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Interview with Richard Jeni

By Gary Wien

originally published: 05/01/2005
Hot off the heels of his 3rd HBO Special "A Big Steaming Pile of Me," award winning comedian Richard Jeni will be performing in the New Jersey area in May and June.

You're doing a bunch of shows in our area in May and June. In fact, you've got a ton of shows scheduled for this year. Well the reason I'm doing so many dates this year is because I did a new HBO Comedy Hour that premiered in January called "A Big Steaming Pile of Me" and that was like a two-year minimum project. So to do something like that it's just like a band doing an album, you want to go out and tour. You want to connect with your fans and see how it did, see who saw it and how they reacted to it.

And the other reason I'm doing so many dates in this area is because that's where I'm from. I'm from Brooklyn, New York. I have an act that's kind of designed to work anyplace, but you always get a little extra 10% pop out of the hometown folks because you look like their cousin.

With the way everyone moves from place to place around here, they may be cousins.
It's amazing too how people talk about gaydar - how gay people know other people are gay before they even say anything. It's kind of like the same thing if you're an Italian from the East Coast. I never mention it in my act but the mob guys always like me. They can just tell. They just know. So, whenever I go to New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn - that whole little Northeast corridor - there's always an additional amount of people that want to see you.

Speaking of growing up in Brooklyn, was your high school really the same one shown in the opening of "Welcome Back Kotter"?
Yeah, that's actually the truth. That was my school and that show was I think based on the school. It was what they used to call an altern school. It was like a holding pen for the worst kids in school, just a way to corral them and keep them in there for 3-4 years before they graduated. Nowadays the worst kids in school would actually be shooting people, but back then they could just be stupid.

Were there a lot of characters in your neighborhood like in the show?
Absolutely, those types - Barbarino and Horshack - were right out of my neighborhood.

Do you think growing up in that kind of area helped lead you to becoming a comedian?
No, I think the things that led me to be a comedian is that I have no special skills at all! Comedy's the kind of thing that you do when you run out of ideas. I tried to do a few different things and they didn't work out. Today there's so much comedy on television that I think kids look at it as a potential career choice, but as a career choice in the early 80s it wasn't an obvious thing. It was the thing you did because you just didn't have any other ideas. It's like boxing or something.

You've just finished your third HBO Comedy Hour special. How difficult is it to do those specials?
Well I guess it's like anything else, it's hard to do it really well. But if you do comedy long enough you should be able to develop enough material just from trial and error. You do comedy for say 10 years and develop enough material to do a special if you get one. Each one you do after that gets harder because at the beginning you're just a pleasant surprise. It's like nobody was expecting anything from you. For the second one people are expecting you to be good and by the third one people are expecting you to be good in a way that's different from the first two. So each one you do gets harder. When you add up all of the time you spend writing it and the time you spend going out performing it and listening to it on tape and re-editing, it's about 30 hours of work for every one minute that makes it into the show.

That's amazing...
If you watch somebody that's really doing a great stand-up show they're getting a pretty big laugh anywhere from every 20 to 40 seconds. So it's not like in a book or a film where there are quiet moments and interesting moments and visual moments. In stand-up, you can only have really big funny moments if you're gonna get people to walk out of there and do what you want them to do, which is go "oh my God, my stomach hurts because I couldn't stop laughing." And that isn't the only funny minute you come up with, but that's the one that was funny enough to make it into the show.

If somebody hasn't seen your show live or on cable, what should they expect?
It's a combination of greatest hits and new material. The reason for that is when people see you on tv lots of times they bring their friends with them to the show and they tell their friends that you're going to do this bit or that bit. And if they go there and you don't do it, it makes them look stupid. If you don't do any of the things you've done on your tv shows people make the unconscious assumption that you're practicing on them. The reasoning is that it must not have been your best stuff. And where you run into trouble is if you do your television show verbatim people will just logically conclude "I have no reason to go back and see this guy because I've seen everything he does." So what they can expect is a combination of enough new material that it'll be surprising for the people who are familiar with me and enough of the greatest hits to satisfy that desire.

You were named #57 on the Top 100 Comedians of All Time by Comedy Central. Do you ever look at that list and say "man, I'm funnier than that guy?"
Actually I was just excited to be on the list. Show business awards are always really dumb and stupid and meaningless unless you happen to get one. And then they're a really good barometer of quality. A thing like the Top 100 Stand-Ups of All-Time is pretty absurd because I'm sure they didn't go back through all-time.

But you were so close to being in the top 50. It's like finishing a career with 399 home runs...
Exactly. But when you think about it there are thousands of comedians in the country right now. So, if you back them up to however far back they go - which is pretty far back - you're talking about tens of thousands of comedians. So, to get the recognition was nice.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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