Richard Jeni’s family doesn’t need to wait for the coroner’s report. The comic, in the throws of severe clinical depression that was “coupled with bouts of psychotic paranoia,” committed suicide, the family said Tuesday. Jeni, 49, died Saturday after apparently shooting himself in his Los Angeles home, police said. An autopsy was performed Monday.
In a statement, Jeni’s family said it wanted to squash speculation that Jeni took his own life over career frustrations.”He was not down or blue,” the family said. “He was ill.” Jeni’s clinical depression was diagnosed earlier this year, the statement said. The illness led him to cancel gigs for the first time in more than 20 years, one previous weather-related incident notwithstanding, it said. “One only needs to have a family member or friend with a mental illness to understand that there is nothing rational, predictable or fair about these diseases,” the family said. “That’s pretty spot-on,” said Dr. Kenneth Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, when reached for reaction Tuesday.
According to Duckworth, up to 10 percent of Americans are afflicted with a serious mental illness. Paranoia, as Jeni was said to have battled, can exacerbate the problem and complicate treatment. “They may not experience the problem as within themselves,” Duckworth said. “They often see the problem as outside themselves.” Jeni’s death came, the family said, as the performer was riding high professionally. “In fact, he had just enjoyed one of his most financially rewarding years to date,” the statement said. Last week, the family said, Jeni had scheduled meetings with HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht to discuss future projects. Jeni starred in three specials for the cable network.
Jeni was a Tonight Show fixture who toured regularly. He appeared onscreen in Jim Carrey’s The Mask and starred his own prime-time sitcom, Platypus Man. His observational routines riffed on everything from the plot of Jaws: The Revenge to the prosecution of Martha Stewart. “Perhaps Richard’s passing will encourage people to have sympathy, compassion and understanding for those who are afflicted with mental illness,” the Jeni family said. “As we are all trying to make sense of this, take time to remember the joy and laughter Richard brought to the countless people he touched during his much too short life.”
Duckworth praised the family for coming forward. “It’s progress that this family is being so open about it,” Duckworth said. “People used to die of a ‘lingering illness.’ Now it’s cancer. It’s progress. You call it for what it is.” A private memorial service for Jeni will be held this month in Los Angeles, the family said.