Jonathan Lee Riches: The Funniest Inmate

Comedy Features
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From the title of this post, you might assume I’m writing about a particularly terrible sitcom debuting on network television next fall about a wacky prisoner and his scuffles with the curmudgeonly-yet-kind warden. Not the case, thank goodness. Instead, this is a real-life story, and one that’s bound to make you…react. I hate to say “laugh,” because our senses of humor are all different, but what follows will at least raise an eyebrow. But if you’re like me, you’ll be rolling on the floor, existing in that fragile state between laughter and death.

This column has covered the idea of gut-splitting material before. As people get older, particularly people who consume a lot of comedy, those belly laughs are fewer and farther between. It’s not that we enjoy comedy any less, only that with exposure it takes more to surprise us. And surprise, of course, is the root of comedy. I can count on one hand how often I’ve experienced that glorious uncontrolled laughter in the past couple years. There was K-Strass, the yo-yo guy. There was Bad Lip Reading. There was that guy who did the missing cat posters (Google “Missing Missy”). Each time, when it’s over, I get that panicky feeling that it won’t happen again, that nothing else can top what came before and I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life just grinning at things.

I was wrong again. “Uhh Yeah Dude,” an absolutely indispensable comedy podcast hosted by Jonathan Laroquette (son of the actor) and Seth Romatelli, introduced me to Jonathan Lee Riches in an episode earlier this year. The story begins in 2003, when Riches, then 26, was arrested for wire fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Since then, he’s been filing the most insane, unbelievable lawsuits almost around the clock. Federal inmates have free access to legal services, and so when Riches gets out of prison this April, the flow will likely dry up. But in that time, he’s created a rich legacy of frivolous litigation that will likely never be surpassed. He’s filed so many lawsuits (anywhere from 4-6 thousand, depending on who you believe) that the Guinness Book of World Records named him the world’s most litigious man. Riches’ response, of course, was to sue them.

Uhh Yeah Dude gave the bare-bones details in a quick segment, but I was intrigued. I spent hours reading about Riches’ lawsuits from the past decade (all handwritten, incidentally), and it was a process of hilarity and amazement. Here are the incredible highlights. All quotes from Riches are (sic).

• In 2010, he sought a restraining order against NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, along with owners Mark Cuban, Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Buss, because he faced “imminent danger and bodily harm.” “Carmelo Anthony told me he is going to kill me,” the suit began. Riches claimed he was a former boyfriend of Anthony’s, that the two met at a Baltimore YMCA, and that Riches committed wire fraud to finance Anthony’s basketball career. “I used stolen credit cards to get him GNC vitamins and enimas to flush out his toxins.” He goes on to say, among so many other things, that Mark Cuban assaulted him at a Dairy Queen and that Jerry Buss sold him his wife on E-bay and promised him a janitor job with the Lakers when he got out of prison.

• In 2007, he sued both Coke and Pepsi for defamation, alleging that they used his name in advertising. This was my favorite excerpt: “Defendants placed a billboard on I-95 10 miles North of South of the Border with my face on it drinking Coca-Cola in one hand and Pepsi Cola in the other. It Advertised the words “It’s so tastey, Even Jonathan Lee Riches drinks it.”

• He sued Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for 10 trillion dollars for holding him against his will, an act which stemmed from the fact that he knew George Bush had used Blackwater to, “swindle the Iranians out of their nuclear weapons in exchange for 10 tons of hummus and 1 ton of Singapore Street Noodles from P.F. Changs.”

• Again in 2007, he sued Michael Vick for stealing his pit bulls to use in dog fighting rings. Afterward, “Mr. Vick sold my dogs on Ebay and used the proceeds to purchase missiles from the Iran government.” As a penalty, Riches sought 63 billion dollars.

• He once sued a litany of defendants, including “Guantanamo Bay, Soviet Gulag Archipelago, Shawshank Redemption, My Lai Massacre, and Cool Hand Luke” for attempting to make him eat rats and subjecting him to “microwave testing.”

• Continuing the sports theme, he sued Barry Bonds and baseball commissioner Bud Selig for boosting ratings by steroids. According to Riches, the two would meet at a Steak ’N Shake to exchange drugs and money. Then there’s this claim: “Barry Bonds on June 22, 2004, benched pressed me against my will to show in front of his Ballpark Buddies. I also witnessed Mr. Bonds selling steroids to nuns.”

• He filed a civil complaint against Wal-Mart, under the alias “Rockefeller Riches,” because he became deaf when an employee blew a “clown horn” in his ear. He also alleged that Wal-Mart gave its employees cocaine to improve their performance.

• 2007 seems to have been his best year, as he also sued Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court justices who passed it for multiple reasons, including this one: “Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Indians are charging the gates of FCI Williamsburg to force me to have a abortion. I’m 8 months pregnant, the first male to give birth. My cell mate got me pregnant on Feb 16, 2007 as a Valentines Day gift.”

Again, this stuff kills me. When I first heard about the lawsuits, I wondered if Riches was insane. I suspected not, because they’re too funny and well-crafted to be the work of a truly crazy person. Sure, there are elements of insanity, but that’s true throughout comedy. And according to an interview conducted by In These Times, I was right. He’s currently in the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, undergoing treatment for an eating disorder, but he’s not detached from reality. He lists a few reasons why he continues to file the suits. Chief among them are his bitterness at receiving such a long sentence for what he considers a minor crime. He takes pleasure in slowing down the legal system with the lawsuits. Also, he’s bored.

It’s impossible to know why anyone takes the time to do something so off-the-wall, and I suspect that Riches’ explanation isn’t the whole story. But whatever the cause, I’m glad he’s out there, burning the midnight oil, making the rest of us laugh and cringe as we’re presented with the raw absurdity lying just underneath our American existence.