Stand-Up Rewind: Who Was Mitch Hedberg?
“I did a radio interview. The DJ’s first question was, ‘Who are you?’” Mitch Hedberg once said. “I had to think. Is this guy really deep, or did I drive to the wrong station?”
Hedberg died way too young to deliver a satisfactory answer to the “who are you?” question. His death, originally blamed on a heart defect but eventually traced to a drug overdose at age 37, came only six years after his first TV special, a half-hour edition of Comedy Central Presents. The special introduced us to Hedberg the comic, a hilarious hybrid of Steven Wright meets mid-career George Carlin meets Cheech and Chong. That’s Wright for the series of disconnected, off-kilter one-liners; Class Clown-era Carlin for the childlike delight in wordplay; and Cheech and Chong for the spaced-out delivery that somehow lulled audiences into laughter.
But as the 1999 Comedy Central Presents demonstrates, describing his stand-up style is an incomplete response to the question.
Hedberg didn’t expect us to have the answers either. “Does anybody know who I am?” he wondered at the top of the special, staring at the stage floor through dishwater-blonde bangs and tinted aviators. He peeked through this comedy disguise throughout the show, a distinctive costume that both helped audiences remember him (“that stoner dude!”) and gave Hedberg a place to hide. From behind the safety of this comedy camouflage, Hedberg quickly won over the audience with a series of quirky observations:
- “I like an escalator, man, because an escalator can never break. It can only become stairs. There would never be an ‘Escalator temporarily out of order’ sign. Only an ‘Escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.’”
- “When someone hands me a flyer it’s like, ‘Here, you throw this away.’”
- “I rent a lot of cars. When I drive a rental car, I don’t know what’s going on with it, right? So a lot of times, I drive for 10 miles with the emergency brake on. That doesn’t say a lot for me, but it really doesn’t say a lot for the emergency brake. It’s not really an emergency brake, it’s an emergency make-the-car-smell-funny lever.”
- “I hate wearing turtlenecks. Wearing a turtleneck is like being strangled by a really weak guy.”
You get the idea. Hedberg hated the idea that people thought of him in the same vein as Wright, not because he didn’t admire Wright but because he didn’t want people to think he was ripping off the more established comic. But there was a reason Hedberg mainly dealt in one-liners. “That came because I'm not a good storyteller,” he told A.V. Club. “I would add on to a concept that I thought was funny but was getting no laughs, and I’d get more uptight. I decided to get to the point quicker, get rid of all the fat. When I tell a story, it’s always been very much just the facts, so all my jokes are really stories that are broken down to the most factual sense.”
That no-fat writing style led to a lot of laughs, with a ridiculously high punchline-per-minute ratio despite his drowsy delivery. At this early stage of his (televised) career, you could see the chuckles buoying Hedberg, his trust in himself seemingly growing as each gag smashes. After a huge response to a joke, he even admitted, “I guess this is going all right,” as a winning smile broke out. Eye contact! Maybe he was going to have a career after all.
It’s all he wanted to do. “I got into comedy to do comedy,” Hedberg confessed during this set, lamenting that people were interested in him for comedy-adjacent activities like acting and screenwriting. But Hedberg was a stand-up, only wanted to be a stand-up, and at this stage of the game, wasn’t interested in anything else.
Part of what made him so good at comedy may have been the drugs, ironically. At least to hear him tell it anyway. “Acid opened up my mind, it expanded my mind,” explained Hedberg, now more relaxed and sitting on the stage like a guy on a park bench, shooting the breeze with whatever pigeons come along. “I saw through the bullshit.”
Seeing through the bullshit is a good way to describe Hedberg’s act. Sure, all comedy can be described as “seeing through the bullshit” to some degree, but it was truly the essence of Hedberg’s one-liners. He was not spinning relatable stories like John Mulaney describing mischief at the Salt and Pepper Diner. He was not springing absurdist surprises like Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby. He was just making observations with an economy of words that hit right between the eyes: “Alcoholism is the only disease you can get yelled at for having.” Yes. That’s exactly what it is.
Hedberg served it all up in a sleepy drawl, punctuated by odd pauses that syncopate his punchlines. That delivery accounted for what Vulture called his “effortless cool” when it named his Comedy Central Presents one of the 20 greatest stand-up specials of all time. He wanted our approval but didn’t need it. He was bashful, but he’d still be okay if you didn’t want to play along. And he was grateful when we did, ending the special with a touchingly sincere, “I love you guys. Thanks for coming to my special.”
None of which provided a completely satisfactory answer to “Who is Mitch Hedberg?” Due to the relative brevity of his comedy career, we never got one. But his first-ever special offered one hell of an entertaining clue. All right, all right.