Comedian friends remember the late, great Mitch Hedberg
The release of a box set of vinyl and digital recordings of all of Mitch Hedberg's stand-up comedy -- thanks to Hedberg's widow, comedian Lynn Shawcroft, and Comedy Central Records -- brought with it an all-star assortment of other stand-up comedians live at Carolines on Broadway and beamed in via video messages to offer their own memories and tributes to the late, great comedian.
The event was part of the 2016 New York Comedy Festival.
Todd Glass impersonated Rodney Dangerfield telling Hedberg jokes. Doug Stanhope and Johnny Depp sloppily tried to deliver a Hedberg joke as Hedberg.
Dave Attell toured with Hedberg both early in their careers in the 1990s, then again in 2003 on a Comedy Central-sponsored tour with Lewis Black.
“Why is this guy opening? He should be closing the show. He’s so fucking good. And he was so different, and so unique. Within three times, he was definitely closing the show. This was at The Punchline in San Francisco, which was a great great place for comedy before it was all tech and Google and whatever, it was great – old hippies with a lot of crazy ideas. There was some drinking and drugs being done, but I have to tell you, there was great comedy...”
“Mitch was full tilt. What I loved about him was, everybody wanted to take care of Mitch because he was so like – I guess you could say almost otherworldy. The rest of us were up there doing the D and P jokes. You guys know. Dick and pussy. Mitch would counter with a koala bear infestation. To be honest, the crowds were so cool back then, they dug both of them.”
“Of all the guys I’ve ever worked with, he always had a notebook in his hand. He always was thinking. He always was never satisfied. Some people go, ‘oh, I got my 45 (minutes) and I can close with a guitar and I’m done,’ but not Mitch. He always was looking for that white whale, that joke out there, just like the amazing joke.”
He brings up the Comedy Central half hour. “I love that tape, because you see a guy who’s not to going to change. I would have put a wig on and done anything to get that crowd on my side.”
“The other thing I loved about Mitch, was that he was always clean, but he was never corny. When we all started doing Letterman, which was a big deal to get on Letterman or Conan, any of these shows, we’d all have to de-filth-a-fy our acts. Instead of fisting, what can I say? I don’t know. Exactly. Yeah. I don’t know. But Mitch could just hit it the way it was supposed to be hit.”
Tammy Pescatelli was an open miker and house MC in Ohio in 1993-1994.
“He’s a feature act at that time. I’m like 21, 22, and he’s a feature act, and he wrote a letter in crayon” to the club booker. “He wrote this letter to the club booker, and I’ll never forget it. It said: ‘Hi. My name is Mitch Hedberg. I am funny.’ He wrote it in that voice, too. ‘I have heard good things about your club. You should book me.’ And then he put whatever number he had at the time, and he said, ‘I will see you soon. Love, Mitch.’”
Nick Swardson first saw Hedberg in the 1990s at the Comedy Gallery in St. Paul, Minn.
“I remember seeing him for the first time onstage. I was blown away. I remember it so vividly. I don’t remember last night. But I remember that night I first saw him.”
Tom Rhodes often performed with Hedberg in the 1990s, before and after Rhodes starred in his own NBC sitcom, Mr. Rhodes, in 1996.
“He was a lot of fun. He was just so much fun to hang out with, and party. I did a lot of shows with Mitch in Houston, Texas, at the Laff Stop. The Laff Stop in this period, I think a lot of people recorded their first CDs there. I think Attell, and Hedberg, and Margaret Cho, I did. I think Lewis Black. The room was miked. They had made this really cool place. Hedberg and I did a lot of shows together there. I would do this thing on the road, I always liked to smoke weed but didn’t always have it, so I would say onstage, ‘I’m a marijuana smoker. I only say that because I’m from out of town, and I don’t have any.’ Invariably, somebody after the show would slip you a joint or something. So Hedberg would go on after me, and somewhat early in his set, he’d go, ‘I like cocaine! And I’m from out of town, too!’”
Artie Lange received a joke idea from Hedberg in 1996.
"Mitch goes, 'You’re a fat guy.' And I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of heavyset. For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll be a fat guy.’ He goes, ‘I thought of a joke for you.’ And I’d been doing stand-up for eight years, and he very casually told me the best joke in my act. I go, ‘OK, I can have this joke?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ So I was eager. Mitch Hedberg, the Babe Ruth of jokes. He goes, ‘You know how they tell when you’re a kid, going swimming and you’re eating, wait a half an hour after you eat to go swimming?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘You should say, I’ve never been swimming, because it’s never been more than a half-hour since I last ate.’ I spit out my chicken wing.” Later… “He goes, ‘Hey man. Actually, you got me thinking, if I gain 100 pounds before you do that joke on TV, I get it back.’ So cut to about a year later. I’m auditioning for a movie with Norm McDonald. I’d just met Norm McDonald, and joking around in front of him, he does that joke. He tells me I’ve never been swimming, it’s never been more than a half-hour since Artie last ate, and I said, ‘Where the fuck did you hear that joke?’ Norm was really good about it. He would never steal jokes. He said, ‘I heard a fat guy do it at The Comedy Store.’ I said, ‘A comedian?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ I go, ‘Who?’ He goes, ‘Some fat guy did it.’ So I got mad. The next time I saw Mitch, I said, ‘Mitch, what the fuck happened? Norm did that joke.’ He goes, ‘Actually, man. You know, I’ve been partying a lot. I might have given that to a few fat guys.’”
Rhodes remembered going to Montreal's Just For Laughs festival with Hedberg in 1998.
“The Montreal festival back then, it’s not too much like this anymore, but you could go there, all the television and movie people went there, and they would give a comedian a big deal. So, 1994, I was the belle of the ball, and then I had this sitcom, and it didn’t work out. So, like, 1998, we go to Montreal, and that was Mitch’s year. He was the guy. The belle of the ball at Montreal. The act everybody’s talking about. ‘You’ve got to see Mitch Hedberg.’ And rightfully so. All of his jokes are clean. He’s destroying it. He’s charming. He’s got charisma. So after Montreal, he signed a massive deal with FOX. There were some other people. There were some side project producers, they were talking to Mitch and I about doing a possible animated show together. They thought both of our jokes had an absurdist element. Mitch already had this big deal. This was just some side thing. But in 1998, this was all I had going on. At one point, we did two conference calls with them. At some point, in the second conference call, Mitch made a suggestion and one of the producers shot it down. He was like, ‘Nah nah nah, that’ll never work.’ And Mitch goes, ‘Well, fuck you people! I’m gonna be a star without you.’ And fucking hung up the phone. Thus concluded the only thing I had going on in 1998.”
K.P. Anderson (executive producer, The Soup) was friends with Hedberg since they were both teens in Minnesota. Anderson recalled how Hedberg also didn't last long on FOX's That '70s Show, feeling stuck there.
"It was like his joke, 'You're an amazing cook. Can you farm?' And that was his reaction to it, so he just walked the fuck away from it. And he didn't walk away with regret or anything else. He walked away with a cabin up in Arrowhead, and he was very happy about that."
Todd Glass recalled how Hedberg set himself apart from other comedians, in both style and substance.
“I remember one distinctive time actually seeing him do a whole hour. I was in Nashville, and I stayed over an extra night, because he was coming in on Sunday to do a one-nighter. I watched the audience come in, and I watched his audience watch the show. And I remember just thinking, they treated his show like it was the opera, or it was a play. No one was heckling. There weren’t any stupid fucks yelling out. I was jealous. It made me want to be a better comedian. Because I knew when you do good comedy, that’s the audience you draw. Some performers don’t realize that, and they’ll complain about their audience. But that’s the audience you’ve cultivated. And he didn’t really talk about social issues, but just by what he did, he did not draw idiots to his show. They seemed to be just kind and gentle and nurturing, and that absolutely had to do with what he did. A lot of times we, I think a lot of people worry what’s going to happen when we die. Some people wonder what eternal life will be. I think when it comes to comedy, the fact that he did the comedy he did makes his eternal life live on forever. Because not all comedy stands the test of time. Sometimes you see comedy 30 years later, and you’re like, ‘Fuck! Was that funny back then?’ And you still watch his comedy. It still is hilarious. Ehh. Go fuck yourself, Mitch.”
The last time Swardson saw Hedberg, they worked together at a college gig in Florida.
“We were co-headlining. I went on first. Mitch went on second. At the end of his set, he brought me on…” Fans requested a joke, that was two minutes long. Nick remembers Mitch telling him: “Dang man! You don’t gotta work that hard, dude. Just keep it simple, man. Like, I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too. He wrote like the perfect joke, and it was 10 seconds.”
Shawcroft said last week she's the only one really in charge of Hedberg's legacy, and it took a long time to get it all together, emotionally and literally, to produce this box set.
“I’ve been hoarding Mitch Hedberg for many years. Because he wrote everything down, there’s so many notebooks. For every joke that people are telling today, he probably wrote down 100, because he never stopped writing things down. And I have tons of video…There’s been waves. It’s been a long time. I’ve been so close to putting things out, and then I’m like, ‘Oh my God! Why don’t I just lay on the bed for another day and think about him, without doing anything?’ And sometimes you just have to, because he created so many great things to share.”
Mitch Hedberg, The Complete Vinyl Collection, is out now, and includes four LP records, a 36-page book with rare photos and stories from Hedberg, his comedy friends and family, and a custom USB with everything on digital.
Photo of Dave Attell at the Mitch Hedberg tribute, via NYComedyFest