SAN FRANCISCO — You want to talk bad gigs? You want to talk tough crowds?
Try working as the opening act for the Pope.
Or try telling people that a comic can be both successful and spiritual.
Michael Pritchard is facing such a challenge. Pritchard, a devout Catholic and stand-up comedian, will host the opening ceremonies when Pope John Paul II comes to celebrate Mass at Candlestick Park Friday morning.
"It's a natural thing for me. I didn't really pay all that much attention to it," he said of the San Francisco Archdiocese's invitation to narrate the 45-minute program called "Pro Omnibus" ("For All").
"I didn't sit down and say, 'Hey, gosh, I'm opening for the Pope.' I just thought I am going to emcee a spiritual celebration, which is right in tune with what I've been doing for many years."
Indeed, Pritchard often appears to be spending as much time on social work as social satire. Charitable groups and government officials alike frequently enlist him for everything from talking to religious groups to motivating social workers.
Still, more than a few eyebrows jumped when Pritchard was selected. After all, Pritchard's act incorporates the often salty language a social worker hears--although he apologizes up front to audience members who might be offended by the remarks.
Pritchard was surprised at first by all the attention--and especially the criticism--but soon he learned to accept it.
"When the publicity first came out, and people were getting on me--'Hey, what is some sleazoid comedian doing opening for His Holiness?'--all I could say was, 'What did I do?' " he recalled, slipping in and out of the familiar, yet oddball, characters that people his stage act.
"This has nothing to do with comedy. It has to do with the side of myself that is completely different from that."
Sister Sharon McMillan, one of the planners of the big open-air Mass, said Pritchard has the right blend of stage experience, humor and spirituality the church was looking for in the host for its pre-Mass program.
"We needed a personality who would be immediately engaging and make 70,000 people greet one another and laugh," she said.
Pritchard said such a role might baffle and alarm folks who knew him in his native Dellwood, Mo. While working as a social worker in St. Louis in the mid-1970s, Pritchard, 37, said he developed a drinking problem.
"Everybody in St. Louis still thinks I'm scum," he recalled. "I got into millions of bar-room brawls back there."
Pritchard turned himself around in 1978. He moved to San Francisco, stopped drinking, began working for San Francisco probation officials--and discovered the Bay Area comedy scene. He won the 1980 San Francisco Comedy Competition, a festival that includes such top comedians as Robin Williams among its alumni.
Since then, he has balanced comedy with the other key elements in his life: faith, family and social work. He and his wife, Mary Jo, a screenwriter, live in modest surroundings in the city's unassuming Sunset district. They have two sons--Connor, 5, and Brian, 2 1/2--and expect a third child this month.