Shout Outs to Mitch Hedberg
Sometimes you miss the boat.
This was exactly what happened to me in the case of Mitch Hedberg.
Hedberg was an extremely gifted comedian who was taken from this world far too soon. And to my regret, while he was alive, I didn’t even know he existed.
A master of the pithy one-liner, Mitch was described by some as this generation’s Steven Wright. While his off-beat observations about everyday life, delivered with a mellow, stoner-like cadence, could be seen as similar, to call it derivative would be foolish.
Confession: When I decided to move to Toronto and pursue stand-up comedy, I had listened to very few professional stand-up comedy albums. Sure, I was well-versed in the most popular of comics, the mainstream successes like Seinfeld, or Chris Rock, but I was basically the equivalent of the kid who says he loves Science Fiction but has only seen Star Wars.
This isn’t to say that my childhood wasn’t filled with great comedy. My parent’s record collection boasted such gems as Billy Cosby’s “Why is there Air,” the music-based comedy of Shelly Berman, and radio shows like Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’ “Bob and Doug Mackenzie.”
And how could I forget the hysterical Chicken Man, which I still think is absolutely brilliant.
So in all fairness, I wasn’t exactly raised on stand-up,( though I will give a tip o’ the cap to my folks for a detailed education in classic rock).
In fact, the only indication that this art form would become such a large part of my life was in high school, when my guidance counsellor administered a depressing career-predictor test that was designed to tell us what kind of robot we would become. My test came back offering three suggestions: magician, clown, or comedian. Suffice to say I wrote the whole exercise off as a bunch of bullshit and enrolled in teacher’s college. Ten years later, I still don’t want to be a clown, but stand-up has got my attention. Bully for you, guidance counsellor.
Oddly enough, it was a friend of mine outside of comedy who introduced me to Hedberg, Shane Heron. He and I were producing a webcomic at the time called Awesome Marcus Ninja and we had booked a table at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. Leaving from Toronto, we were staring down the barrel of an insanely long road and both agreed to bring music mixes for the ride. Shane brought an eclectic and diverse mix of hip-hop and rock music, his 60 GB iPod filled to the brim.
I brought 5 CDs with every Jethro Tull album album ever made and not much else.
Suffice to say we mostly listened to Shane’s music, which included a handful of funny stand-up comedy bits. I remember being floored by Hedberg’s jokes, amazed at how I found every single one of them hilarious. I reasoned that since these were isolated “best-of” clips, the full albums couldn’t maintain this lofty pace. Later, when I devoured his discography properly, I realized that he was just that good.
As I said, I’d missed the boat, Mitch was no longer of this world. So I set myself to the task of greedily consuming anything else he did, including his cameo appearances as a café owner on “That 70s Show”
He made a mediocre sitcom a little better, with the help of Kurtwood Smith who played Clarence Boddiker in the second best movie of all time:
Think it over, creep.
I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing Hedberg’s humour, as he is a master of the one-liner, a joke form that I consider sublime. I’ve learned a lot about structure from his jokes, but it’s humbling to know that I simply can’t do what he does. He sees the world in a way that is so different from me, it’s like I’m peeking at the thoughts of an alien.
My favourite joke by Hedberg:
I gotta write these jokes so I stay in a hotel at night and I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and write it down. Or, if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.
Mitch was is remembered well as a human being, and I was quite moved to read Mike Birbiglia’s tribute:
…I show up at the club and they ask me if I’ll pick up Mitch in my car and bring him to the club. And I was in shock. First, because Mitch Hedberg was going to ride in my car. 2nd, that Mitch Hedberg rides in cars at all. I had always kind of envisioned him riding in a spaceship or just kind of teleporting onto stage. So I was taken aback when I picked him up and he and has wife Lynn treated me like an old friend.
So we do the shows and later in the week I ask them if they want to go bowling because I had my own bowling shoes. So we go bowling and I’m so rattled that I’m bowling with Mitch Hedberg that I’m awful. I’m rolling all kinds of 1s and 3s. And I was so embarrassed. And at the end, Mitch said to me: “When you said you wanted to go bowling, I thought that you would be good at bowling.”
And then we’re waiting in line to pay and there are these teenage girls next to us in line and so to embarrass me, he goes: “do you think he’s cute?” and they go, “he’s alright.” And then Lynn comes over and talk to Mitch privately and then Mitch comes over and says: “Lynn says I should apologize for embarrassing you.” And then there was a pause and I go “Mitch, you didn’t actually apologize, you just said you were supposed to.” And he was like “Ha! Good one.”
Alas, we no longer have a Mitch Hedberg to make us laugh in his unique way. We will never get a fourth, sixth or tenth comedy album out of him and see in what direction his brilliance would evolve. On most days I try to remind myself that his tragic death should inspire me to appreciate the comedy geniuses that are still with us.
Other days I just feel sad that I missed the boat and never got to see him perform. But that’s okay, I have a couple of great Mitch Hedberg albums that live on my phone to cheer me up.
Let’s finish up with a few clips of Mitch doing his thing: