Jamie Masada garnered 15 more minutes of fame in August — appearing on the “Today” show, CNN, etc. — for a depressing reason: The death, premature and tragic, of Robin Williams, a comedian he had known for years.
The toll of such events, coupled with the not-terribly-funny state of world affairs, has made the owner of the Laugh Factory seem wistful. Always conscious of giving back to the community — both the one composed of comedians and society at large — for blessings he has enjoyed as an immigrant from Iran, Masada has turned his attention toward a bigger stage and more idealistic legacy.
Having presided over the club for 35 years, he’s eschewed the customary back-patting exercises, such as an anniversary special, to commemorate the milestone. Instead, he has thrown his energy into a venture with no less than world harmony as its underlying message, and, sure, maybe a few laughs and bucks along the way.
Masada’s latest project, the Funniest Person in the World, is an open competition featuring comics from across the globe. The pool was gradually culled down to 10 finalists, with standups representing the U.S., Europe (Spain, France, Finland), China, South Africa and so on, set to perform at the club’s West Hollywood location later this month. The concluding round will be held Oct. 24 in Las Vegas, with fans voting online to determine a winner, who’ll earn $10,000 and a spot on a nationwide comedy tour.
For Masada, however, what could easily be turned into another summer network fill-in series — the international version of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” — has become something of a personal crusade, a way to transform comedy into a unifying force for understanding.
“Laughter is such an international language; it’s like breaking bread,” he says. “Maybe this could bring some peace to the world.”
According to Masada, the inspiration for the enterprise came about by what almost sounds like a “Two guys walk into a bar” joke. Only in this case, he had booked two Arab comedians and a pair of Orthodox Jews to perform at the club, and saw the crowd essentially divided down the middle.
While he harbors dreams about turning the competition into a full-fledged TV event, Masada insists he’s been reluctant to leap at a deal, because he doesn’t want to sacrifice control or the purity of what he has in mind.
“I don’t want it to be about the ratings,” he said. “I want to see if we can change the world.”
If that sounds a trifle naive, especially after a summer when cable news has played “Can you top this?” with international crises, it’s worth noting Masada has long incorporated philanthropy into the Laugh Factory’s mission. For years, he has opened the club to serve meals to the needy on Thanksgiving and Christmas; launched a Comedy Camp for underprivileged kids two decades ago; and, in a story that got considerable attention after Williams’ death, has been making a psychologist available to comics for the past few years, triggered by the suicide of Richard Jeni in 2007.
Granted, it’s a longshot that bringing comedians together from the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain and Israel (home to the four other finalists) is going to settle ancient grudges or cure the world’s ills, but as Masada put it, “At least I’m trying.”
The Laugh Factory is billing the Funniest Person as the “first annual” showcase, with hopes the event will grow in the years ahead. And while it’s easy to cynically laugh off the premise, there’s something to be said for working to right the balance of a world stage that, too often, looks so heavily tilted toward tears.