The naughty tree house | VailDaily.com

The naughty tree house

Wren Wertin

Special to the DailyRichard Jeni

The choice is simple: laughter or therapy.

Veteran comedian Richard Jeni chooses guffaws every time. He returns to the Vilar Center of the Arts in Beaver Creek Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

“This is my favorite scenario for a show,” said Jeni. “In television, it’s very proscribed. The only place you have free reign is a place where you’re doing your own show.”

And being in charge of his own show means he’s allowed to venture into whatever might be taboo in polite conversation – sex, anger, ethnic humor.

“That’s part of the appeal,” he enthused. “Where else can people go to blow off steam in that fashion? That’s the function of all of us comedians – why do human beings laugh at all? It’s a coping mechanism, a steam valve.”

And he’s there to let the steam escape, while making stomachs ache with laughter.

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“The situation in (Beaver Creek) is pretty ideal because it’s a pretty nice place, a nice theater,” he said. “They’re an upscale audience and they’re paying attention. That’s good for me – it really depends on the audience really honing in and paying attention.”

As for Jeni, he discovered comedy when he broke into his father’s private stash of comedy records. He likened it to hanging out in an x-rated tree house.

“For kids, the tree house was your secret little cool place where you hang out,” he said. “So it sounded to me when you listen to these comedy records, that was also a tree house. And people were saying naughty things.”

He still considers it an apt analogy. He laughs when people ask why comedians have to curse so much.

“They don’t have to do anything,” he exclaimed. “They do what the audience tells them to. If audiences would quit laughing so much, they’d find other words. If candy got as much of a laugh as the “f’ word, you can bet you’d hear candy a lot more.”

The only thing a comedian has to do is make the audience laugh – and judging from his “Greatest Bits” album, Richard Jeni is very good at his job.

He’s carved out a niche for himself on television and in movie theaters. Television specials, guest appearances, commercials and movie roles have made him a familiar face to the public. He made his feature film debut co-starring as Jim Carrey’s best friend in “The Mask.” He went on to win leading roles in “National Lampoon’s Dad’s Week Off” and “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.”

But it’s stand-up that still holds the bulk of his attention. And touring is just part of the job.

“I like to be in touch with the people,” he said. “And besides, it pays really well.”

As for the stand-up comic, he won’t be wiling away his day in Beaver Creek swooshing down the slopes.

“It’s an amazing thing to me that people live that high up,” he said about Beaver Creek. “And then they want to ride a lift to get that much higher.”

He’s content to hang out searching for oxygen. He was no mountain boy as a child. He grew up in a tough, lower middle-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst, one of thousands of Italian-American families. (“We had more Tonys than Phantom of the Opera,” he quipped.) His high school was seen in the opening segment of “Welcome Back Kotter” and he was no stranger to the disco where they filmed “Saturday Night Fever.”

Despite these auspicious signs, he didn’t discover show business immediately.

“Somebody said a guy becomes a comedian the way a girl becomes a hooker,” he says in his bio. “You start out doing it for a few close friends, then you move onto larger groups, then you figure, hey, I might as well get paid for it. That’s how it was. I wasn’t the class clown, I was more of a street corner jester.”

It was only after he’d been fired and fired and fired some more that he decided to give comedy a go. He sure didn’t have anything else cooking. Luckily for him, it took. Though it should seem effortless, it’s still work.

“Everything is harder than it looks,” he said. “I’d definitely put stand-up in that category. If you’re really good at it, it should look like you just walked by the theater and happened to wander on stage.”

Though he knows how he’ll start and how he’ll end the show, the middle is always up for grabs.

“The place to fool around is in the middle,” he said. “Depending on the mood I’m in and the audience and how they’re reacting, the middle is where you might take some chances.”

He does recommend one or two drinks before sitting down to laugh, just to make sure everybody’s loosened up and on the same page. And the deal is: He’ll be funny, and the audience won’t get mad – they’ll giggle.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.VilarCenter.org or call 845-TIXS.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.