Mourning (and Celebrating) Mitch Hedberg

Having already done a post today with a downbeat ending about a young talented star who died way too young, I contemplated kicking the can down the road and saving this one on Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005) for next year. But, if you’re like me (you’re probably not), you’ve been obsessed for weeks now with the image of the late Bob Saget dying alone in his hotel room, and all the mystery surrounding that death. At various points, people speculated: murder, drugs, foul play? As of this morning, we seem to have returned to “accident” (a slip in the bathroom, a crawl to the bed). The rarity of such things is why we call them “freak” accidents; the fact that it happened when he was alone and we’ll never know for sure will drive us crazy for all time. But we do suspect that if he hadn’t been alone at the time, he mightn’t have died. An ambulance might have been called in time, he might have been saved. No, he wasn’t a suicide, he wasn’t an O.D. but he was alone. The death of Brody Stevens a couple of years ago caused me to brood about the solitary comedian, as Saget’s has, and Hedberg’s early death, alone in a hotel room, in 2005 fuels the theme, as well.

Hedberg’s was more like Lenny Bruce’s. Straight-up drug overdose (multiple drugs in Hedberg’s case — cocaine and heroin, a similar combination to those that killed John Belushi and Chris Farley). The haunting thing about Hedberg’s case is that drugs were his act. Many no doubt assumed that he was playing a role, or rather than he was only playing a role, for his onstage character was definitely different from his real personality, as all must be. But let us say that both characters were drug-addled.

By now, it is way past time for me to articulate something that should be the lede. Mitch Hedberg was a comedy genius. He was neither then nor now a household name, but he has always had a cult of fans, which I have only recently joined because I only recently looked into him. I had heard his name a couple of times because I was in the alternate comedy scene at the same time as his peak years 1998-2004, at a vastly lower level of prominence (if I may use a word that doesn’t apply to me in the slightest). But Hedberg only made a few sporadic TV appearances; most of his work was live. He was on Letterman about a dozen times, and on Conan and Kimmel once or twice. He had a special on Comedy Central. He guested on That 70s Show. Things like that.

The latter credit speaks to his stage character — kind of a grunge era hippie dude. His brilliant masterstroke was to marry that persona to a one-like joke structure in the mode of Steven Wright (or to reach back farther, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Berle, and Groucho). But in an interesting way, he was also like the “drunk” comedians, like Foster Brooks, but on hallucinogens. He was a DAZZLING comedy writer, mixing surreal imagery, wordplay, and heady philosophical concepts. I’m not going to waste both our time by quoting him; his quotes are all over the internet. The best way to get a bead on him is to take yourself over to Youtube and watch clip after clip after clip. Man, is he amazing. Was.

Naturally Hedberg was terrible at school. He grew up in St. Paul and is reported to have been fairly ordinary, and somewhat shy. He was very young when he moved to Florida and then Seattle (of course) to do stand-up. I say of course to Seattle, because he seems like the grunge comedian, much as, I dunno, Firesign Theater were hippie comedians.

Just a couple of weeks before he died he was on The Howard Stern Show and admitted that he used drugs, but claimed that he could handle it. But (sh!) no one can. Hedberg’s last screen credit, released posthumously, was Lords of Dogtown (2005) starring Heath Ledger — who died of a drug overdose himself three years later.

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To learn more about the variety arts, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.