Richard Jeni’s sister on the late comedian’s new DVD, “The Beach Crowd,” and managing his estate
Richard Jeni has a new stand-up comedy DVD for sale this month, The Beach Crowd, which might surprise you, considering that Jeni died almost four-and-a-half years ago.
The DVD includes 75 minutes of footage captured from two weekends of performances at The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif. (from August 2002, when Jeni was 45; and from the end of July 2006, when he was 49, and eight months before his suicide in March 2007). In the shows, he jokes about how at Sea World, they spent all of the money training the fish, and had no money left to train the people working there. Which leads to a bit about his girlfriend suggesting a vacation kayaking with killer whales. There are lengthy routines about the dumb innocence of the Crocodile Hunter, as well as an infomercial for perfect pancakes. And then there are plenty of moments in which Jeni engages with audience members and asks such questions as why women would even care about a man's ass if they have no use for it: "Women like an ass. Why? Does it remind them of a purse?"
But why don't you watch this clip instead. On the other side, you can read my interview with Jeni's sister, Mary Colangelo, who executive produced the DVD and manages her brother's estate.
How did this DVD come about?
"It came about while I was cataloging Richard's enormous research library. There are about 3 terrabytes of shows. Everything you can imagine from 25 years of performances. He always recorded them. I was very aware that the fans wanted material, so I was sort of keeping an eye out. Somewhere about year three, three and a half years ago, I came across this show at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach...that had oddly a lot of audience interaction, which is something Richard rarely did."
"The Beach Crowd, the impetus for the original show was going to be just that weekend in 2002...but then there were the shows in 2006 when he built on that original material, which he only used at that particular club."
Was Comedy and Magic his home club in Los Angeles?
"Home club? Actually there was no home club. When he was in New York, which he was a lot of the time, it was Caroline's. In L.A., yeah, I wouldn't say it was his home club because he lived up the hill from the Laugh Factory, but it was one of his favorite clubs. It has amazing audiences, and it's right on the beach so its audiences have this great laid-back vibe. And the owner, Mike Lacey, people adore because he's a patron of the arts."
Who edited the footage from the four shows together?
"That process went on for about 14 months. What happened was, there...the earlier shows, the 2002 shows are actually, there's a purple show and a red show, it's actually three shows. The show with the audience is where it started...it was very laborious to try to explain that. You essentially see it as two shows. He's essentially the Springsteen of stand-up, so those five shows totaled eight hours. And then there was the process of whittling which was hard, because there was no bad material. I took out bits that were on the specials, that got rid of maybe a half-hour, and then I got rid of footage that obviously the audio wouldn't support or video wouldn't support. The technical aspects. And then it spent three months or four months in post-production to bump up the color and the sound."
Even so, I noticed you utilized multiple callbacks at intervals throughout the DVD to different shows in which Jeni lurked from behind the curtain to quip, "She moaned like a whore."
"In live performance, he usually had a couple of moments, they were every extemporaneous, it was based on what movie he had seen or music he had heard that week. He'd keep bringing it back. So I chose that one, the Gladiator thing, that he was impressed with at that moment. He always had something that he liked to call back with and bring along the through line. That was there to give it a sense of what the live shows were like, the extemporaneous quality, the unrehearsed quality of live performances."
How much of the release of this posthumous DVD is about raising money for a foundation, versus preserving his legacy?
"This, any money that we ever get from the DVDs, it's still going off to pay licenses anad lawyers to make the material available. We're still in a deficit situation."
Wow. I don't think I would have guessed that. Certainly that isn't something that's public knowledge or in the news.
"Well, in the beginning he had these specials that weren't released...and the cost of lawyers are astronomical. So it just goes back into the business."
Has this become your full-time job, managing Richard's estate?
"It is absolutely a full-time thing. I'm the Springsteen of executors. It's endlessly in overtime. There's so much material to deal with. There's the fan requests. The emails, and suddenly you're into the internet age and digital management."
I did notice you have a new Facebook page for Richard Jeni.
"Yes, there's a Facebook page. And there were four other ones. Including fakes. When Richard's DVD came out, we sent out friend requests to help spread the word. They shut us down within 24 hours for being inauthentic. And then I put up another one with his legitimate name, Richard Colangelo Jeni, and they shut us down. But it turns out there is a way to get in touch with Facebook and tell them I'm the person in charge of his estate. And there are other tribute pages that fans have put up. But I dont want to piss off the fans who wanted to create these sites. It's a sticky situation."
What were you doing for work before Richard died?
"I worked in television production, in various and sundry positions. I also worked in his office when I first left New York, for two years on and off, and then in between gigs. Lord knows there was enough stuff to do. He not only had an assistant. He had a large staff of people working for him."
"It is all about building and preserving and solidifying his legacy. It certainly is not a money-making endeavor. Which is I guess, not to say, that people don't buy the stuff. But we've been precious about going into live distribution. We charge only as little as we can, in how we price things. Now we're talking about digital downloads, which we haven't done before. It took a lot of time and money to get the rights back under our auspices. Because there was rampant piracy in that first year."
There have been quite a few unfortunate deaths in the comedy world over the past year or two. Have any of those families sought you out for advice on going forward with the comedian's estate?
"I have not heard from any of them, no. Every family feels it is such a private manner. So no, I have not. And I don't know anyone who has. In the beginning. I'd say in the second year or so I did contact the Hicks family because Richard and Bill were friends. The Hicks family had done such a great job in preserving his legacy. However the Hicks family, they're Southern and folksy and friendly, and we're New Yorkers. I wasn't sure if we could do it as well. They were an inspiration and a blueprint."
What about the family of Robert Schimmel? I watched different relatives of his have public feuds over his estate on Facebook not long after he died.
"It was such a shock because I didn't know Schmmel was gone until I heard it mentioned on Paul Provenza's show a couple of weeks ago. It's so strange that Robert would lose his life in a car accident of all things after everything he was able to survive over the years. It is such a shocking moment. If you lose something that is so dear to you, you learn how different everyone sees the world. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but everyone's idea of what the right thing is to do is different."
Was your family all on the same page?
"It's such a gray haze. It was extremely difficult. Everyone was both grief-stricken and on edge because Rich was always the guy, when something went wrong that we went to, and suddenly the go-to guy was gone. It was such a responsibility. What do you do with his stuff, because he was such a perfectionist. It was everyone walking on tentative egg shells. There was an executor. There was a law firm. There was an estate back then. He made sure years ago that it would all be handled by other people, but that didn't make it any easier, even though he tried to make it easier."
Do you have any advice for families of other comedians who may be dealing with a mental illness or be suicidal?
"That's a tough one. Richard had no mental illness. December (2006) was when he got really ill. He didn't hide it. You could see it. There was something really wrong with him. He probably didn't just wake up one morning that day. According to Amy (his girlfriend), and even his assistant, nothing seemed to be happening until late October. That's what was so tough. He had no history. Back in April he stopped being able to sleep. and his sense of taste was different. And he couldn't tolerate cigarettes. And then he couldn't tolerate coffee. Our whole family could not metabolize alcohol, and after two sips we would start giggling or fall asleep...I had watched Rich consume two glasses of wine one night at dinner in late September without even blinking an eye. When I asked him about it afterwards he said, 'I just started doing it. It find it relaxes me.'"
Then in December: "He said, 'Nothing especially is happening with me, but I can't seem to be handling anything. I don't think it can be fixed and I need to see someone.' It was like that from that day until the day he died. Quite honestly, they were still changing diagnoses from week to week, and changing medications from week to week. Honestly, he should have been hospitalized. It was so bizarre. We were all shocked. And the closer you were to him, the more you were shocked. By September, October, I was thinking whatever had been affecting him physically, began impacting his mental capabilities."
"What I'd say to anybody would be tell everybody. Because he wanted to keep it quiet. Because he didn't want anybody to know what was happening."
If you're related to a comedian, does that make it any more difficult to tell if something is wrong with him or her mentally, if it's not manifesting itself physically? Can you tell?
"I think you can. I think you're looking for changes in behavior. Even if your behavior suddently becomes logical when you don't live the rest of your life logically. When you hear about celebs not doing well, it always starts with them not sleeping."
"You thought, is it manic depression? After the coroners report came out, I got his medical records released to me...every file cabinet going back 20 years...and there was nothing that we hadn't known. There was nothing hidden. It was as it appeared. I went to the doctor and he said bipolar doesn't suddenly come upon you in middle age unless there was something else driving it. There was likely something else going on. It was weird. I don't know what was up with the coroner. I called them. They put me on hold six times. They had called us originally to see if we wanted an autopsy. We said no. I go six months later to get my Visa card and what's in the mail but his autopsy. I guess the moral of the story is if it could happen to Richard Jeni, it could happen to anyone."
So what's next for you and for Jeni's estate?
"This whole DVD project has taken up a year and a half. We're trying to get people to know about it. After that, it's my plan to start distributing the stuff at places other than Richard's website. We're looking at doing that with other various and sundry parties. And then I want to put together an audio CD of bits that people want and have seen on TV or the club shows that aren't in any of our existing productions."
We'll leave you with a clip promoting the five comedy specials that Richard Jeni produced and performed for HBO and Showtime. Roll it.