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Standing Up for the Craft of Stand-Up

Richard Jeni's a Veteran 'Tail-Feather-Strutting' Jokester and Quiet Guy

March 06, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Jeni has been performing stand-up comedy for more than 20 years. And like a veteran rock star, he feels obligated to present plenty of his greatest hits--or should we say, greatest bits--onstage.

"I've kind of got to do [a lot of my popular material during my live show]," explained Jeni, who performs at the Irvine Improv Wednesday through Saturday night.

"I've done four HBO comedy hours. A lot of people have seen them. I used to think that people wouldn't want to see you do material that they've already seen you do on TV. But the opposite is the case. If you don't do stuff they've seen you do on TV, they think you're practicing on them! It's like seeing AC/DC. You want to hear some current stuff but you also want to hear 'Highway to Hell.' "

For most comics, landing their own HBO special means striking gold. It's a symbol of prestige that far outdistances a four- or five-minute stint on "The Tonight Show." Jeni has made many appearances on "The Tonight Show" and a fifth HBO special is on the way next year.

It's not hard to understand his appeal. Onstage he's a fireball. He seems to put his whole being into his performances, slinging out jokes and funny anecdotes while mixing in impressions and physical comedy.

"I'm good at a lot of things, but I'm not really great at any one thing," the Los Angeles-area resident said.

"I'm a pretty good writer and performer. I'm pretty good at doing voices and writing a joke. Put all those things together and hopefully the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Some comedians have one thing they do, but they do it great. Steven Wright doesn't have a lot of different dynamics in his act, but his jokes are so brilliant and so interesting. He doesn't need anything else."

Jeni, 42, is particularly adept at poking fun at the differences between the sexes, sometimes in his own R-rated way. The Brooklyn native said he creates his shows with his audience very much in mind. Relationship material has always gone over well at comedy clubs, which tend to be frequented by couples on dates.

He noted that a bad joke about plumbing in front of an audience full of plumbers is always preferable to a brilliant joke about international finance delivered to a roomful of folks who can't even do their own taxes.

Jeni's act has diversified as he's gotten older. Onstage, he finds humor in everything from religion--he was raised Catholic--to the more absurd commercials that can be seen on late-night, early-morning television. He said he's more mature onstage today.

"The other thing that changes your material as you get older is that your skills increase," said Jeni, chosen Best Stand-up at the 1994 American Comedy Awards.

"It's just like being a writer. When writers first start, they have to stick to things that they know. But as you get on with your craft, the available subjects that you can approach should increase. As a comic, you should be able to get away from your typical 'McDonald's this or 7-Eleven that.' You have the craft to come up with an idea that really isn't funny and the skill to make it into something that is funny."

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Jeni's staying power is also evident in a new sitcom idea he has developed for CBS. The network is deciding whether to turn his proposal into a pilot. If the project is green-lighted, he will play a guy who manages a shopping mall.

It would be a much different sitcom than "Platypus Man," the UPN show he starred in for seven months in 1995. In "Platypus Man," Jeni played the host of a cooking show searching for the perfect woman.

"I'm 42 now. Not that nobody my age is dating, but I just think it's a lot more attractive to watch somebody 22 do that, generally speaking. ['Platypus Man'] was six years ago. I don't know what we can do in a show about dating that 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' haven't done better," he said.

Jeni--who provides the voice for Max, the animated radio and TV spokesman for Office Max--approaches the work he gets outside of stand-up comedy strictly in "bonus" terms. He is first and foremost a stand-up guy.

"It's like you're in a casino and your basic stake is your stand-up comedy act. While you're there, you have a job that you really like and that pays really well. So every once in a while, you take one of those chips and you throw it on a big longshot [like a sitcom]. If it doesn't work, you're still way ahead of the game."

Jeni is so accomplished at the craft of stand-up that it can appear as if he's not even performing. Fans often mistake his extroverted stage persona for the real Richard Jeni.

"People who knew me before I started doing comedy can't believe I do this because they remember me as being quiet," he said. "I'm not shy in that I avoid people, but I'm not the life of the party. When I go places, I'm content to let someone else have the limelight. I'm not joking all the time. That's me in my act, but it's me to the 10th power. It's kind of a pumped-up, over-inflated, tail-feather-strutting version of me."

SHOW TIMES

Richard Jeni performs at the Irvine Improv, 71 Fortune Drive, Irvine. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:30 p.m. $20; Friday, 8:30 & 10:30 p.m. $22; Saturday, 7, 9 & 11 p.m. $22. (949) 854-5455.

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