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Mitch Hedberg

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 18, 2017
Category: Spoken Word

”I used to do drugs,” Mitch Hedberg joked. ”I still do drugs. But I used to, too.” On March 29, 2005, that line stopped being funny — he was found dead in a New Jersey motel room. Cause of death: heroin. He was 37 years old.

Mitch would be the first to note the incongruity between his status as a rising comedy star and the career-and-life-ender of a presumably accidental overdose. The distance between appearance and reality, between language and truth — that space was his playground. He was comedian-as-philosopher, comic-as-linguist. Give Mitch an everyday occurrence, and he’d hold it up to the light and deconstruct it. His humor was quiet, non-physical, smart — there wasn’t a fart joke or a sex reference in his repertoire.

His art started with his self-presentation. He was tall and gangly and not altogether comfortable onstage, and he emphasized his discomfort. His hair was long and parted in the middle, so it flopped over his face when he looked down at the floor, which he did a lot. The lenses of his glasses were tinted light blue, the better to hide behind. He sometimes wore a Backstage Pass when he performed, “so when I leave the stage, I won’t have problems.”

Some comedians tell stories, others create characters. Mitch worked in a more demanding tradition — the one-liner. And not one-liners that needed a set-up. The pure one-liner, the Zen one-liner, the one-liner that just sits there, surrounded by silence until you add your contribution, which is laughter. If you happen to admire the comedy of Steven Wright, you are Mitch’s ideal audience. [To buy “Mitch All Together” from Amazon and get a free MP3 download, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Mitch had a distinctive way of speaking that made him funnier than he can ever be on the page. His sentences were adventures; he would emphasize seemingly random words, which made him sound as if English were his second language. His accent was part Southern, part hipster, a neat trick for a kid from St. Paul.

Mitch never needed more than an introduction. After that, he could win his own game. Listen:

“An escalator can never break — it can only become stairs.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend. I just know a girl who would be really mad if she heard me say that.”

“When someone hands you a flyer, it’s like he’s saying, ‘Here, you throw this away.’”

“I order a club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member.”

“When I was a kid, I lay in my twin bed, wondering where my brother was.”

“Do you think that when a guy got the idea for a bong that a black light popped on?”

“Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read.”

“I have no problem not listening to The Temptations.”

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just gonna ask where they’re going and hook up with them later.”

All of these are from “Mitch All Together,” which is like his greatest hits. It contains a DVD of his live performance and a faster-paced, looser CD of his best bits. Neither tops 40 minutes. Not a lot of stuff for a comedian who had been at it for more than a decade. But…funny? To hear Mitch is to love him. And to love Mitch is to know you’ll be returning later with friends in tow.

He was, by his wife’s account, as amusing offstage as on: “I remember when we’d be at a post office in some town, just mailing shit. I’d be getting stamps or writing an envelope, and I’d hear Mitch laughing and acting suspicious. When we left, he’d tell me about how he’d seen some woman sending some mail and he’d copied down her address. He bought a birthday card and wrote something like “Amy, thanks for all your hard work!! See you on the 11th!” and then put a $100 bill in it and mailed it…He loved the idea of someone being totally confused when they opened it. I remember him doing this all the time…”

Another of Mitch’s ideas: sending cash to Tori Spelling.

Oh, dear. There I go, trafficking in Mitch’s beyond-laconic style. As will you: Mitch Hedberg gets under your skin and into your speech pattern and the way you think and see. In this way, he lives on. Immortal. And yet, sadly, dead. The incongruity would make Mitch smile.