Robin Williams’ suicide brought attention to the depression that often strikes entertainers, but sadly, he wasn’t the first comedic genius to take his own life. Freddie Prinz died at the age of 22, and Richard Jeni died right before his 50th birthday, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Evidently, comedy can serve as an outlet for severe depression and psychosis, but the danger lies in the fact that making others people laugh can hide a dangerous secret.
I worked for Richard Jeni for over four years as his personal assistant, and as always blown away by his wit and his brilliance. Being a personal assistant required me to wear many hats, and it was not an easy job, especially when Rich was in one of his moods. He lived in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills which I had to maintain, and which, despite all of its creature comforts, always felt very empty. I helped Rich with everything from household related issues, to assistance with booking gigs and organizing travel, serving as his personal stylist, organizing recordings of sitcoms he studied, and traveling with him for Caroline’s Comedy Hour and one of his cable specials.
Rich never married and had no children, and I honestly couldn’t imagine him with a wife and kids because, he was frequently out of town on gigs, and HAD to have everything his own way. There were numerous times that I would find myself greeting a new girlfriend who suddenly was one of the fixtures in the house, only to see Rich’s outlook on life darken when the girlfriend eventually became the ex. I knew that though Rich was incredibly funny, and kept me in stitches when he would dictate his bits for me to transcribe, he was never happy. I knew so much about him, where he was born and raised, how he left law school to become a comic, what foods he wanted in his fridge at all times, what interior design aesthetic he preferred, where and how he wanted his clean laundry distributed, what wardrobe items he wanted me to scout out, etc., but I never knew the depths of his loneliness.
Though I quit working for Rich to embark on my medical education, we stayed in touch from time to time and in this way continued our friendship. The last time I had seen him was in 2005 when his cable special, “A Big Steaming Pile Of Me” premiered. He was paranoid and disjointed during the premiere, and exhibited bizarre behavior which turned out to be the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia.
I still remember seeing the headline on AOL News on March 11, 2007, which announced that Richard Jeni had shot himself in the face and was dead. It stunned me. It was also extremely strange to find out via the Internet, but with Rich’s modest celebrity status, it was appropriate. I still can’t fathom how he had come to the point where he took the gun and pointed the barrel at himself, but I also cannot understand how a family man like Robin Williams chose to wrap a belt around his neck and cut off his own life breath. Both deaths were tragic, unnecessary, and highlighted an insidious mental disease which lurks among people from all walks of life. No amount of money, success, or fame can ever guarantee the happiness of a human being.
In honor of Richard Jeni and Robin Williams, both of whom were brilliant comics, I am posting these videos for you to enjoy: