The gifted Italian-American comic Richard Jeni enjoyed a brief, meteoric rise to fame and success behind the mike and in front of the cameras, prior to a devastating end. Born in 1957 in Brooklyn, NY, and raised in the Bensonhurst neighborhood, Jeni attended Hunter College as an undergraduate (where he studied comparative politics), then began honing his standup act in comedy clubs, which caught the attention of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Numerous appearances on that program followed during the mid- to late '80s, heightening the comedian's public exposure; deeply impressed, the Showtime network offered Jeni his own 30-minute standup comedy special, Richard Jeni: Boy from New York City, which debuted to smash ratings and reviews in 1989. The success of this paved the way for many additional specials, such as Richard Jeni: Platypus Man (1993) and Richard Jeni: Crazy from the Heat (1995).
In the year prior to Jeni's sitcom, he enjoyed one of his most memorable turns, as Charlie Schumacher in the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask (1994). The title of the aforementioned Platypus Man special referred to one of Jeni's descriptions of himself in his act -- as "an adult male human that attempts to mate frequently but spends most of its time alone." That concept prompted the then-fledgling UPN network to conceive a thematically linked prime-time sitcom for Jeni, based on his routines, in the mold of Tim Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. Platypus Man debuted on January 23, 2005. It starred Jeni, who also scripted, as a variation on himself. In the context of the series, Richard Jeni was the host of a Manhattan-based culinary TV show called "Cooking with the Platypus Man." Episodes began with Jeni in a studio kitchen -- before rolling cameras, preparing a dish in front of a closed audience, and informing viewers all about his romantic foibles. The program would then flash back to the events in question. Ron Orbach co-starred as Richard's TV producer, Denise Miller as his next-door neighbor, and David Dundara as his younger brother.
Unfortunately, Platypus Man (unlike the comedy specials) bowed to horrendous reviews. The series folded in May 1995, after only four months on the air. Jeni continued to work steadily, however, with appearances in such films as An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997) and The Aristocrats (2005, doing an extremely colorful monologue). He also continued his Tonight Show appearances under the aegis of Jay Leno. Not long before his death, Jeni mounted another Showtime special, Richard Jeni: A Big Steaming Pile of Me (2005).
It is not clear exactly when Jeni's mental illness first took root; more apparent is the fact that he was deeply emotionally and psychologically troubled around the time of his death. According to a statement by Jeni's family on the comedian's personal website, the comedian was diagnosed, in early 2007, as having "severe clinical depression coupled with bouts of psychotic paranoia." During one of these strained episodes, in the early hours of Saturday morning, March 10, 2007, Jeni was staying in a Los Angeles-area house with his girlfriend when he reportedly shot himself and was rushed by the paramedics to a nearby hospital. He died not long after; he was only 49 years old.