uplift your spirits for the holidays because if you don’t have a lot, it can be a trying time.”

While those in need in Los Angeles can receive a free Thanksgiving meal at a number of places, the Laugh Factory offers a chance to break away from the dregs of everyday life. Not only is there a free show, but there is also opportunity for some.

Several amateur comedians, including some homeless comics, get the chance to catch the eye of Masada, who said he has seen some people that were in the same line years ago now making $3-4 million per movie now. Amateurs also get to take the same stage as many of their comedic idols.

Amateur comic Boonshakalaka, wearing a tight black sweater, five gold necklaces, and six rings, volunteered to work the event so he would have the opportunity to perform in front of the professional comics. He was also proud to be able to help “feed the homeless and those that don’t have nothing” since a “lot of the people are not able to get food on the holidays.”

Rodriguez said even if the amateurs aren’t hilarious, they can come away with pride.

“When you banter with them and not get upset, it makes them feel like ‘I can hang with the big boys, I can make him laugh.’ It gives them a sense of joy and gusto. I’ll forget who they are, but for them, they may tell their buddies for the rest of the year that they showed me, and that’s cool.”

Masada said he will continue to have the event as long as people are in need like he once was and as long as everyone is able to have a good time.

While waiting in line for the 3 p.m. show, David Wilson summarized what makes the event special: “It’s better to laugh while you eat than cry while you eat.”

To reach Shotgun Spratling, click here, or follow him on Twitter @BlueWorkhorse.

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