The introduction for Richard Jeni at the Icehouse Friday night said he was Number Five on Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups list. Actually, he's not. Chris Rock is. Jeni is number 57. Perhaps the confusion was because Rock has said good things about Jeni.
The HBO Comedy Hour is the most important showcase there is for comedians. Nobody is more deserving than Richard. I think Richard Jeni is one of the best comics who ever lived.
Actually, it doesn't matter if he's #5 or 57. I just wanted to get the Chris Rock quote in there. Jeni is good. There's a huge difference between one of the best and the usual level of stand-up. Don't get me wrong, I love stand-up and at a club the caliber of the Icehouse, it's rare to get an act that completely bombs. Still, even with an expectation of good comedy, Jeni steps it up and turns it on, delivering a performance of rare quality – hysterically funny, from start to finish.
Like any good comedian, he's a story teller and he's got an, apparently, unending supply of stories. He tells them slowly, almost lovingly, dragging the listener along from one hysterical vignette to the next, eschewing the type of punchline that would end the tale. He embellishes his tales with faces and accents. One starts to think you'd recognize his wife or father if you passed them on the street because you'd already met them in his act.
I tend to have a soft spot for working class Catholic boys from Brooklyn. The cadence and much of the life view is familiar. Jeni's imitation of a New Yorker as a cruise ship captain is dead on. "This is your captain speaking, Get the f*** up." (The Catholic part of me demands the stars. Jeni uses the real swear words, being a standup comic and all).
Jeni has the ability to read the audience and turn the routine into an interaction. An early joke or two about politics got laughs, but not nearly as much as the other stuff he was rolling out. It didn't take long before he said he was skipping the political stuff this evening. The rhythm was so quick that I wondered if he made the decision consciously or by instinct. Instead of politcs, we were treated to long stories such as the description of tobacco marketers coming up with the product. He acted out all the parts for you. "So does it make you high?" "No." "Is it good for you?" "No, it'll kill you." Then he stopped the story to talk directly to the audience – noting that they're so good, they'll advertise that you shouldn't use their product and people will still buy it.
Yeah, the tobacco guys can sell us anything, but I suspect Jeni could, too.