SANTA MARIA, Calif. – The unfamiliar sound of laughter has punctuated Michael Jackson's child molestation trial with the recent witness-stand appearances of three comedians and a comedy club owner whose wisecracks have reminded everyone that this is still a show-business case.
"I was thinking that between the comedians and the lawyers, I like the comedians better," Judge Rodney S. Melville (search) quipped this past week. Jurors laughed heartily and a few clapped their hands in approval.
Jackson later told reporters: "We can always use a little comic relief."
Jamie Masada (search), owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club; George Lopez (search), a comic with his own TV show; Fritz Coleman (search), a TV weatherman and part-time comedian; and comedian Louise Palanker (search) have all taken their turns on the witness stand, recalling how they became involved with the family of the boy who accuses Jackson of molestation.
None had ever met Jackson, but Masada drew laughs when he looked over at the defendant and said genially: "How are you?"
Jackson waved at him from across the courtroom.
Some told dramatic stories. Coleman said he and Palanker once went to a poor East Los Angeles neighborhood to bring the accuser's family a Christmas tree and presents. Palanker told of giving them $20,000 and finally cutting off payments when the father became too demanding.
The defense is seeking to show that the family members were con artists who used the boy's cancer to take advantage of show business contacts, including the comedians and Jackson, then accused Jackson when he tried to sever ties with them.
The comics, however, defended the boy and his siblings as appealing children.
"They were fearless in their performing," Lopez said.
Masada, who helped the boy meet Jackson, rattled off the names of celebrity comics who worked at his comedy club and described his charitable efforts with a camp for underprivileged children, where the accuser and his siblings met comedians and learned about being standup comics.
"We always encourage them to talk about the pain," he said. "I believe laughter is healing."
Masada, a former comedian himself, used comedic gibes to spar with Jackson's lawyer, Thomas Mesereau Jr. (search)
"Me and you, we can have a comedy team," he told Mesereau at one point. And when there were questions about Palanker's talents as a comic, Masada said: "I find you more funny than she is."
Mesereau replied: "Maybe I'm in the wrong profession."
However, Masada also turned hostile toward Mesereau, relating a conversation he had had with Palanker after she testified.
"She said that you have made this court like O.J.'s court or Robert Blake's court and you lied and changed the words around," Masada said.
Mesereau asked if that outburst had to do with Palanker admitting she may have told deputies Masada was "a pathological liar."
Lopez got laughs on the witness stand when he compared his own upbringing to that of the Hispanic family that now accuses Jackson of molestation. He, too, met them at the Laugh Factory but severed ties when the father accused Lopez of stealing money from the boy.
Lopez recalled that the accuser and his two siblings came to the club's comedy camp by bus.
"Anyone who takes the bus in Los Angeles is a hero to me," he joked.
Lopez said he visited the sick boy at his grandparents' home in suburban El Monte, saying he had heard that Palanker had given the family $10,000 to build a germ-free room and he wanted to see it.
Mesereau asked if he thought that was odd.
"I think it's odd when a comedian has $10,000, period," Lopez quipped.