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Mitch Hedberg Gets the Light
2005-03-31 21:53
by Scott Long
Notes:
Scott Long is now blogging at NSFWsports.com.
Will Carroll can still be found at Baseball Prospectus.

Not long after Will Carroll had asked me to join him in writing for this blog, he suggested I do a piece ranking stand-up comedians. I told him I was uncomfortable doing that as I know most of the people who make a living in the biz and didn't want to create a sh#tstorm. Sadly, today I found out the most unique voice in comedy I had ever heard, died.

I met comedian Mitch Hedberg in the mid-90's, as we were both just a couple of years into our standup careers. I was the opening act, Mitch was the middle act and the headliner was a guy who had very little original to offer, but was a draw to the lowest common denominator audience he catered to. The whole week, Mitch ate it in front of this headliner's audience. I sat in the back of the club every night watching and laughing my ass off at Mitch. He was a very cool dude off-stage, but he had some of that Andy Kauffman-thing working, where you weren't sure what was an act and what was just his "normal" personality.

Mitch was compared to Steven Wright from the beginning, but that was too limiting a description, as he had a different rhythm to life and his view of it. I told him at the time, he reminded me of a mix of Wright and the musician Beck. He said to me he thought that was the best description he had ever heard and appreciated it, as he really liked both of them.

The comedy circuit is a pretty exclusive circuit, as there's only 250 or so people who regularly play the clubs, but unfortunately I never ran into him again. I was not surprised to find out that within a couple of years, he had signed a big money development deal with one of the major networks. Rumors started to circulate not long after this deal that he had developed a heroin habit and it got to be a sick joke about how erratic his performances became and what adventures that followed him, caused by the needle. ""

I'm not here to moralize and considering that my first good friend in comedy died from a heroin overdose in 2002, I can only say I have some understanding of the destructiveness of the drug. It should be mentioned that a lot of Mitch's hilarious insights on life were written when he was on drugs. It reminds me of the line the great Bill Hicks said about how "some of the greatest music in history was written by performers who were really f____ing high." Add another to the list of artists which drugs helped make and then helped break.

During my time in stand-up, Hicks and Hedberg have been the two most influential performers to other comics. This demonstrates one of the great things about comedy; it's wide-range of styles that can elicit the same reaction. Hicks and Hedberg were completely different in style and substance, but they shared a special ability to challenge audiences and make them laugh at the same time.

I'm guessing that like Hicks, there will be lots of posthumous releases come out of Mitch's shows, as he was one of the most prolific comedy writers ever. I recommend picking up the CD/DVD combo that is out in the stores, currently. The DVD is a longer cut of his Comedy Central special and it's a great example of his talent. I've linked a story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which gives a good overview of the Minnesota-bred Hedberg. I know all the people interviewed in the article and they paint a well-rounded picture of him.

Comments
2005-03-31 22:58:20
1.   Linkmeister
I don't know what happens as comics age, but when I think of the musicians who've gone that route and the music lost because of it, it's heartbreaking.
2005-04-01 04:37:48
2.   bob gaj
absolutely terrible. one of my favorite comedians...

2 weeks ago, i took the day off and went down to nyc to visit some friends and hopefully get tix at caroline's that evening for either show of his. called up that morning, and found out all shows of mitch's were sold out.
the dvd: it's interesting to see the unedited version of mitch's comedy central performance. he starts by bombing - really bombing - because the crowd doesn't get it. one of the jokes finally connects after a delayed reaction, and the crowd finally realizes how to think about mitch's jokes. i believe (?) that he even goes back later and redoes some of the same jokes that bombed - this time getting good laughs.

2005-04-01 05:01:38
3.   Voxter
Hedberg was a great writer and performer, a genius of the one-liner and a towering talent to lose. I'll miss his all-too-rare appearances on Letterman and his profanity-laced live shows. If I could be half as funny as Hedberg, all my shows would be hits.
2005-04-01 07:18:25
4.   Anthony
Very nice, Scott. The weird thing is I just had his Smokey the Bear bit in my head yesterday morning, then got home and heard the news. Simply flooring. Thanks for sharing that with us.
2005-04-01 07:42:54
5.   snappy173
I had the ant farm line stuck in my head yesterday before I heard the news. I never did get to see him. damn.
2005-04-01 08:03:03
6.   Nick from Washington Heights
"one of the jokes finally connects after a delayed reaction, and the crowd finally realizes how to think about mitch's jokes."

that's a great way of thinking about his comedy. I remember when I first saw him on some late night show; I didn't quite get it, but I knew something different and intelligent was going on. Then I saw his comedy central special and it all clicked, and his jokes were these little gems that I couldn't help but laugh at.

2005-04-01 16:32:41
7.   bob gaj
comedy central, 9 pm tonight.
2005-04-01 19:25:02
8.   Baby Maddux
I recently found out about Mitch Hedberg on my XM. He was one of the comics I could always count on to make me laugh and make the miles go faster.
2005-04-02 14:43:54
9.   Indefinite
What a shame. Heart failure at 37. And he was set to come to my town at the end of this month, too.

His presentation was extraordinary when he was on. It's not that the material itself was especially intellectual or anything, but the lines were so precisely crafted: to allow (or force) the audience to draw the connections and discover the humor. His bit on wanting to be a racecar passenger sets up with ordinary-level humor, talking to the driver. "Can I turn on the radio? You should slow down. Why we gotta go in circles?" Then he drops in with "Man, you sure like Tide."

Good points on the unedited version of the Comedy Central special. He really did bomb in the beginning (a laughtrack got added in the edited version), though once the audience figured out the style he managed to struggle through about 20 minutes. The delivery seemed a little forced, and laughs were uneven. Then he says that he's done with the set for his special, but he'll do a few more jokes. And all of a sudden he's loose, he lets a few four-letter words fly in his normal rhythm, and everything hits. Comedy is a fickle mistress.

2005-04-03 10:22:18
10.   Scott Long
Great comments. There is no major comic I can recall who is more legendary about bombing with an audience. He was as good of an example of being a comic who had to have his audience discover him, before he would become a star on the circuit.

3 or 4 times a year I live your statement, Indefinite. Yes, comedy is a fickle mistress.

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