Jeni is topping the bill, one last time

Times Staff Writer

Richard Jeni’s final gig was a corporate dinner in Las Vegas for debit-card vendors -- it was hardly a glamorous booking, but Jeni, a notorious perfectionist, had prepared new material anyway. The night ended with a standing ovation from a crowd that had no idea that the smiling man in the spotlight was in agony.

“He really struggled; by that point he was really deep into it,” said Jeni’s sister, Mary Colangelo. Eleven days later, on March 10, Jeni, one of the steadiest big-name acts in stand-up comedy over the last two decades, died on a gurney at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of a gunshot wound that was apparently self-inflicted. His family said the shotgun blast ended a three-month spiral by Jeni into clinical depression and psychotic paranoia.

Jeni, who through the years performed on “The Tonight Show” more than any other stand-up, was memorialized in a private wake of sorts Saturday at the Laugh Factory, where his peers took turns sharing memories of him. Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Richard Lewis, Paul Rodriguez and Paul Provenza were among the speakers, and, of course, the entire affair was as bitterly funny and profane as it was sad and tender.


One of Jeni’s jokes was on cards placed at each seat: “We’re all on the Hindenburg, no sense fighting over the window seat.”

As much as the occasion was dedicated to Jeni and his career as one of the most polished and prolific stars in his field, other names kept popping up, such as Freddie Prinze and Lenny Bruce, all funny men who seemed hard-wired with a dark self-destructiveness. Speaking before the memorial, Leno agreed that it’s hard not to notice the way comedy feeds tragedy -- or vice versa.

“I think there might be something to it,” said Leno, who also recalled long phone conversations in which Jeni would agonize over career moves. “I think of all the people I know that committed suicide, and most of them are comedians.... And then there’s all the guys who overdosed. That’s a real long list.”

The fascination with the young deaths of comic icons such as Bruce, John Belushi and Chris Farley is hinged on public laughter and personal pain, but Leno said their ability to soldier on with the show may also have hidden them from help.

“The thing with comedians is, it’s their job to make people laugh, and to do that well you become able to hide and mask your own feelings,” Leno said. “You see a guy and ask him how he’s doing and he tells a joke, you figure, ‘Oh, he made me laugh, he must be OK.’ ”

At the Saturday memorial, it was clear that Jeni’s stature with his peers even outstripped his public acclaim, which was a longtime source of anxiety for the comic. Lewis said Jeni was such a master of his material that he would have succeeded in any era, whether the man of the moment was Red Buttons or Jerry Lewis. Allen marveled at the depth of Jeni’s riffs on topics -- “He was brilliant because he left nothing on the bone” -- while everyone roasted their late friend for his wiseguy shiny suits. “Very few white men,” Rodriguez dead-panned, “could wear a red jacket.”

Some of the speakers expressed anger, others said Jeni had the right to end his pain if it was too great, and one person, Elayne Boosler, shared a compelling story about her own suicide attempt in the 1990s. Then she told her peers not to wonder if they could have helped Jeni on the fateful day. “Richard did not kill himself. He wasn’t there then.... I found how far away from yourself you can go.”

Richard John Colangelo (he got the “Jeni” stage name by tweaking the first name of his mother, Jennie Argentino) grew up in an Italian American tough-guy neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative politics at Hunter College. Humor, though, was always his most serious pursuit. He made the old guys on the corner laugh by reciting Redd Foxx comedy albums, but soon he was cobbling together his own gags.

“My brother didn’t have hobbies; he said the only two things in life he cared about were naked women and writing jokes,” Colangelo said.

He first appeared on “The Tonight Show” in the mid-1980s during the Johnny Carson years and, according to Leno, logged more return appearances than any other stand-up act, many after Leno took over. That led to a series of highly regarded comedy specials at HBO and Showtime and a short-lived UPN series titled “Platypus Man.” He played a supporting role opposite Jim Carrey in the 1994 hit movie “The Mask” and was a writer for the 77th Annual Academy Awards in 2005, the edition hosted by Chris Rock.

The achievements were greater than the resume, according to Jon Lovitz. “He was one of the top five comedians of our generation, easily.” Rodriguez, meanwhile, said Jeni never seemed to enjoy the applause as much as he should have.

“It was like he didn’t see the standing ovations,” Rodriguez said. “I asked him, ‘What do you want? You want people to follow you home?’ He said, ‘That’d be nice.’ ”

Jeni wasn’t given to tantrums, eccentric behavior or predictable showbiz excess. The violent end of his life could hardly be more unexpected considering that, before December, he seemed to be a calm and collected man who put an emphasis on exercise and honing his career craft.

“It came on him so suddenly, he had no reference point, none, zero, and in the end it was the paranoia that consumed him and led to this,” Colangelo said of her big brother, who died one month shy of his 50th birthday. “He had no history or experience with it.”

His girlfriend of three years, Amy Murphy, a reporter for Fox’s KTTV Channel 11, said Jeni’s slide began in December with vicious insomnia that gave way to depression and then to paranoia. She and Jeni’s family came together around him, and, in the last month, they had looked into a facility that might help him steady himself. But Jeni, after studying up on his condition, seemed resigned.

“He was a beautiful person, an incredibly brilliant and talented man, and in the end, unfortunately, I think his brilliance might have played a part in what happened,” Murphy said. “He said he just didn’t believe anything was going to make him get better; he didn’t see it happening.”

Murphy was at home with Jeni in the 1600 block of Crescent Heights Boulevard when the shooting happened at midmorning. Police arrived, and the gravely injured Jeni was rushed to the hospital, where he died.

The investigation indicates a suicide, according to a coroner’s office spokesman, but the official cause of death hasn’t been deermined pending toxicology tests.

Murphy and Jeni’s family say they are haunted by the question of where he got the weapon. “We have no idea,” his sister said. “I’m sure he got it for protection, which he believed he needed. I can’t imagine what he was thinking in those last moments. It’s all just a nightmare.”

Colangelo said her brother’s male pride might have deterred him from getting the medical help he needed but that same sensibility used to make him angry at the concept of suicide. “He talked about how unfair it was to leave people behind like that,” she said, “to quit on them.”

Rodriguez saw Jeni two days before his death. The old friends talked shop a bit and then made a casual plan to have a beer together. It never happened. Rodriguez, like the Jeni of healthier days, felt anger when the news of the suicide reached him. Now, though, Rodriguez said he’s come to view the latest casualty of comedy as evidence of an occupational hazard.

“I look at all those names,” he said, “and I get the feeling that it’s like black lung [disease] for miners.”