Jamie Masada, the philanthropist-founder of L.A.’s iconic Laugh Factory, has a unique talent for giving back with giggles. He left Iran at age fourteen to come to Hollywood and “make it in comedy”—52 years later, a massive understatement. Opening Laugh Factory in 1979 as a venue where broke comics could reap rent checks and career props, he went on to nurture marquee names like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Adam Sandler, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Jon Stewart, Kathy Griffin, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Bill Maher, Bernie Mac, and Wanda Sykes. As his own success blossomed, Masada gave back to the community of entertainers that had raised him up as much as he had them: his annual free dinner and comedy extravaganzas on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Jewish High Holidays—plus a free summer comedy camp for the community’s underprivileged kids that has produced mitzvahs on top of mentees—make the world a better place while making it a whole lot merrier. Masada believes humor is the sole—and soul—salve for a country divided. “The simplest thing works best: Laughter. If you can share a laugh like you share bread, you forget all the differences and bring people together. I swear it!”
How did you have the wherewithal to start a club as a teenager?
Because I’m a go-getter! I had a lot of setbacks when I was a kid. I had dyslexia, and they didn’t know anything about dyslexia at the time. And my uncle—everybody—they called me “retard.” And that made me care more about underprivileged kids. I just decided you have to give back.
It seems like you opened Laugh Factory just to help out comedians who were broke.
There was a strike going on. Comedians weren’t getting paid and it was really tough. Tom Dreesen was the leader of the strike. He said, “Jamie, I wish you could open a club. If most clubs charge $8 at the door, you could charge $9 and just give $1 to the comedians. Because club owners aren’t paying the comedians.” I went to a friend and said, “I want to open a club.” He said, “How are you going to make money?” I said, “I have an idea. I take whatever the door brings in, and the club keeps half; I give the comedians half, and I make money on drinks and food, so at least they can make some money.” He said, “That’s a brilliant idea! Do you have a name for it?” I came up with Laugh Factory because the building belonged to Groucho Marx at one point, and he did his brainstorming there. I thought of it as a factory to make people laugh. He gave me the money but said, “Tell you what—everything goes under my name until you’re 21. If you pay me, plus interest, I’ll turn it over to you. If you don’t, I’m keeping it.” I said OK. I was about 18.
Who helped you in the club’s early days?
Charles Joffe came in and said, “Jamie, I found out about your story. Do you know anything about comedy clubs?” I said, “Not really,” though I’d tried to be a standup comic as a kid and got put onstage when the owners wanted someone really bad to make the crowd go home. Charles managed Woody Allen, David Letterman, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams. He said, “I don’t know why, but I want to help you.” He would come in every single night and teach me how to pick out comics. This is why if you do stuff for others, God gives back. And you have to do it for no reason. Somehow God sends you a soldier or people to come help. That’s just what it is. And I was very lucky, too. I was making money. I was sending money home. My first paycheck was $28. I sent $25 to my parents who were still in Iran. Later, I moved them to Haifa.
What made you into such a care-taking person?
My dad taught me. He was a very, very giving person. He’d walk home and he’d have a cookie in his pocket for my sister. He’d see someone homeless and give it to them. That to me is what it’s all about. It’s not just “me, me, me.” Unfortunately, in the world now everybody’s become . . . everything is about them. We’re all together. We’ve got to help each other survive. That’s the most important thing we have to do.
How did you get started in charity?
When I started the free dinners for comedians and the public in the club, [comedian] Shirley Hemphill told me, “So many people come from their families to Hollywood; they have no family, nothing. Their parents told them, “If you go to Hollywood, you’ll become a star.” And they come here and reality hits them: they become a waiter or waitress and they can’t survive. On the High Holidays they can’t even come home. She said she read in the paper that an actor came to town and couldn’t go home because he wasn’t getting any movies or anything, so on Thanksgiving he committed suicide. So I decided, “Hey, I live in the club anyway, why not give a Thanksgiving dinner there?” It just grew and grew and grew.
Where do you get the food for these things?
The first year I got ten cooked turkeys and mashed potatoes from the super-market, and it was all gone pretty early. So I gave [comedians] Paul Mooney and Paul Rodriguez some money and said, “Guys, we need more turkey!” Anywhere they could find some turkey, they grab-bed it. Now I make enough money to cater them.
How could you afford to do this in the beginning?
It took me a while to pay it off. But it would break my heart to see people lonely—and even hungry. The credit should go to the comedians, not me. People don’t realize that comedians are giving people. I don’t ask them to show up; they just come in and serve on Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. You name them, they’ve been there for these dinners, from Rodney Dangerfield to Richard Pryor. Year before last, Tim Allen came in with a briefcase of $100 bills! Everybody who walked in, he gave them $100. Rodney Dangerfield comes in with this gingerbread house, sent to him by Jim Carrey. He brought it to Christmas. He said, “I won’t eat this damn gingerbread, let’s give it to everybody.”
Are you involved in any charities that give money to Israel?
Yes, but I don’t want to brag about it. A few months ago, I was in Auschwitz for the 75 year anniversary of the liberation. To see all of these holocaust survivors—it was very moving. One of the people there was the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s a Jewish guy. We were all listening to him give a speech on the final night, and suddenly I hear him say, “I’d like to meet Jamie Masada—please identify yourself.” I thought, “There must be some other Jamie Masada!” Anyway, he talks to me and I knew he’d been a comedian. He said that after he finishes his term as president, he wants to come to the United States and get back into comedy.
Richard Pryor was one of the comedians who supported the club financially after he’d become famous.
I gotta tell you a story. Richard Pryor, about 38 years ago, comes into the club. “Hi, Jamie, I bought the most expensive Mercedes. I have it outside.” That night we had Paul Mooney, John Witherspoon, Shirley Hemphill. He said, “C’mon guys! Come outside and see it!” I don’t know anything about expensive cars, but it was nice. Paul Mooney said, “Richard, you’re a crazy Black guy! This car belongs to white people, not Black people!” and he used the N-word. They were joking—they’re both Black. Richard says, “OK, let’s all get in the car.”
Paul Mooney was driving. He had a huge afro at the time. We get into Beverly Hills and a police car stops us. “You know you were swerving? Get out of the car.” They tested us and let us go. We drive from there to Westwood. All of a sudden, another police car stops us. Paul says to them, “What did I do?” The policemen were white. They said, “You were swerving.” The same thing! They go through the whole routine again, then let us go. I said, “Guys, this is scary. I gotta go back to the club.” So we got on Sunset and we’re driving in Brentwood. All of a sudden we hear a car with a siren. “You were swerving!” And they take Paul Mooney out and handcuff him and sit him on the sidewalk. They ask for my license. “What do you do?” I said, “I work at Laugh Factory.” “What do you do at Laugh Factory?” I said, “Well, I’m the owner.” And he laughs! He says, “Maybe you’re a busboy there.” He puts handcuffs on me. Then Shirley Hemphill comes out now. She’s also got a big afro, and she doesn’t have shoes on. They asked for her license and she wouldn’t say anything, so they pushed her against the wall and searched her. Then they radio for another car, saying they have criminals holding on the street. And Richard’s still in the car. So the other car comes. They ask Richard to get out of the car. One of the second car’s policemen was Black. Richard gets out. Suddenly you hear, “Oh my God! This is Richard Pryor!” They went absolutely crazy over him. They said to him, “Richard, we’re sorry, but your chauffeur was swerving.” Third time they’d said that.
What did Richard say to them?
Richard says, “Man, we’ve been stopped three times for swerving. What’s going on?” They apologized to him! Meanwhile, Paul Mooney’s screaming, “You call me chauffeur! I’m a comedian! I’m on American Bandstand!” So they let us go. Cut back to today. One of my comedians is Ruben Paul. He’s Black. He hears the story and says, “Jamie, I got stopped today—for swerving.” This is what’s happening. They have some kind of code and they’re still using it.
What made you start the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp?
The Comedy Camp started 36 years ago. Paul Rodriguez, Robin Williams, and I were doing a show at Compton High School for the kids. In the middle of the show, I spotted a kid who was all by himself. I get drawn to people like that. I went up to say hello. I could see he was hunching his back to hide, and he was holding his hand over this face. I had been doing this radio bit to promote Laugh Factory, and I created a character named Buddy Buddy. I told this kid, “I’m Buddy Buddy from the Frazer Smith show,” and he put his hand down and said, “You’re Buddy Buddy! I listen to you! You’re Latino!” I said, “No, I’m not Latino.” His name was Gomecindo Hernandez. His face was a little bit deformed. I introduced Paul and Robin to Gore and these two kids came over and said, “That kid lives in our house. The government pays us money to board him. He’s not our brother; he’s nobody.” I couldn’t believe they said that in front of everybody. It broke my heart. I asked Gore, “What are you going to do when you leave school?” He said, “I’m on my own when I turn 18.” I said, “When you finish school and turn 18, you come into the Laugh Factory and I’ll give you a job.” I gave him my card. Six months later, I hired him. There was a comedian who lived across the street and I said, “If this guy can live with you, I’ll pay half your rent.” He said, “Sure!” He was broke anyway! So Gore went to live with him. He would always have his hand in front of his face. Richard Pryor would come in and I’d say, “Richard, go talk to him.” One night, after six or seven months, I see him and he’s dressed up. I said, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’m going on a date with this girl who works in the club!” This girl, she was the prettiest girl in the club. Jerry Seinfeld asked for a date and she said no. Gore’s suddenly standing up straight and looking good. I thought, “Wow. If I can change one person’s life like this, that’s what I should do. That’s how the Comedy Camp was born. I dedicated it to this kid. I can’t take all the credit myself. All the comedians have been there—Richard Pryor, all of them. And I said, “Take anything good you see in them and encourage them. Give them confidence. Help them with their speaking.” That’s what we give them—confidence, by going onstage and speaking. And a lot of them have gotten jobs because they were well-spoken in interviews. I follow up with them.
You are credited with discovering a lot of major comedy stars. What makes somebody light you up?
If a comedian on the stage is caring, they have a good likeability, good timing—you look at all the ingredients. I’ve been lucky, thank God. I’ve always picked up the right people.
Can you remember when you saw a comic for the first time and said, “That person has potential.”
Dave Chappelle came into the club, 17 or 18 years old. He came from Washington. He went on the stage and I went, “Oh my God—this guy is brilliant.” The way he walked around the stage, I’ll never forget it: talking to the audience, going back and forth with them. I knew a star was born. I told a couple people, “This guy’s gonna make it all the way to the top.” But a lot of people saw that in him; you can’t give me all the credit. He just blew me away—so original, so creative. Everything about him was so real. He’s a wonderful person. He gives back so much.
The Laugh Factory holds a contest —The Funniest Person in the World—that solicits performance clips from comics around the world to promote world peace. Do you really believe laughter can bring peace to the world?
I do. Religion has failed us. Government, the United Nations—they failed. The simplest thing works the best. If you share a laugh like you share bread, you’ll forget and it will bring people together. I really believe that. And I’ll tell you how I came to that. I do a lot of controversial shows at the club. One Saturday night I had two very conservative Arab comedians and two orthodox Jewish comedians on the same show. These two have big followers. I thought, “Half of the room is Jewish people and they’re staring at the other half, which is Arabian.” Oh my God. I thought, “I hope I have enough insurance if a fight breaks out.” The comedians went on and were saying things like, “Guys, you Jewish people don’t realize we were the first. America takes credit for everything. America even takes credit for inventing slavery.” They said, “You Jews, you were our slaves!”
Everyone laughed. Everything came up! Next thing, I go outside the club and I see a guy with a big turban and two of his bodyguards. Big Rolls Royce pulling up. And two Orthodox guys with yarmulkes. And all five of them are smoking cigarettes and talking to each other. I said, “This is better than the United Nations.” Religion, all of that stuff, what does it all mean? Rules? We are all breathing the same air, we all bleed the same way. The last time we did The Funniest Person in the World awards, we got over 70 million people subscribing and voting.
You clearly take care of your people.
Well, we try. A lot of people in Hollywood, they spend hundreds of thousands a year on a psychiatrist to make them happy. But the most real happiness you can get is giving to somebody.