Michael Pritchard is passionate about teaching the effects of bullying, and he has a gift of tackling the serious subject with humor.
When asked about his own experiences with bullying, he laughs, “Well, I had three older brothers!”
Pritchard, a stand-up comedian and nationally acclaimed keynote speaker, brought this kind of comic relief to the Hollister Junior Giants at its “Strike Out Bullying,” workshop at the Hollister Community Center July 17.
According to public relations representative Sylvia Aranda, the Junior Giants is more than just a free baseball and softball league.
“It becomes more of a well-rounded education over the summer,” she says, “going into everything from a reading program to bullying and eating healthy.
Actively involved with Junior Giants and the SF Giants Community Fund, Pritchard is also a member of the fund’s board of directors and has received many honors for achievement in promoting nonviolence.
On July 17, approximately 45 people filled a room at community center strewn with pictures drawn by the players as a part of a “Strike out Bullying” contest. In categories according to age, the Hollister Junior Giant players were asked to draw a picture or write a poem, keeping to the theme, “Respect: Treat Others How You Want to be Treated.” All children decided to draw pictures this year.
“The contest winners got to come up and take a picture with Pritchard,” says Ryann Rodriguez, the Junior Giants program coordinator in Hollister. “They thought it was great to take this picture with this great speaker.”
All kidding aside, Pritchard says that as the son of an army officer drill instructor and a school teacher, his upbringing had “tight discipline.”
“I went to school, and there was a lot of bullying and teasing and word-hurting stuff,” he recalls.
But the childhood traumas didn’t keep him from reaching his potential in life—if anything, they propelled him.
After being a medic in the Vietnam War, Pritchard became a probation officer in St. Louis in the early 1970s.
“I was what they call a deputy juvenile officer, working with kids,” Pritchard recalls. “And I loved that job.”
His first foray into comedy stemmed from a serious time in his life. While battling alcohol abuse, Pritchard says his own frailties and idiosyncrasies were pointed out to him by others.
“And how am I gonna help others if I can’t help myself?” he asked himself. “So I started to do stand-up comedy as a way of recovering from drinking.” And he laughs at the irony of doing stand-up in bars while in recovery, “Where was the logic there?”
He moved to San Francisco in 1978, where he continued with comedy while becoming a juvenile counselor in San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center. Then in 1980, he won first place in the San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition, as well as the prestigious California Probation Officer of the Year.
His comedic skills led him to Hollywood, where he made guest appearances on an Emmy-winning episode of Taxi and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. However, fame was not something Pritchard sought, as spoke about in an 2016 Huffington Post interview with Mark C. Miller.
“Eventually, I went right back to working with children after I realized comedy was just an avocation, not a vocation. Children are my vocation,” he said.
His early work had him beside comic legends, one being his dear friend, the late Robin Williams. The two did stand-up together at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco. It’s through Williams, in fact, that Pritchard met his wife of 40 years, Mary Jo. The two have three grown children together, and have fostered many others.
Of Williams’s passing, Pritchard says it’s still a trauma for him. “He was a major vital force of optimism, positivity, kindness and compassion.”
Pritchard uses his speaking engagements as a way to inform others about all the effects that occur due to bullying—one being what he calls the new “epidemic” of suicide.
“What I tell everybody all the time is unaddressed grief turns to anger; anger to rage; rage to violence; and violence has two directions—outwards toward others, and inwards toward the self,” Pritchard says.
His workshops share a common thread of compassion, connection, unity and respect; being a person of integrity, honesty and morals; and being a person who notices when somebody is being treated with intolerance or hate or anger.
And he says he is doing everything he can to help people in life do three things: Intervene, Confront, Enlighten (or what he calls I.C.E.).
For youngsters, he teaches “brainwaves,” or chants, such as, “Hurt people hurt people; hurting people hurt people,” or “You don’t have to blow someone else’s candle out to make sure yours shines brighter.”
And he makes the parents say these, too.
“I ask them to get up and ask, Who can share what it feels like to get picked on or teased and share with us? And they get up. We get a bunch of dads and adults and coaches get up and they share, and they share from their heart—it’s extremely powerful.”
He also gives parents a reality check into their own past situations with bullying.
Tina Garza, Hollister Junior Giants League commissioner, says Pritchard’s message is sent to the whole community, as well.
“If a person is bullied for whatever reason, they’re not feeling good about themselves. What can we do as adults to help them to say something to them? And that’s the message he sends us: ‘You guys are also responsible.’”
“This funny character, this man who has an honorary doctorate, was once in his life bullied, and he overcame that,” Garza says. “So this allows kids to continue to talk to him and be open to him about other things going on in their life.”