Monday, March 26, 2007

The Richard Jeni Hollywood Memorial

I know I’m prejudiced here but honestly, there is nothing better than a room full of comedians. Especially when they’re paying tribute to one of their own. A fallen one.

This Saturday, comics filed in to the invitation-only memorial for Richard Jeni held at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Some of the biggest names in our industry got up, one after another, and paid homage to Richard. Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Paul Rodriguez, Elayne Boosler and Larry Miller brought the house down with their remembrances of this quirky and brilliant standup. Two fashionistas check the list at The Laugh Factory

Jay Leno said that Rich would tell him that he was doing a new HBO special and that he was going home to write the new hour. To which Jay remarked that most comics couldn’t steal an hour, much less write it before a special.

Ritch Shydner described how committed to joke writing Jeni was. He said most comics will do a line or two about something like alarm clocks. Then they move on to a new topic. And like lions, the comedians in the back of the room are ripping the comic’s bit apart, seizing on the parts of the topic that weren’t covered, like the meat left on a carcass. He didn’t discuss the snooze button! or He should have talked about digital clocks! But he said that when Rich Jeni did a joke on any topic, there was nothing left but bones.

Rodriguez recalled a story of when he and Richard were playing a prison. “Rodriguez, what kind of material do these guys like?” Richard asked.
“How would I know, why are you asking me that?”
“Because there’s a lot of you people in here.”

Emceed by the affable Tom Dreesen, Sinatra’s opening act up until the day Frank died, he kept the show moving and the laughs coming. People didn’t speak for long, until Paul Provenza got to the podium. Paul was the guy who took over for Rob Morrow when Morrow left Northern Exposure and is a gifted comedian in his own right. Paul went long, as we say in standup. None of us really noticed or cared, but someone gave him the light, the red one that signals to the comic to get off stage. Those of us sitting in the back couldn’t believe someone - and by someone I’m guessing Jamie Masada, owner of The Laugh Factory - would give anyone the light at a memorial. I tapped Boosler on the shoulder.
“They gave Paul the light,” I whispered.
“I know, is there a show after this? Is another funeral coming in?”

And then there was the drama that is Richard Lewis. Sixteen people were scheduled to speak and after about the fourth person, Richard got up from his seat in the back, walked towards the front of the room and, expecting his name to be called, was surprised when Tom Dreesen announced someone else’s name. Richard walked back to his seat. This happens to comics all the time and is usually not a big deal. Then it happened again and again and Richard finally heckled Dreesen into letting him on. He took the stage and said that in his entire career he had never been bumped three times and at a memorial.

Even guys who didn’t speak, like Ray Romano, and guys who shouldn’t have spoken, like Dane Cook, and guys who mystified the audience with their speaking, like Fred Travalena, still all had one thing in mind. They were all there for Richard Jeni.

Richard’s girlfriend Amy spoke through tears about how grateful she was to see all the comics who had come out to pay tribute. Rich’s brother Joe was so moved by the show of support that my heart broke for him and his family.

A short film was shown of Jeni’s standup and his early home life. Then there was a reception upstairs with tons of great food. There were two walls devoted to pictures of Richard, one of his career and one of his personal life. On the tables where the food was laid out were oil cloth table coverings with pictures of friends of Richard, Richard’s family and career embedded in the tablecloth. It was obviously custom-made and showed the attention to detail that HBO gave to this event. From the speech by President and CEO Chris Albrecht to the fact that HBO picked up the entire tab, including the valet parking, it was a class act from start to finish.

Carol Leifer spoke for us all. Struggling against her tears she said that comics are a great fraternity, one that she was proud to belong to, and that she would always love comics just a little bit more than she loved other people. Yeah, me too Carol.

End of chat.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks, Susie. It was an amazing day.

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  2. oops. I meant, "Suzy."

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  3. Wow, that sounds like a really special memorial. Richard must have been a great comedian and great guy to have all those people come together to celebrate his life. I like that you all kept your sense of humor during the service, well I guess you all would.
    Love the picture, and, You do not!

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  4. Anonymous3:19 PM

    Suzy,
    Wonderful. Thank you for being the ambassador to our comedy family, for those of us who live so far away and couldn't be there.
    Aloha,
    Martha Jane

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  5. I read that the memorial was as profane as it was touching--a fitting tribute.

    I'm so sorry for his family. And I especially feel for his girlfriend who, as I understand it, was there when he killed himself.

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  6. I'm so glad to hear what Shydner said.

    Aside from remembering simply wonderful times with Rich (we worked together on the road a lot and did a boatload of one-nighters), and enjoying his friendship, I remember losing the ability to breathe as he found yet another angle to attack a bit.

    We were at the East End CC one night and the owner wanted to finish the last show early and go home, meaning Rich would have a 20 minute set. So he gave Rich the light and Rich, incensed, REFUSED to get off the stage, and did 90 GUT-BUSTING MINUTES riffing on getting the light!

    You'll have to beg me to hear what 59.5 of the 60 minute car ride home was about... but suffice it to say, I nearly wrecked the car a dozen times.

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  7. I don't know why I didn't post this when I first read your article, but I've got a little buzz going right now and for some reason it hit me that I should. Because a while ago, I too came to realize that I like comics a little bit more than everybody else. Not all comics and not everybody else, but I love that with comics you never have to tag your comments with "just kidding." I love that with comics, someone can say the most vile and disgusting thing and nobody has to ask, "Are you serious?" No matter how bad the comment was, all that matters to comics is that it was funny. And I love that comics get the fact that there's no better way to say farewell to another comic then with a lot of laughter. Sorry for your loss- I hope it brought you as many chuckles as it did tears.

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  8. It was a gripping afternoon. An arrow to the heart, followed by a punchline. The end will stay with me forever. Tom Dreesen, pointing to a picture of Rich said, "At his last performance, let's give Rich what every comic wants". Without hesitation or looking around, everyone rose to their feet. If anyone could have seen this tribe of comics-- funny,emotional, hyper-sensitive purveyors of truth--they would have known this guy was loved.

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