Richard Jeni was honored by his comic peers at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles March 24th, and Jeni was presented as a perfectionist, one of the top-five comedians of his generation, and a funny man with a dark side to his personality.
Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Richard Lewis, Paul Rodriguez, Jon Lovitz and Paul Provenza were some of the speakers to take the stage, and in the course of the day Jeni was compared to Lenny Bruce and Freddie Prinze, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Leno was asked if comedy feeds tragedy.
"I think there might be something to it," he told the Times, recalling long phone conversations where Jeni agonized over his 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."
Jeni died from a shotgun blast March 10th; the death appears to be a suicide although the final coroner’s report is forthcoming. The comedian – who hosted the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards in 2001 – had apparently suffered three months’ worth of insomnia that led to depression and paranoia.
"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.’"
The Times made clear that although Jeni may have had his low times, he was highly respected by his peers. Lewis said he was brilliant and could have been a master in any era, alongside Red Buttons or Jerry Lewis. Allen marveled how he could riff on any subject, taking it to where "he left nothing on the bone."