Richard grew up in one of the thousands of Italian-American families in the tough lower middle-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst. “We had more Tony’s than Phantom of the Opera”, says Richard. Although the area is not known for show business, Richard points out with tongue-in-cheek pride, “I went to the High School that they show at the beginning of “Welcome Back Kotter.” I hung out in the disco they used in “Saturday Night Fever.” It was an interesting neighborhood and probably leads the country in guys with names like “Nicky the Squid Calamari.” In my neighborhood, “Goodfellas” was pretty much a home movie. Like most kids who never traveled anywhere, I had a myopic worldview that sheltered my psyche from some of the more brutal aspects of my environment. The fact that people were found murdered and dismembered within walking distance of my house on a regular basis was not particularly alarming because I assumed that the same thing must be going on in, say, Greenwich, CT – wherever the hell that was!”
“As a kid I worshipped my father who was a big comedy fan and a collector of comedy albums. My interest in comedy began as an attempt to imitate his behavior in one of a string of futile attempts to bond with him. When he was at work I’d sneak out the comedy albums and sit there listening, enthralled. I imagined this special hideaway where people went to hear these dirty jokes. It was so naughty and raucous and best of all, forbidden – very appetizing to a kid – kind of like an X-rated tree house. I was hooked.”
“Somebody said a guy becomes a comedian the way a girl becomes a hooker. You start out doing it for a few close friends, then you move onto larger groups, then you figure, hey, I might as well get paid for it. That’s how it was. I wasn’t the class clown, I was more of a street corner jester. I was about 12 and on my way to school I walked past a bunch of guys who hung out in the street. They were older guys, 18-19 years old, mostly stoners and hoodlums in training. A few of them were glue-sniffers, but the guy at the store wouldn’t sell them any more glue so they recruited me to buy it for them. I gave them the glue and I got to keep all of the models. I never had the time, or the glue, to assemble the models which began stacking up in a corner of my room, forming themselves into a perfect metaphor for my adolescence – a monument to unrealized potential. The older guys started to let me hang around because I was funny. I told them jokes and did impressions that I’d memorized from my dad’s albums. I was 13 and hanging out with guys 18 and 19 who smoked, drank and had cars, guys who engaged in meaningless sex and pointless violence – I was in Heaven! I ditched the friends who were my age, while they were engaging in such lame activities as baseball and bonding experiences crucial to their emotional development, I was in the back of a Plymouth Barracuda, smoking dope and going to Led Zeppelin concerts with felons! Looking back, it was asinine, but I had learned two important lessons. One, I could gain acceptance and popularity by being funny. And two, it doesn’t hurt if your audience is a little stoned!.”
Richard’s fascination with the street life would eventually sour and the delinquent persona turned out to be a suit that didn’t quite fit. “The guys liked me, but I was never really one of them. I had no girlfriends because the girls we hung out with were too old for me. I had a small body and an active conscience, so I wasn’t cut out for the tough guy business. I was failing my classes because they all had this rule about showing up. I was looking through a marijuana haze, but I could see that I was going nowhere.”
The turning point came in his senior year of High School. “The teacher told us to write an essay on any subject we chose. I wrote mine about war and it won some kind of prize. I went to a national writing competition in upstate New York, stayed in a great hotel, got an award and met a pretty girl. It was a revelation. I began to see that there were rewards in playing by the rules.”
He entered New York’s Hunter College with a more serious attitude, graduating with honors and a B.A. in Political Science. “Imagine my surprise when it turned out the main thing that I was qualified for was to get another degree and teach Political Science to other people, who would, in turn, teach it to other people!” This wasn’t higher education, this was Amway with a football team!”
It would take more than a year for Richard to land his dream job as one of the youngest executives at Hill & Knowlton, the largest and most prestigious public relations firm in the country. He was fired after six months.
“I’ve been fired a lot.” As a 16-year old grocery boy, he swiped two bull testicles from the meat department, tied them to a pepperoni, and labeling his creation Mr. Magoo, hung it in the store’s front window. “At Hill & Knowlton, I used to close my office door and go to sleep on the floor with my head on the door so if anyone came in the door would push me and wake me up and I’d quickly roll to the bookcase and pretend to be looking for a book. One day, I fell into such a deep sleep that I rolled away from the door and woke up staring at the wing-tipped shoes of our managing director who was standing above me. All I could think of to say was, “so how long have you been up?.” Three more public relations jobs in two years followed with equally disastrous results. “I was working in conservative firms wearing my disco suits. I’d lock my office and write funny stories about other people in the firm just to make my secretary laugh. At a company convention I was caught in a lobby of the Shoreham Hotel wearing nothing but my underwear. The last job I had in public relations, I had resolved to clean up my act. Day one – A friend sent a singing stripper to my office. Half of the company was lined up outside my office door watching her sprawl across my desk belting out lyrics that had to do with me being incompetent and lying my way into the job. People talk about dying of embarrassment, but the fact that I’m still alive proves that it’s not possible.” At 24, two years after graduating with honors, Richard was driving a cab, depressed and out of ideas. Then the phone rang.
A girlfriend was going to a small club in Brooklyn called Pips that showcased aspiring singers and comics. “She was writing a story on the place for her college newspaper. I was low on cash, so the plan for me was to pretend that I was a photographer so I could score some free food and drinks. I’m clicking away with the lens cap on, she’s making notes on a pad and we’re both getting slowly hammered watching some of the worst comics you’ve ever seen. She looks at me and says, “You know, you could do this.”
Three months later, armed with a 5-minute “act” that was honed in front of a full-length mirror in his one-room basement apartment, a shaky Jeni took the stage at Pips. “I was terrified. I had never been on stage before. I was never even a mushroom in a High School play. To say that I sucked is to say that Antarctica is nippy.
But he returned the following week, and the week after that, bombing continuously for almost a year. “I was at a point in my life where I felt like I was heading down the rapids towards the falls. Comedy was a low hanging branch that I grabbed and hung on to for dear life. Looking back, that view of thugs was terribly melodramatic, but, in a sense, necessary. You take such an emotional battering at the beginning that if you have other options, you’re likely to quit.”
Jeni not only didn’t quit, he pursued stand-up with a single-minded zeal. “After all the years of floating around, screwing up, not fitting in, I was so happy to find something that I loved doing that I treated my act like a treasured possession, worthy of the utmost care and respect.”
“I think I’d always had an aspiring comedian inside me, but he was having a tough time selling my logical middle-class brain on such a long-shot. Instead of giving up, he arranged for me to blatantly screw-up every other job until I was in desperate shape and even my conservative brain could agree there was nothing to lose. It was the long way around, but it got me where I belong.”