“Going to war over religion is basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.”
That’s one of my favorite Richard Jeni jokes. Probably because it’s the first I’ve ever heard of and was such a succinct and on-point summation to what an impressionable teen was discovering about religion.
When it comes to Richard Jeni, there aren’t many comedians better on stage, he was a master at constructing a joke and even better acting it out on stage. Jeni was a driven man, haunted by his quest to be the best comic and to get mainstream recognition for it. This desire not only drove him to develop and harness an incredible presence and act on stage, but also the one that set him on the track to his demise.
Jeni fought a battle for greatness every day, he lost just once; most comedy fans know how his story ended. However, it’s the non-comedy fans not knowing that make his story more tragic. See, in his 25+ years as a comedian, the spotlight of mainstream success eluded Jeni. On more than a few occasions, his comedian friends got the call from Hollywood while he was given a backseat (if one at all). Showbiz doesn’t always reward the most talented, and talented he was.
Jeni possessed an incredible ability to tell a joke and mine material for every drop. Jeni looked for original thought in his comedy, making points with such incredible humor and insight. Who could argue with such a perfect joke as, “My mother never saw the irony of calling me a son of a bitch.”
For those familiar with his material, Jeni sits among the greats. Sharing something all greats do, unrelenting desire to be the best. His style came across as though he was just thinking aloud, as if you were watching him spinning his ideas out into the ether, riffing as he wished. At a roundtable discussion at Just For Laughs this summer, we heard the story that he once wrote just 5 sentences for joke ideas on a piece of paper then took the stage and performed for an hour and a half of comedy based on those 5 ideas. Jeni made stand-up look effortless, the type of effortless that takes years of practice to achieve. From his cadence to his rapid fire delivery, Jeni taught a master class on stage.
Jeni was social, he was political, but rather than taking an affiliation, he’d take shots at both sides because he understood how ridiculous it all was following it up with a joke like, “The way I see life, it’s like we’re all flying on the Hindenburg, why fight over the window seats?” Jokes we’d praise Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert for delivering today.
Of all the Richard Jeni specials that stick with me, it might be Platypus Man. Whether that be because of the animated platypus and song in the intro or it’s just that much better than the rest (it’s probably the Platypus). The reality is any of his specials, Platypus Man, Boy From New York City, A Big Steaming Pile of Me, Crazy From the Heat, are worth checking out. Jeni’s entire out of print CD catalog was just re-issued by Comedy Dynamics; creating the opportunity for an entire new generation of comedy fans the opportunity to discover a comedian worthy of their attention. A parallel that drawn between comedians and other great thinkers is that their thoughts are often of their time, yet years later remain relevant. You’d be surprised how much of Jeni’s material is still relatable.
To Richard Jeni, a true original.
Richard Jeni’s catalog of recorded albums, Roll With It, A Good Catholic Boy, A Big Steaming Pile of Me, Platypus Man, Greatest Bits, and The Beach Crowd are back in print and re-issued by Comedy Dynamics. Platypus Man is also streaming on Comedy Dynamic’s Hulu Channel. Check them out now.