Possessing keen insight and a razor sharp wit, comedian Richard Jeni was a tireless stand-up performer who toured relentlessly and starred in a number of cable specials that helped make him one of the hardest working and most beloved comics in the business. Drawing big laughs from varied topics like dating, dieting and politics, Jeni developed a reputation as a comic's comic, while earning a great deal of respect for his generous support of his friends. After making his television debut on "Just for Laughs" (Showtime, 1986), Jeni landed his first solo special, "Richard Jeni: The Boy from New York City" (Showtime, 1989), while becoming a regular on late night talk shows. He went on to his second comedy special, "Richard Jeni: Crazy from the Heat" (Showtime, 1991), before going over to rival HBO for "Richard Jeni: Platypus Man" (1992). Jeni next turned up in a supporting role opposite Jim Carrey in "The Mask" (1994), which turned out to be his most significant feature role. Following a failed sitcom, "Platypus Man" (UPN, 1995-96), he hit his peak with a seemingly non-stop touring schedule that ultimately did not result in many more feature and television appearances outside of his stand-up routine. In March 2007, Jeni committed suicide following a diagnosis of depression and schizophrenia that shocked friends and fans alike, leaving behind an incomplete career that, despite its tragic end, was full of laughter.
Born on April 14, 1957 in Brooklyn, NY, Jeni was raised in an Italian-American home in the Bensonhurst neighborhood and later graduated with honors from Hunter College with a bachelor's in political science. After graduating, he began performing at local open-mic competitions in the early 1980s and made friends with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Joy Behar and Rosie O'Donnell. From early on, audiences appreciated Jeni's knack for observational comedy and keen ear for dialogue. Among his fellow comics, he was revered, not just for his brave talent onstage, but for being supportive and brotherly - a good guy in a cutthroat industry. After honing his act on the road for several years, Jeni had his first break in the mid-1980s when he made his television debut as a featured performer on the cable comedy showcase, "Just for Laughs" (Showtime, 1986). Two years later, he made his debut on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), and subsequently appeared regularly on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1992-2009; 2010- ), on which he appeared more times than any other stand-up comic.
Continuing to rise up the ranks, Jeni landed his first comedy special, "Richard Jeni: The Boy from New York City" (Showtime, 1989), which performed impressively in the ratings and led Showtime to invite the comic back for a return engagement, "Richard Jeni: Crazy from the Heat" (Showtime, 1991). In 1992, rival cable network HBO lured Jeni over for their own highly rated comedy special, "Richard Jeni: Platypus Man" (HBO, 1992). Despite his genius on stage - where he covered varied topics like dating, football and women nagging men trying to drive - Jeni watched as his fellow New Yorker comics like Seinfeld and Ray Romano became household names and very rich men. Meanwhile, he waited for his big turn, which many fellow comics and diehard fans felt was inevitable. His profile continued to rise, thanks to his frequent appearances on Leno's "Tonight Show" and "The View" (ABC, 1997- ), and was elevated considerably when he played Jim Carrey's best friend in the runaway hit, "The Mask" (1994). Better suited for the small screen, however, Jeni returned to television to star in his own short-lived sitcom, the semi-autobiographical series "Platypus Man" (UPN, 1995-96), which cast him as the host of a cable cooking show that dispenses recipes for meals and advice about relationships. Unfortunately, like most of the fledgling network's earliest outings, "Platypus Man" failed to find an audience and was duly cancelled. He followed with a forgotten turn in the critically maligned "Burn Hollywood Burn" (1998).
Undaunted, Jeni kept busy with his stand-up engagements as well as the occasional national commercial, pitching for Certs, Arby's and the American Dairy Association. Although his career hit a plateau in the new millennium, he remained consistently employed. Jeni starred in his final live stand-up show, "Richard Jeni: A Big Steaming Pile of Me" (HBO, 2005) and made a guest-appearance on the highly-rated "Everyone Hates Chris" (UPN/The CW, 2005-09) alongside long-time close friend, Chris Rock. Behind his amiable smile and likeable demeanor, however, Jeni was a haunted man. In December 2006, he was involuntarily hospitalized on a 5150 involuntary hold after showing up to a hospital emergency room with suicidal depression and claiming that he was going to jump off a building. Three months later, on March 11, 2007, fans and friends alike were shocked to learn that Jeni had committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a gun. He was only 49. A week prior to his death, Jeni's girlfriend had heard him talking to himself about actually killing himself. His family attributed his hectic work schedule, and his diagnosis of clinical depression and schizophrenia as causes. Meanwhile, comedians like Chris Rock, Rosie O'Donnell and Bill Maher all paid tribute to their fallen friend.