Richard Jeni: A real stand-up guy
February 28, 2002
Growing up in the classic, tough Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Richard Jeni was surrounded by scenes that would make good material for a comedy routine.
In his early teens, Jeni hung out on the street corner, witnessing mobsters and hoodlums, hookers and stoners. Comedy became a way of being accepted into this street-life world.
But comedy certainly was not the kind of thing Jeni ever thought of pursuing as a career.
“I always wanted to do stand-up, but it’s such an outrageous thing to think you can do that,” said Jeni, who appears in a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Experts Only show tonight, at 11:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, and tomorrow, at 11:30 p.m. at the Aspen Room. Jeni shares a bill with Lenny Clarke.
So Jeni took the sideways path into a comedy career: he messed up at everything else he tried. He landed a dream job with a prestigious public-relations firm and got fired after six months. He’d go into conservative work places wearing disco suits. At one job, a friend sent Jeni a singing stripper, who belted out a song about how incompetent Jeni was – on his first day of work.
By the age of 24, Jeni found himself driving a cab, and depressed. About the only thing left was stand-up comedy.
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“The path is to screw up all the regular day jobs until you can’t do anything else,” said the 43-year-old Jeni. “I went around pretending to do jobs I really didn’t want to do. I painted myself into this melodramatic corner. I’ve failed at everything I ever wanted to do.”
Except comedy. He started going to the open-mic nights at a Brooklyn comedy club called Pips. And while his routine, he says, was awful at first, he kept coming back for more, and he got better and better. He began to treat stand-up as his one chance at a job he could enjoy.
Jeni says he also got lucky. He came up in the business during the early to mid-’80s, when comedy clubs were a huge growth business. “It was like a guy who learned to program computers in 1961,” he said.
Jeni, who now lives in California, made his reputation as a stand-up. But he’s made continuous efforts to try to break into films and television. His most notable film credit was playing Jim Carrey’s best friend in “The Mask”; on television, he starred in a show, “Platypus Man,” that ran for one season on the UPN network.
Jeni described “Platypus Man” as a hodgepodge of “Home Improvement” and “Seinfeld.” In it, he played the host of a TV cooking show aimed at guys who can’t cook.
“Why not have a show for a guy who tries to make a tuna melt and ends up in the burn unit with mayonnaise in his hair?” he said. It seemed like a good idea until the network executives got hold of the show.
“What comes out the other end of the meat grinder never resembles what went in at the beginning,” said Jeni. “It was supposed to be ‘Hamlet,’ but it turned into ‘Doby Gillis.’ It was kind of formulaic, kind of safe – all those things that generally work in TV. So we were mystified that it didn’t do better.”
Jeni still holds out some hope for a successful TV series. He says he’s appearing at the USCAF “to remind people that I’m still alive.” He recently had a deal that lasted two years, four writers, two studios – and never even turned out a pilot. “Why not invest some energy in trying to do something like sitcoms and movies, that have nothing to do with how funny you are?” he said.
So Jeni sticks with his bread and butter, stand-up. It is a medium where he stands and falls solely on his own merits.
“It’s such a great thing to have, to be able to do stand-up and make a good living at it,” he said. “There’s such a logic and purity to it. It’s not that subjective: it’s how many tickets you are selling, how many laughs you are getting.
“When you get into sitcoms and movies, it’s so subject to timing and luck and flavor-of-the-month mentality. It’s great when it’s working. But people can go up and down enormously in Hollywood, without losing or gaining a thing in terms of talent.”
Even if he lands the lucrative sitcom, Jeni could never see leaving stand-up.
“Even if you get the show, or get the movie, if you really love this, it doesn’t leave your blood,” he said. “You’re never going to be done. It’s a fallacy that, hey, you get your sitcom, you get your money and you go sit and rock back and forth on the porch.”
In the end, Jeni is even grateful for his lack of success away from the comedy-club stage.
“I’ve gotten much better at stand-up comedy because none of those other things took off,” he said. “I’m light years ahead of where I would be in my live performing and writing.”