If you were fortunate enough to see or hear one of Mitch Hedberg’s routines, a few things automatically stick with you. First, you notice how much of a space cadet he was. Then, you might realize that his jokes are completely disjointed and that the subjects he ridicules are so far beyond obvious that he made Jerry Seinfeld look like Noam Chomsky. And finally, you see that you just can’t stop laughing.
Well-liked and highly respected by his peers, Mitchell Lee Hedberg died of heart failure on March 30th at the age of 37. Floating somewhere between cult hero and star for the last few years seemed to suit Mitch well; he explained the fact that he never became a household name by saying that most of his fans lived in apartments. His close calls included developing a pilot for Fox that was never completed, several appearances on “The Late Show,’ and cameos in “That 70s Show” and, ironically enough, “Almost Famous.” But anyone who’s seen Mitch’s act would understand that it would be difficult to imagine him portraying a character other than the guy that we all saw onstage, with the sunglasses and the messy hair obscuring his face.
Perhaps never becoming a successful comic actor did bother him a little, as he addressed the issue of acting a few times on his two comedy CDs, with quips like, “You know what keeps me from acting? Fuckin’ auditions,” and “On my resume, they said I should write about acting experience, and I didn’t have any so it was all bullshit, like, when I play pool, and I hit a shot, I act like I’m not surprised.” But as frustrating as it may have been, not being on a Fox sitcom every week allowed him to concentrate on his craft, and the results were always hilarious.
Even though taking the step into acting is simply natural for many comedians, it seemed that all Mitch wanted to do was generate laughter. “When you’re a comedian,” he once remarked, “they always want you to do stuff related to comedy but isn’t really comedy. Like, they say, ‘You’re a comedian? Why don’t you act in this series? Or, write me a script.’ They want you to do stuff that’s not just comedy, man. It’s like if you were a cook, and they were like, ‘So you’re a cook? Can you farm?’” Always looking at the ground, and never at the crowd, Mitch always seemed like he was blocking out the rest of the world when he was on stage. Perhaps this was due to his extreme stage fright early in his career, or maybe all of his space cadet antics were a façade and he was really focusing extremely hard on his routine. Chances are, the answer is somewhere in between. Mitch admits to being high during the taping of his first CD, yet in recent years he has said he stopped using. Whether or not he is to be believed is a personal judgment; the quality of his work never varied so perhaps it’s best that we simply don’t care.
I found out about Mitch Hedberg when visiting a friend of mine at Brown freshman year. His friend quoted one of his more famous jokes – “You know, they call it corn on the cob, and then they cut it off and call it ‘corn’ but that’s fucked up, because that’s how it comes out of the ground. It’s not like if you cut off my arm, you’d call it Mitch, and then sew it back on and call it “Mitch All Together” – and I was hooked. Before I learned that the best times are had on Washington Road, there were many times last year when I would spend a depressing evening on Prospect, and come home ready to destroy something, but instead would turn on my computer and listen to “Strategic Grill Locations,” Mitch’s first CD, and turn my frown upside-down without fail. My then-roommate probably didn’t appreciate the maniacal laughter at three AM, but like Mitch on stage, when I was listening to his riotous routines, I was in my own little happy world. It got to the point where I started talking in his staccato vernacular whenever I was high, and even though it’s fairly impossible to do a good impression of him without flowing hair and Aviators, I still tried.
Precisely because he never hit it big, I felt somewhat closer to him than to other people or things I’m a fan of. It’s fairly unremarkable to like Eminem, the Rolling Stones, or the Yankees, but it was somewhat unique to have Mitch Hedberg as your favorite comedian. Few things gave me more pleasure than turning another one of my friends on to him, or making a distraught buddy stop crying by listening to Mitch. No one forgets Mitch’s jokes once they hear them, and even though he’s difficult to imitate, some of his lines are so perfect and self-contained that Dick Cheney could have used them to crack up a bunch of Terrans on November 3rd. Lines like: “I had an ant farm. Them fellas didn’t grow shit;” or “I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long;” and of course “An escalator can never break, it can only become stairs.” I can ramble all I want about why Mitch meant a lot to me, and to the rest of his fans, but the reason why he’ll be missed is actually quite simple: the man was hilarious.
Mitch Hedberg left Minnesota just because it was cold, and moved to Florida to have fun. He’d always been funny, but never really thought of it as a career option until he was in the Sunshine State. Slowly but surely, Mitch landed on his feet, married another comedian, and was coasting through his career as an E-list celebrity. For me, and for everyone else who knew about him, we always thought we’d have him to amuse us, and he always seemed like he was happy performing the task for his fans. He traveled around the country with his wife, his RV, and his sunglasses, and made all of us laugh whenever he opened his mouth. And he appreciated us as much as we appreciated his hilarity. “So many people are coming out to the clubs,” he posted on his website. “I’d like to thank every one of you. Honestly, you keep me working. I love to stand in front of you, bark out jokes, and stare at the stage. I’ll go anywhere as long as the city allows ex-cons to talk into microphones…There is a joke in that last paragraph. Hope you know that.” Sure we do, Mitch. We only wish there were more to come.