Aug 11 2011

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A Tragedy of Comedy: Richard Jeni

Posted at 2:13 pm under hm

It’s news to nobody that comedians can be a tragic lot. Much of comedy is derived through pain, humiliation, anxiety and awkwardness. I took a course once that argued that a comedians job was to always challenge the powers that be, that comedy shouldn’t just make you feel good or laugh. That’s the first thing it should do, but the last thing a great comic should do is challenge your assumptions about the world around you.

I was thinking about this while watching an HBO special last night, featuring comedian Richard Jeni, called “A Big Steaming Pile of Me.” When we were searching for what to watch, and I saw his name, something triggered. But not something happy of funny.

Richard Jeni committed suicide in 2007. He was featured in a documentary on the tragic side of comedy. According to some sources, he had a history of mental problems, depression and schizophrenia being the biggies. So, I was a little concerned about watching the special. Until I also realized that I had seen it, years ago, when he was alive. I remembered thinking the guys was viciously good.

So, we watched it. And, damn it, what a talented man. Funny, smart, insightful, challenging, inventive. It was one of the most composed and well executed comedy routines I’ve seen, done at a time of high polarization in the US. It was a guy at the height of his powers, challenging norms of politics, social issues, and gross out humour. And two years later, he took his own life.

I’m always a little wounded when I hear these stories. I know there are links between depression and creativity, though the former can also be a prison for the latter, let alone a grave. To see a guy, a true artist of his form, just giving it all he had was powerful. I’d like to think his life, work, and contribution can mean more than his sad end. But I don’t have any answers on this front. Just a thought:

Richard Jeni was a master of his craft, and it was a real pleasure to watch him at his best. He will be sorely missed, because he will always be remembered.


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