In Memoriam: Richard Jeni – Comedian

I was watching Carlos Mencia’s Mind of Mencia – it was his season premiere and despite all the hub bub about his joke stealing, I still have to watch because… heck, it’s comedy.  Anyway, Carlos signed off the episode saying to Richard Jeni that he knew that he was up in heaven making God laugh.

I stood up and said, "Wh… wha… WHHHHAAT?"

I quickly typed in, a web site that I’d visited several times before… just not recently… because I really loved that guy.  I would without hesitation say he was probably my favorite comedian of all time.

Richard Jeni passed away from an apparent suicide.  And for the first time in a very long time, while reading the words that his family placed on his web site, I cried quietly.

Richard Jeni, as I’d said before, has been my favorite comedian.  And it’s more than just because he was a hilarious guy & a brilliant performer.

In 2000, Microsoft had our annual national sales meeting in Miami.  It was an hot, poorly run, unremarkable event, and frankly one of the reasons I to this day hate Florida.  The convention center was overcrowded, the clubs were pretentious and being that I was from out of town and had no hook up, it took C-notes to get into anywhere worth getting into, and even then, it wasn’t enough without the right look or the right crowd.

But there was one thing that I’ll always remember:  Richard Jeni opened the final night of our event.   We’d hired him to do 30 minutes of stand up in front of 7000 people – 7000 people drinking, talking, eating… did I mention drinking?  And he was supposed to grab everyone’s attention and get people in the mood to party.

Let me put this into perspective here:  These are 7000 Software Salespeople.  This has got to be a comedian’s nightmare.  I mean, first of all, half the crowd’s a bunch of geeks.  The other half are slick salesfolk that are more raucous than the average frat house.

But Richard started doing his latest material and got the crowd laughing.  And laughing.  And laughing some more.  Finally, the audience was fixated on him as he ripped a hole in Los Angeles natives calling them vain and pretentious, which frankly left our geography all in stitches, being from Los Angeles.  He left the stage to thunderous applause and the show went on.  We didn’t see him again for the rest of the event.

Well, on the way back to Los Angeles, I found myself in an airport eatery near my gate.  I’d ordered some snacks to eat and was waiting in line to pay for it all when I noticed an individual a little taller than me with dark sunglasses on. 

"Uh, excuse me?  Are you Richard Jeni?"

He smiled, took the glasses off and said, "Yeah… yeah, I am."  I muttered something embarrassing about how I was a big fan, and asked him about whether he was on his way to LA too, and he said that he’d just finished doing a corporate "gig" in town and was going back home.

"Oh!  Yes, I know – I’m with Microsoft and I was at your performance!  It was absolutely fantastic."

He said, that he was glad I liked it.  It was an easy set for him and he thought it went pretty well.  Then he said:

"Hey – do you want to sit down with me?"

Now, this is what threw me.  Most actors & entertainment folk I know, would have just gone off on their merry way and thought to themselves, "Another fan.  Whew.  Glad I didn’t have to take too much time with him."  (In fact, I ran into someone recently of D-list fame that really didn’t want to give me the time of day and seemed quite annoyed that I’d recognized and dared to speak a word in public to him)

But not Richard.  He actually wanted to talk to me.  And little did he know at that moment, how much that meant to me.  Y’see, I’d been following Richard Jeni since I was in college – which was a lonnnng time ago.  He used to have bits on Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central where they’d show maybe 2 or 3 jokes in a sequence of 30 seconds then switch to another comedian.  (Hence the Short Attention Span part.)

I watched so much of that SAST stuff, I knew his early stand up very well.  And I also knew he had a TV show that was cancelled called, "Platypus Man".  The premise was simple:  Man was awkward and evolved from different experiences.  He is ridiculed for being out of place and odd looking and that’s very much like the platypus.

In any case, I asked him if he minded doing corporate gigs like ours and he said that it was actually something he liked to do because it was easy money and he just had to do his bit once and that was it.  Fly in, perform, fly out, that’s it.  (I later discovered that he REALLY liked corporate gigs – his schedule was littered with them.  He must have had a helluvan agent!)

I don’t think Richard wasn’t quite prepared for my "reiteration" of his earlier bits.  Mid sip of my coffee, I launched into a recitation of one of his earlier bits about how flight attendants sometimes translate instructions into multiple languages on airplanes and how they constantly say the words, "At this time" after and before every sentence they say.  It’s like a filler phrase they use to prep themselves for the next thing they’re going to say to the cabin.

Richard seemed delighted that I remembered that bit – so much so that we started doing the bit together("… por favor, kiss your butt, buenos noches"), vocalizing each word together and concluding with "AT THIS TIME".  And we both laughed at the absurdity of two middle aged guys telling each other one guy’s jokes in the middle of a cafe.

Our flight had arrived, and so we got up to leave.  I bid my farewell to him and told him I’d look him up at his next gig which you’d always see on

I was supposed to see him a gig he was doing in the South Bay, but I never made it.  I was really disorganized then and I just forgot about it.  I wish I’d gone.

So now Richard’s gone. 

I’ve got a rather cynical view of most entertainers.  My experience with them hasn’t been particularly good.  I’ve supported entertainment companies for a long time as a salesperson and I can say that most of the folks I’ve met haven’t been particularly nice.  Many of the things you hear about celebrities is true and generalities are made about these folks because, in general, they’re right.

But Richard was different.  I didn’t know the guy very well, but in my mind, I remember Richard Jeni to be a nice guy, with an observant eye for comedy, and a kind heart.

Richard:  I know you’re up there somewhere making God laugh like Carlos says, and if it means anything, this guy wants to say, "Thanks for the memories… uh… at this time."

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