Though he's a two-decade veteran of the comedy-club scene and one of the most respected standup guys in the biz, Jeni brims with innovative ideas for the television medium: "I tried to start a game show, but no one came to auditions," he says. The title? "Who Wants to Keep Their Dignity?"
But seriously, folks, Jeni, who plays the Tempe Improv this weekend, is indeed hoping for a sitcom deal in the foreseeable future. He's cagey on the details, but explains his general concept: "It's a real kitchen-sink approach. It's more defined by what I don't do. I don't yank props out of a bag or do impressions. It can be tough, 'cause I'm not the 'tool guy' or the 'redneck guy.' I do tell some longer stories, à la Cosby, and some observational 'what's up with the airport'-type stuff, like Seinfeld. And I'm also startin' to sprinkle in political stuff more than I used to."
In part, his new political streak has to do with his age. "I've pretty well strip-mined the love-and-relationships thing. Also, as you get older, it gets a little creepy to talk about getting laid all the time. The audience is like, 'We don't want to hear that.'"
Still, the Bensonhurst native -- his old neighborhood, he quips, "had more Tonys than Phantom of the Opera" -- isn't likely to throw himself entirely into topical material. "The reason I haven't done that stuff so much in the past," he says, "is that there are several comics out there, I won't say names, but they're brilliant political comedians, but their stuff stays at a sort of B or B-plus level, because they always have to be talkin' about the current thing, so they can't spend years perfecting something. Most of the great comedy routines are perfected over years. It's really not that much more work to perfect something that you can use for years than something you can only use for a month."
Besides, he continues, "The nature of humor, if you want to get it down to a couple words, is that [people] go to comedy clubs to feel good. And when you do political material, they have to think. And once you start talkin' about abortion or gun control or whatever, immigration, these are issues that people are divided on, and comedy is a 'me too' thing. It's inclusive, not exclusive."
Comedy seems almost like a customer-is-always-right business to Jeni, who, despite his lack of an easily identifiable persona, has managed to star in several HBO and Showtime specials; log dozens of guest spots on Letterman, Conan, The Tonight Show, Regis and Kathie Lee and other shows; play a supporting role in the Jim Carrey film The Mask; and star in commercials for Office Max, Certs and Coca-Cola. Even so, he admits that it serves a personal need: "Me and a guy like, say, Dice Clay, we both want basically the same thing. It's about getting your strokes, your attention. It's like when you've got two kids, and one of 'em is a nice little kid who behaves himself, he figures that'll make his dad like him. And the other one causes trouble, 'cause he figures, 'Hey, this'll make Dad pay attention to me.'" Jeni sees himself as part of the former breed.
"I just come out there and sort of say, 'Hey, I'm just like you, kind of a regular schmo. I just happen to have really good jokes about bein' just like you."
Richard Jeni is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 20; 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, April 21; and 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, April 22; at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater, 930 East University (at Cornerstone mall). The theater will be closed on Sunday. Tickets are $17 for Thursday's performance, $20 Friday and $22 Saturday. For details call 480-921-9877. Go to www.richardjeni.com for more information on the comic.