Richard Jeni's sitcom, "Platypus Man," may have been canceled along with every other UPN show except "Star Trek: Voyager," but the comedian's animal spirit hasn't evolved.
"I'm definitely still a platypus," he says over the phone from Los Angeles. "I don't think anybody puts that behind them. There are only two kinds of people who are always happy, the devoutly religious and the criminally insane." Platypus Men, who are complicated critters, are not among them.
Although the sitcom was canceled, Jeni sees his forays into television as a step up the Hollywood ladder -- not quite as high as film (he had a role as Jim Carrey's sidekick in "The Mask"), but not as lowly as stand-up comedy, which Hollywood ranks "somewhere between porno and dwarf-tossing."
"As far as the actual work goes, I would say stand-up is probably the best type of work to do. There's nothing really better than that, depending what your values are. I have learned as I go through life and get older, what I'm really interested in most of the time is independence," the 37-year-old says, adding, "The place you get the most of it is in stand-up comedy."
You also get awards, if you're doing it right. Jeni has earned an Ace for a cable stand-up special and was named best male stand-up comic at the 1993 American Comedy Awards.
Of course, it took a while to find his niche. He started doing comedy in his native Brooklyn on open-mike nights at clubs. It was "pretty bad. I had one joke," he says -- and it was inspired by Johnny Carson. "I used to do a Carnac impression."
Jeni's love of comedy came from his dad. "I was one of those kids who looked up to my father," he says. " . . . He was a big fan
of the sitcoms and Marx Brothers films and that kind of thing. He was also kind of funny himself." While Jeni's father was introverted, his mom was outgoing. "I think I got the ability to be funny probably from my dad, and the ability to be a performer from my mother."
Sometimes being funny was just self-preservation. He worked in such "scary places" on his way up, "my focus became, 'How am I going to make sure I do well? How is this going to go over?' . . . I was just trying to escape with my life. And so that became my focus very quickly, and that remained my focus later on."
The result has been satisfying. "If you can really consistently knock an audience to its knees with laughter," he says, and make people's sides ache, "there's nobility in that. That's hard to do."
Although he has a political science degree, Jeni doesn't usually indulge in political humor. He prefers fodder from everyday life, topics that everyone can identify with. For instance, he'll joke about the stock airline stewardess phrase, "in the unlikely event of a water landing," and then riff on every other unlikely thing that could happen on a plane, such as the voice from the cockpit saying, " 'In the unlikely event I'm not really an airline pilot . . . .' The idea is that everybody goes: 'Oh, yeah, I know that. I have personally experienced that. That's a funny take on that.' "
He counts himself fortunate because he got in on the ground floor of the comedy industry. "I started doing stand-up comedy in 1981, not knowing what was about to happen," he says. "What was about to happen was there was about to be a boom in comedy." It taught him more than any economics class: "It was like watching capitalism in a small microcosm."
Although it's still fun for him, Jeni says there's no denying that stand-up is hard work, which is why a lot of comics land a sitcom, even a lame one, and never look back. "Doing a sitcom is . . . I think the job is the easiest job. It's like having a 9-to-5 job, almost, that pays millions of dollars."
The traveling may be the toughest part of stand-up gigs. After a while of traveling 30 or 40 weeks out of a year, he says, "some of the bloom comes off the rose."
That's probably why playing the TV chef and woeful single guy on "Platypus Man" was so appealing. But it didn't go as well as he had hoped. He blames "too many cooks in the broth," and the producers' and writers' unwillingness to work closely with him. "I think it was important to them to show that they didn't really need me, that they could do it without me," he says.
"I wanted to do a show that was as close to my real life as could be," he says. But thin development of his fellow characters meant that all the focus was on this single guy's dates, which became the show's wacky staple. Jeni had thought that his character would be a creature of conflict, like a platypus -- "a mammal who lays eggs, which a mammal isn't supposed to do." Instead, it became a show about dating, not "money and parents and life and death." He wryly sums up: "It was 'Hamlet,' really, and they turned it into 'Dobie Gillis.' "
Lured by the lifestyle, he still wants to do more television. Reruns of his stand-up specials, sitcom and A&E's "Caroline's Comedy Hour" -- featuring him as host -- are still on, and he has just taped "Comedy del Sol" for Comedy Central. Now he's trying to decide between an offer to develop another sitcom and a chance to enter the saturated talk-show market. Because he's appeared on so many talk shows, that option appeals to him, but he sees a down side: "It's like being a very ambitious transvestite -- makeup every day."
Where: Slapstix Comedy Club, 34 Market Place
When: 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $15 and $20
Call: (410) 659-7527