Mitch Hedberg’s Lost Sundance Comedy Deserves to Be Released
Mitch Hedberg was obviously one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time — the one-liners, the pauses, the philosophical musings on the nature of heroism as it relates to belt loops. Not getting to experience him unleashed on Twitter remains a crime to comedy.
But Hedberg’s talents weren’t confined only to stand-up; impressively, he wrote, directed and starred in a low-budget feature film called Los Enchiladas!, which made it all the way to the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Not bad for a meandering indie comedy about the staff of a Midwestern Mexican chain restaurant on the eve of Cinco de Mayo.
In some ways, it feels unavoidable to compare Los Enchiladas! with other low-fi 1990s offerings, like Slacker or Clerks — the latter being a comparison Hedberg particularly bristled at. “At Sundance, they tried to compare my film to Clerks, which is bullshit,” Hedberg once told an interviewer. “I mean, I’m glad that guy has a good career, but I don’t think that Kevin Smith’s sense of humor is my sense of humor.” Hedberg claimed that he was more influenced by old Bill Murray movies, like Meatballs.
Los Enchiladas! is also, to its credit, very much about cultural appropriation — the bleakness of the titular restaurant is compounded by repeated reminders that these are white cooks making crappy meals for white guests under the farcical umbrella of being a so-called Mexican eatery. For example, the film’s opening shot is literally a hamburger being chopped up and unceremoniously shoved into a taco shell. Hedberg’s producer and co-star, Jana Johnson, said at the time, “We’re both from Minnesota and find the lack of authenticity in ethnic restaurants there to be a source of humor.” When a Waspy couple asks for mild salsa, the waiter serves them tomatoes mixed with ketchup packets.
At one point, a seemingly coked-up, beat poet-esque menu writer played by Marc Maron underscores this theme, suggesting that Los Enchiladas should make bullshit claims that certain food items were “handmade by Native Americans.” Sure, the movie is a laid-back comedy about the food service industry, but it also works as a fierce satire aimed at the amoral, incompetent leechiness of white American culture.
In addition to Maron, the cast is stacked with familiar alt-comedy faces, featuring appearances from Maria Bamford and Dave Attell, who plays the loathsome, casually racist manager who thinks that Cinco de Mayo was “invented by Corona.” Hedberg sang the praises of his friends: “I thought Attell was great in my movie. Marc Maron, great,” adding, “Marc Maron’s a cocky bitch. He said he’s the best thing in the movie.”
If there's a lead in the movie, it’s Lee, the drifter/author/restaurant employee played by Hedberg, who expressed regret at having taken on such a big role. “My manager wanted me to be in it,” he told an audience during a 2004 Q&A. “And I put myself in it, and I’m embarrassed to watch the movie because I’m in it.”
Hedberg and Johnson, his girlfriend at the time, used their real-life experiences working at chain restaurants to help inform the story. They shot Los Enchiladas! in St. Paul, Minnesota in just 22 days, with a budget made up of money Hedberg had “leftover from a TV development deal that never got off the ground.”
The first cut of Los Enchiladas! was a whopping two hours and twenty minutes long, according to the film’s editor — Jay Chandrasekhar of Broken Lizard fame. Chandrasekhar was brought in to tighten the film by his manager, who also worked with Hedberg. “I went after it," said Chandrasekhar, who sat in a dark room smoking joints with Hedberg until they whittled the movie down to a lean 75 minutes.
Amazingly, the film was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it kind of bombed. “I was completely out of my comfort zone,” Hedberg said of Sundance, joking that the only movies he watched there were rented from Blockbuster. When Los Enchiladas! premiered on a Friday at midnight, the “rowdy" audience showed up expecting an "Animal House-style slapstick farce," and instead got something far more dry and ponderous.
Hedberg recalled that hardly anybody laughed at the premiere, and it “was devastating to watch.” The dejected comedian ducked out early, not even staying for his post-screening Q&A. While he admitted that the second screening was “much better,” in the end, there was no bidding war, like there was with The Blair Witch Project. No one bought the movie, and it never secured any kind of distribution.
Comedian Lynn Shawcroft, Mitch Hedberg’s wife, has been reportedly working on finally getting the film released since at least 2011, which has been complicated by various music rights issues and the fact that “some kid” found a VHS copy of the movie and uploaded it to a torrent site.
The bootleg copy has since found its way onto YouTube, and the quality is somewhere between the cursed video from The Ring and porno tapes in your dad’s sock drawer. Hopefully, one day we’ll get a proper release of this odd little gem. #ReleaseTheHedbergAndChandrasekharCut
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