Getting serious about making people laugh

The gig: Owner of the Laugh Factory, considered one of the best comedy clubs in the country. The flagship club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood has been open since 1979. Last year, Masada opened a $10-million location in Long Beach.

Background: At age 14, Masada came to the U.S. from Iran. The year was 1976, just before the Iranian Revolution, and Masada was hoping to find work and support his family, who had immigrated to Israel. But the person Masada was supposed to live with in Los Angeles abandoned him, and he ended up sleeping in the garage of an apartment manager who looked out for him.

First job: Painting apartments. "My first paycheck was $25, and the apartment manager's wife drove me to the post office, and I sent it off to my parents. I felt like I had to support them. I felt like I had that responsibility, like I was father to my father and father to my mother and I was proud to do it."

Education: Masada earned his diploma through night classes at Fairfax High School.

Stumbling into the spotlight: Looking for work on Sunset Boulevard, Masada walked into the Comedy Store and met then-owner Sammy Shore, who put him on stage after another comedian canceled. "The spotlight hit me and I couldn't see anything," he said. "My nerves hit me, and I started speaking in Farsi and Hebrew, and my legs started shaking." After a few minutes, a woman started laughing and others followed. From that day on, Masada spent all the time he could in the Comedy Store and around comedians.

Inspired by tragedy: A comedian friend of Masada's jumped off the Hyatt House Hotel; the suicide was blamed on the man's frustration with the entertainment industry and with living in poverty. "I was walking down the street, and I was crying for my friend, and I saw a building for rent, and I thought, 'I want to start a club there and pay comedians for their work so this won't happen.' " Masada, then 16, took his idea of a club that would always split door receipts with comics to film producer and friend Neil Israel. Israel lent Masada the money to start the club, and a few weeks later the Laugh Factory opened.

Opening night: Comedian Paul Mooney agreed to perform, but he brought a surprise. "All of a sudden Richard Pryor walked in and got on the stage, and he did about 45 minutes, and then he got off the stage, and I thanked him, and I gave him his money. It was $3.25 and I tried to give it to him, splitting from the door, and he said, 'What is this?' And he brought a big stack out of his pocket and gave me a $100 bill, and he wrote on it, 'Good luck, boy, you need this for your rent, Richard Pryor 1979." Masada, never having seen a $100 bill before, thought it was fake. Pryor gave Masada $400 more and said, "Hollywood is going to eat you alive." Pryor's set gave the club instant credibility. Thirty years later, top comedians and up-and-comers alike still perform in Masada's clubs.

A meal and a laugh: The Laugh Factory hosts a night of free dinner and comedy on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day for L.A.'s poor, with more than 5,000 people attending last year. Masada also hosts a summer Laugh Factory Comedy Camp for underprivileged kids. "The people who come to the dinners, the kids in the camp, they remind me of myself because when I first came to this country I had nobody," Masada said.

No joke: "If you are passionate and you care about what you do, the reward and the success will come," he said. "People forget how wonderful this country is. This country has opportunity for everybody. And if I made it with my accent, with my look and with nothing, then anyone can make it."


For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction Jamie Masada: In Business on April 5, an article and photo caption about comedy club owner Jamie Masada misspelled his name Jaime.
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