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Comic Jenius

Richard Jeni at the Improv


Jeni will have his tail feathers out in Cleveland this weekend.
  • Jeni will have his tail feathers out in Cleveland this weekend.
For stand-up comics like Richard Jeni, winning comedy's first-place trophy is a relatively long road. There are the spots on The Tonight Show, the Showtime specials, the much-coveted HBO Comedy Hour (Jeni's take, Platypus Man, won a 1993 Cable ACE award), the TV commercials, and movie appearances. After that, if you're still standing -- and being funny -- they hand you the trophy: a sitcom.

"It's only good if you're the type of guy who wants to make about $80 million and have supermodels throwing themselves at you," jokes Jeni, who will be performing at the Improv this weekend. "Otherwise, it's kind of a waste of time. The same three sets with the same four actors -- it's like being in a school play every week."

Jeni's first sitcom, also named Platypus Man, ran on UPN for one season in 1995. He promises his new show -- now in development with CBS -- will be more like his act, which he describes as "me to the 10th power. An overblown, tail-feathers-out version of me." He just won't be able to put any nudity in the mix.

"That's definitely a limiting factor," he says. "Whenever you hand them a script that features nudity, sodomy, and devil-worship, there's always some people that don't think that's appropriate for television. But as far as the jokes go, it's all analogous. You write stand-up jokes and you form them into an act, and those pieces can in turn be used to form scenes for a sitcom."

On the other end of the spectrum are the corporate gigs -- private, semi-secret appearances to entertain the upper echelon of the white-collar world. Jeni likens the work to Sylvester Stallone doing a commercial in Malaysia -- as long as no one hears about it, he'll take the money.

"Everybody does them," says Jeni, whose previous corporate experience consisted of literally snoozing his way through a brief career with a conservative PR firm. "A thing I did for Microsoft -- after I went on, then Chris Isaak went on. It has its benefits -- I met Bill Gates. It actually cost him more money to say hello to me after the show than it did to hire me to do it. But you don't want to be a big buffoon and go in there and say, 'I'll just have a seat here on the cash -- couch, sorry.'"

Jeni isn't really concerned about his reputation being damaged by his forays into corporate America. "This is a very large, underpublicized, and lucrative area of the business," he admits. "I think I eventually wanted to do corporate gigs. I was 12 years old, thinking, 'If I can wind up at the Orlando Convention Center talking to software writers, wouldn't that be better than working at the dock with my dad?'"

Besides, no one pays that much attention. "People don't exactly remember what you do, they just know that they think you're funny."

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