Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mitch Hedberg

Last Laugh
(By Sam Anderson, Slate magazine, 2005)

     When the comedian Mitch Hedberg died suddenly on March 30, at the age of 37, it was the end of an entirely hypothetical era - of legendary sold-out stadium tours, of repeat performances as Oscar host, and, naturally, of the dominant reign of Hedberg, the most popular and innovative sitcom in TV history.  None of that ever happened, of course, and most people outside of stand-up comedy have never heard of Mitch Hedberg. The media were busy that week with a crescendo of oversized public deaths - Johnnie Cochran, Terri Schiavo, and the pope - so Hedberg was dispatched with the kind of perfunctory mini-obit that gets all of the facts right but all of the essentials wrong (he was described as "spacey," "absurdist," "surreal," "rambling," "beatnik," "stoner," "slacker," each of which is about half an inch off).  Meanwhile, on the Internet, Hedberg's fans were remarkably effusive, even for fans.  A memorial bulletin board on his official Web site quickly drew thousands of posts.  Some people wrote that they felt closer to him than to their own families. An Amazon.com reviewer, after what must have been some complicated math, concluded that Hedberg's death was "infinity times more tragic than those of Terri Schiavo and the pope put together." Google listed Hedberg's name as the week's fastest-climbing search - ahead of Schiavo, the supreme pontiff, and even Jessica Alba.

     This asymmetrical response - quiet in the newsrooms, blaring on the 'net - is emblematic of Hedberg's career, which seemed forever on the brink of mainstream success. In 1996, he came from nowhere to dominate the prestigious Just for Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival, then spent two years touring and earning devoted pockets of fans.  His act was singular and magnetic: He would stare at the floor, with his eyes often closed behind sunglasses and a screen of shaggy hair, and mumble tentative one-liners about koala bears, hotels, and cinnamon rolls.  Soon the industry plugged him into its big-money promotion cycle: Letterman booked him compulsively on the Late Show, Variety named him one of its "10 comics to watch," and Fox signed him to a half-million-dollar sitcom deal.  In 1998, when Seinfeld swaggered out of America's national living room, Hedberg was on many critics' shortlist of successors. Time magazine actually said it: "the next Seinfeld."  The compliment, of course, was a time bomb: high praise for two years, then - when Hedberg inevitably proved the prophecy wrong - permanent evidence of a squandered career. His deal with Fox fell through after network writers couldn't come up with a marketable vehicle for his style. He was passed (and then lapped) in the race for widespread name-recognition by probably every comedian you can think of: Ray Romano, Bernie Mac, Jon Stewart, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Kimmel, ad infinitum, all the way down to the cast of Last Comic Standing. His career ended in a classic Behind the Music flameout: a heroin arrest, gruesome (but spurious) rumors about an amputated leg, a flurry of canceled performances, and reports of almost impossibly disastrous shows. When Hedberg died, officially of heart failure but speculatively of everything else, the verdict was in:  He may have had his cult, but he was no Seinfeld.

     In Hedberg's prime in the late 1990s, however (which is best captured on his first CD, the charmingly amateur Strategic Grill Locations), the Seinfeld comparison seemed plausible.  Like Seinfeld, he was an apolitical white guy who defamiliarized everyday life in a way that seemed to transcend comedy.  But, unlike Seinfeld, he was easy to like.  While Seinfeld's humor always had an edge of social superiority, Hedberg's radiated pure affection: He loved his audience, his jokes, and almost everything in the world—waffles, doughnuts, roommates, electric fans, bananas, animals:  “My apartment is infested with koala bears. It's the cutest infestation ever. Way better than cockroaches. When I turn on the light a bunch of koala bears scatter. But I don't want 'em to, you know, I'm like ‘Hey, hold on, fellas. Let me hold one of you. And feed you a leaf.’  It's impossible to capture his unique delivery in print (so watch a clip!).  He stretched words out to three times their normal length, conspicuously omitted contractions, stressed syllables with the randomness of someone just learning the language.  (He once told an interviewer that he had an "almost mathematical" feel for syllables.)  He laughed at his own punch lines and apologized constantly: "All right, that joke is ridiculous. That's like a carbon copy of the previous joke, with different ingredients.  I don't know what I was trying to pull off there."  It all seemed completely authentic.  Though Hedberg may have been hailed as the future of comedy, his material was actually closer to the kind of pure and harmless language puzzle of the "Who's on First?" routine.  His jokes were concise little logic problems:

I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it.

I hate flossing; I wish I just had one long curvy tooth.

A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.

I like to play blackjack. I'm not addicted to gambling, I'm addicted to sitting in a semicircle.

     This is not the broad social humor that plays well between commercial breaks. Sitcoms aren't about jokes, they're about zany neighbors who eat too much of your pizza and photogenic dogs who give you meaningful looks.  Before his rapid decline, Hedberg was arguably the best club comic of the last decade - an achievement that sounds, in our era of cross-promotion, something like "the best backup shortstop on my mom's slow-pitch softball team."  But that was his real ambition. In interviews and in his act, he always insisted that stand-up was a self-sufficient art - he joked that the industry's drive to convert comics into actors and talk-show hosts was like saying to a chef: "Alright you're a cook. Can you farm?"  Even at the height of his success he toured relentlessly, headlining four nights a week at smallish clubs and college campuses. He died, in fact, in a hotel room between shows.  Hedberg was an awful candidate for the next Seinfeld, not because he wasn't funny, but because his humor was so deeply rooted in stand-up.  It was his native language; anything else would have been a clumsy adaptation.  We're lucky, in a way, that he never crossed over. There's something sacred about the untranslatable (the Italians have a proverb: traduttore, traditore—"translator, traitor").  The "next Seinfeld" position is currently vacant, though there have been murmurs about, for instance, Arrested Development, and even about the recently canceled and deeply un-Seinfeldian series Committed. Success on the scale of Seinfeld is essentially beyond prediction, and it has nothing to do with stand-up comedy.  Maybe Hedberg's death will mark the official end of the search.

Mitch Hedberg’s Jokes
(From: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mitch_Hedberg)


I play sports...  no I don't, what the fuck!

I think foosball is a combination of soccer and shish kabobs.  Foosball fucked up my perception of soccer.  I thought you had to kick the ball and then spin 'round and round.  I can't do a back flip, much less several ...  simultaneously with two other guys...that look exactly like me. 

The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how much I play, I'll never be as good as a wall.  I played a wall once.  They're fucking relentless. 

I played golf, I'm not good at golf, I never got good at it.  I never got a hole in one, but I did hit a guy.  And that's way more satisfying.  You're supposed to yell "fore." But I was too busy mumbling, "there ain't no way that's gonna hit him." ....  I hit a guy in one.  What's par for hitting a guy? One.  If you hit a guy in two, you are an asshole. 

You know, people think I'm into sports just because I'm a man.  I'm not into sports, I mean, I like Gatorade, but that's about as far as it goes.  By the way, you don't have to be sweaty and holding a basketball to enjoy a Gatorade.  You could just be a thirsty dude.  Gatorade forgets about this demographic.  I'm thirsty for absolutely no reason.  Other than the fact that liquid has not touched my lips for some time.  Can I have a Gatorade too, or does that lightning bolt mean "no"?

Foods & Beverages

All McDonalds commercials end the same way: "prices and participation may vary." I want to open my own McDonalds and not participate in anything.  "Can I have a Big Mac?" "No, but we have spaghetti...  and blankets."

I had a bag of Fritos, but these were Texas Grilled Fritos.  These Fritos had grill marks on them.  Hell yeah.  Reminds me of summer time, when we used to fire up the barbeque and throw down some Fritos.  I can still see my dad with the apron on.  "Better flip that Frito, Dad.  You know how I like mine: with grill marks."

I had a stick of Carefree gum, but it didn't work.  I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality. 

You know they call corn on the cob, corn on the cob, but that's how it comes out of the ground, man.  They should call that corn, they should call every other version corn off the cob.  It's not like if you cut off my arm you would call it Mitch.  Then reattach it and call me Mitch-all-together... 

They say that the recipe for Sprite is lemon and lime.  But I tried to make it at home.  There's more to it than that.  "Hey, you want some more homemade Sprite, man?" "Not until you figure out what the fuck else is in it!"

Once I saw this wino who was eating grapes, and I said, "Dude, you have to wait". 
The Kit Kat candy bar has the name "Kit Kat" imprinted in the chocolate.  That robs you of chocolate.  Kit Kat has come up with a clever chocolate saving technique.  I'm gonna go down to the Kit Kat factory, and say "Hey, you owe me some letters."

I went to a restaurant and I ordered a chicken sandwich, but I don't think the waitress heard me 'cause she asked how I'd like my eggs.  So I tried answering her anyways.  "INCUBATED! Then hatched, then raised, then beheaded, then plucked, then cut up, then put onto a grill, then put onto a bun.  Damn, it's gonna take a while.  I don't have the time.  Scrambled!"

A waffle is like a pancake with syrup traps.  I like refried beans.  That's why I wanna try fried beans, because maybe they're just as good and we're just wasting time.  You don't have to fry them again after all. 

A lollipop is a cross between hard candy and garbage. 

Me and Other People

I don't have a girlfriend.  I just know this lady who'd be really mad if she heard me say that. 

Last week I helped my friend stay put.  It's a lot easier than helping someone move.  I just went over to his house and made sure that he did not start to load shit into a truck. 

I was walking by a drycleaner at 3 a.m.  and there was a sign that said "Sorry, we're closed".  You don't have to be sorry.  It's 3 a.m.  and you're a drycleaner.  It would be ridiculous for me to expect you to be open.  I'm not gonna come by at 10 a.m. and say, "Hey, I was here at 3 a.m.  and you guys were closed.  Someone owes me an apology."

When it comes to racism, some people say "I don't care if they are black, white, purple or green".  Ah, hold on now...  purple or green? You gotta draw the line somewhere.  To hell with purple people!

I had an apartment and I had a neighbor, and whenever he would knock on my wall I knew he wanted me to turn my music down and that made me angry 'cause I like loud music...  so when he knocked on the wall, I'd mess with his head.  I'd say "Go around! I cannot open the wall! I dunno if you have a door on your side but over here there's nothin'.  It's just flat."

About Myself

I wanna hang a map of the world in my house.  Then I'm gonna put pins into all the locations that I've travelled to.  But first, I'm gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so that it will not fall off the wall. 

I hate turtlenecks.  I have such a weak neck.  Plus if you wear a turtleneck it's like being strangled by a really weak guy ...  all day.  And if you wear a turtleneck and a backpack it's like a weak midget trying to bring you down.  I wear a necklace, cause I wanna know when I'm upside down.  This jacket is dry clean only, which means ....  it's dirty. 

I tried to throw away a yo-yo.  It was fucking impossible.  I tried to walk into Target, but I missed.  Damn. 

I'm sick of following my dreams.  I'm just going to ask them where they're going and hook up with them later. 

I use the word totally too much.  I need to change it up and use a word that is different but has the same meaning.  Mitch, do you like submarine sandwiches?  All-encompassingly ... 

See, I write jokes for a living, man.  I sit in my hotel at night and think of something that's funny and then I go get a pen and write 'em down.  Or, if the pen's too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny. 

I like to hold the microphone cord like this, I pinch it together, then I let it go, and you hear a whole bunch of jokes at once. 

Things that Go Together Because They Are On the Same Page of My Notes

I wanted to buy a candle holder, but the store didn't have one.  So I got a cake. 

I find that duck's opinions of me are very much influenced over whether or not I have bread.  A duck loves bread, but he does not have the capability to buy a loaf.  That's the biggest joke on a duck ever.  Like, if I worked in a convenience store, and a duck walked in and took a loaf of bread in its beak, I would let it.  I would say, "Come back tomorrow, bring your friends." When I think of a duck's friends, I think of more ducks.  But, they could have like, a beaver in tow.  Cause if you're an animal, you want to have a beaver as a friend, cause they have some kickass houses.  Right on the lake.  "Fuck lakeside, this is lake ON!"
An escalator can never break.  It can only become stairs.  You would never see an escalator "Temporarily Out of Order" sign, just "Escalator Temporarily Stairs...  Sorry for the Convenience ...  We apologize for the fact that you can still get up there."
Alcoholism is a disease, but it's the only one you can get yelled at for having.  "Goddamn it Otto, you are an alcoholic." "Goddamn it Otto, you have Lupus" ... one of those two doesn't sound right.  My manager told me, "Don't use alcohol as a crutch."  A crutch is something that helps you walk, alcohol is like the step I didn't see. 

I was in a bar, minding my own business, and this guy came up to me and said, "You're gonna have to move, you're blocking a fire exit." As though if there was a fire, I wasn't gonna run.  If you're flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit. 

When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it's busy they start a waiting list.  They start calling out names, they say "Dufrane, party of two.  Dufrane, party of two." And if no one answers they'll say their name again.  "Dufrane, party of two, Dufrane, party of two." But then if no one answers they'll just go right on to the next name.  "Bush, party of three." Yeah, but what happened to the Dufranes? No one seems to give a shit.  Who can eat at a time like this - people are missing.  You fuckers are selfish...  the Dufranes are in someone's trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths.  And they're hungry! That's a double whammy.  We need help.  Bush, search party of three! You can eat when you find the Dufranes. 

When the Joke Didn't Work

That joke is in the preliminary stages.  It will be funny later. 


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