COMEDY REVIEW : A Rising Star, Richard Jeni, Shines at Improv

The thrill of Richard Jeni’s set Tuesday at the Irvine Improvisation was something akin to the excitement of watching a favorite local band do a hometown gig just as its career is starting to click.

That’s when the anticipation and enthusiasm that surrounds the performance can transcend the mere details of what happens on stage.

Jeni isn’t really a local boy, but he’s close--he’s a transplanted New Yorker now living in Los Angeles. And his career appears to have undergone a dramatic shift into overdrive.

In February, the last time he played a full week at the Irvine Improv, he co-headlined, which usually means the club is unsure whether a comic is ready for the top spot on the bill.


There’s no uncertainty now. A comic rises (or falls) with his or her credits, and clearly Jeni is rising. He blazed through his “Tonight Show” debut in August and may return as soon as October; he closes this year’s “HBO Young Comedians Special”; he’s featured in a soon-to-air Showtime special, and he appears in the new film biography of Charlie Parker, “Bird.”

Despite this kind of buzz and momentum, Jeni is pretty much the same sharp performer he has always been. If there’s any detectable change, he appears a tad more confident. And as if the guy doesn’t have enough going for him, he’s enormously likable too. Which is why it was not only thrilling but fun--and funny--to watch him work Tuesday.

Pacing the stage like a caged lion with a great sense of humor, Jeni tends to construct extended bits that are more anecdotal than observational, though sometimes both. One of the interesting things about him (this may not sound like a compliment but stay tuned) is that he addresses some areas that would make anyone’s list of stand-up’s most overworked topics: air travel, Dr. Ruth, fast-food joints and employees, condoms and old TV shows (specifically “The Brady Bunch”). But the way he handled most, they didn’t seem overworked.

In his opening piece on flying, Jeni questioned the airline reminder that the seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. “I think once the plane noses into the Pacific on fire, the flight is more or less over, isn’t it?” In that same piece, he mocked the way pilots make in-flight announcements with that enormously languid, bored-sounding delivery--another standard stand-up bit. But Jeni’s version was fresh and sharp--and later he used that voice as a callback in a section on a troubled relationship plagued by boredom in the bedroom.


It takes a truly gifted comic to find an original, amusing way to explore the over-explored, to triumph with the trivial. It’s something that Jay Leno and precious few others can do. Jeni rarely faltered, though his long piece contrasting family life on “The Brady Bunch” with his own didn’t pack a powerful enough payoff to merit its length.

Jeni was more impressive when he moved into truly unusual areas, sketching scenes singular to him. Noting that road comics have considerable downtime, he revealed various techniques he uses to kill time.

He then segued into a classic Jeni bit: describing another way he once filled time by renting all four “Jaws” movies and watching them back-to-back. Jeni had a lot of fun guiding the audience through the movie’s gaping plot holes. For instance, he pointed out that after a woman had three people in her family eaten by the shark, she decided the only course of action was to leave town.

“Wouldn’t her apartment building be sufficient protection from the average shark?” Jeni wondered. “Even if he’s a really ambitious shark, by the time he got in the building, parked the car, explained himself to the doorman and came up the stairs, you would most likely smell fish and split .


Moments later, he said: “I’ve caught fish. They don’t make plans to meet people. They are not that brilliant.”

Jeni is.

Headlining a strong bill that also includes Larry Brown and Martha Jane, Jeni continues through Sunday at the Irvine Improv.

The Improv is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: Thursday and Sunday at 8 p.m., Friday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets: $6-$10. Information: (714) 854-5455.