Today marks what would have been the 48th birthday of Mitch Hedberg, the beloved alt icon who fatally overdosed in 2005 at age 37. I conducted an interview with Hedberg less than six months before he died, later excerpted under the title “The Mitch is Back in Town” in the October 21-27, 2004 issue of Las Vegas Weekly.
The full original transcript below includes his thoughts on touring with Stephen Lynch, Dave Attell and Lewis Black, disappointment with Los Enchiladas!, pissing off David Letterman, the benefits of being a road dog, pitching sandwiches, and opinions on comics including Dane Cook, Bobcat Goldthwait, Steve Marin, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Nick Swardson, Todd Barry and Marc Maron.
Part 2 concludes next week.
How did your tour with Stephen Lynch come about?
Well all right, last year I toured with Dave Attell and Lewis Black, and the same promoter who put that together [Geof Wills], I told him I want to tour again, but Mr. Black and Mr. Attell are busy guys, so that wasn’t going to happen again. So I guess he tried to find someone who was of equal stature, and neither of us are household names; neither of us have our own TV show, but I think both of us have our small cult following to sort of fill up – almost fill up – a small venue, so I think that’s anyway how we got hooked up. It’s based on the fact that we’ve both established enough of a crowd to play those places. We’re not an instant sellout like the Lewis Black/Dave Attell tour was, but it’s still fun. And I enjoy…I think me and Mr. Lynch are a good match and I’m glad to have met him, so this is a cool way to have met him, you know?
Absolutely. And I did in fact catch you on the Dave Attell and Lewis Black tour. Do you have any war stories from that, any dirt on either of them?
I was so elated to be on that tour. I never complained, I was just so happy to be…I mean, there was a couple times…I mean, pretty much Attell and Black, they went out every night, and they can hang out with the crowd. I can’t do that, man. Attell has a way with his fans where he can be with them, but they don’t bug him for some reason. I don’t know how he does it. I think he puts up enough of a gruff exterior where they’re a little intimidated by him, whereas if I go out with people, I’m afraid if I’m talking to someone, and someone else is trying to talk to me, and I talk to that person, I’m like, “Oh, now that person is mad,” so I get all concerned. So I don’t have a lot of good stories ‘cause I didn’t really go out very much.
I was so happy to be on that tour. That tour to me was like, I don’t know, what’s a happy pill? I guess Prozac, but that’s only if you’re depressed, but it was like I couldn’t be sad no matter what happened, you know? The only thing I hated was Lewis Black’s manager, but other than that…no, you can’t print that. I like the guy. The biggest war story from there was being in a van with Lewis Black for nine hours. You don’t want that because he hates it and he gets mad and he becomes kind of grumpy. But other than that, I was so happy. It was my first big tour and I was just pure happy.
Well you know, he’s a guy…Mr. Black earned his respect in this business. It took him awhile and he’s finally got to a place where I know he’s making good money, he’s happy, and you’ve got to respect that, you know, a guy who hung in there that long and did it. And he’s got quite a history, too; it was interesting learning about. It was cool to watch actual famous people, too. You know, I thought being recognized once a week was cool. But I would walk anywhere with Dave Attell; people can recognize that guy from a mile away, you know? Wow! It’s true. I don’t know what it is about him; I guess his look is so recognizable. It’s wild to watch it, so it was a good learning experience. I got to see and learn, and it’s just cool to see guys who are so funny be just so real and nice and down-to-earth guys, man. It was so cool. And they’ll never say a bad word about you in front of your face. I’m sure when you walk away they’re got plenty of shit to say, but in front of you they don’t say anything bad.
Oh yes, I’ve interviewed both of them other times, and I’ve heard all kinds of stuff about you behind your back. [Laughs] But no, it was an excellent, excellent tour.
It was fun, man. You’re calling from Las Vegas?
I’m writing for them, but I’m actually in New York.
So you saw the show at the, um…
Yeah, yeah, the Beacon. We did two shows there. I remember for some reason Attell was very unhappy with the second show. What show did you see?
Oh, the second one, of course.
Was it a good one?
Well yeah, of course. It was fantastic.
Yeah, exactly, they never have a bad show as far as I’m concerned. But that was fun, playing New York, man. I think Lynch and I are doing Town Hall. I did that with Ellen DeGeneres years ago, but that’s cool. New York, that’s a good place to see any comedy show.
So on a future tour, who else would you like to go out with if you could set up a dream tour?
A dream, dream tour? The ultimate? All right, I want to tour with um, man, that’s a good, I like that question, man. All right, the dream tour that could become a reality? I’d like to tour with Dane Cook. The dream tour that would be a dream and would never happen would uh, probably be, I’d like to go on the road with the 1982 Bobcat Goldthwait and the uh, 1979 Steve Martin. So there you go.
All right. Now, you have a fan in Mr. Ryan Adams.
Ryan Adams has been cool to me. You know, he sent me every band of his’s output on vinyl; he sent me a whole bunch of vinyl. I’ve never actually talked to him face to face, but he said some nice stuff on his website about me, and I’ve talked to him through some other people. But you know what, he’s a great, great dude. He’s been so cool to me. He sent me everything he’s ever put out on vinyl, and I don’t have a record player, man! Now I’ve got to go out and get a record player. But I love that guy. That’s one of those guys I’m not really friends with and I would never say I am, but man, he’s just been cool to me, man. And it’s cool when musicians like you, because as a comedian, you always want musicians to like you. It’s a secret hindrance, you know, or a secret desire, I guess: “I hope musicians like me.” And lately, some musicians have been coming to my shows, like “Wow! Cool, man.” And it always happens to be a musician and you don’t know their music and it sucks, but I love it when musicians love what you do, man. That’s just the ultimate compliment.
And you actually do dig the tuneage of Ryan Adams?
I like Ryan Adams, yeah, and I was listening to him before I found out he likes me. You like Ryan?
Oh absolutely, I’ve seen him many, many times.
Oh really? Man, that’s cool. Have you ever hung out with Ryan?
You know, I was at a [ex-girlfriend] Leona Naess show about a year ago, and I turned around, and he was getting a glass of water for her at the bar right next to me.
[Laughs] Right on, man.
And I just couldn’t talk to him. He’s way too cool.
Yeah, he’s a pretty cool dude, man. I was reading about him in like, magazines, and I was like, “Man, I like the way this guy looks and stuff, and the way he talks,” and the next thing I know, I hear he likes some of my comedy. I wanted to tour with him, man, because I thought that’d be cool. Because he offered me one show in New York at the Hammerstein Ballroom and man, I couldn’t do it because I was on that tour with Attell, and I was like, “Fuck, man, that would’ve been awesome,” but you’ve got to stick to your commitments. [Laughs]
That would’ve been a fun one, but opening for a band isn’t exactly a dream gig for a comic, anyway.
That’s true, although lately people like Eugene Mirman and Neil Hamburger have been.
Yeah, they’re going out with bands? And David Cross does that. Certain types can actually do it and get away with it. But Eugene Mirman, who is that?
He’s one of these VH-1 guys around on the New York alternative comedy scene, and he’s releasing a new CD this next month.
It’s nothing like Hamburger, is it?
Is it like actual good comedy or like purposely bad comedy? What is it?
No, it’s actually good. I’d equate it along the lines of like Patton Oswalt.
Okay, well that’s a good equation there, because I love Patton, man. I used to see Patton all the time in San Francisco. I lived out there same time he did. He’s a funny, funny dude, man. I’m glad he’s getting some recognition. I guess he just put out a CD.
Was it a half-hour or a one-hour, what was it?
I think it’s going to be an hour special.
Nice, man. That guys is so funny; he’s one of my favorites. You know, people I’d like to tour with, I’d like to tour with Patton. I like all those guys like David Cross, Patton Oswalt. I’m not so much on the alternative comedy scene as a lot of them. I’ve done plenty of sets at some of these places like Largo in L.A. and Luna in New York. I did a little bit, and I can sort of cross over. But I’m always a little intimidated by the presence of, like, David Cross. But I love those comics, you know. And I love Manhattan. There’s a big tour right now with David Cross, Patton’s on it, Brian Posehn, you know that tour?
Yeah, and isn’t Maria Bamford checking in on that too? ‘Cause you know Patton’s also doing the Comedians of Comedy tour, so yeah, he has all those, what is it, fingers in pots of soup and whatnot.
Yeah, that’s for damn sure. [Laughs] Maria Bamford, I’ve worked with her before. I know Maria pretty well. She’s cool. Also Nick Swardson’s on that tour. I love those comics. I don’t buy many comedy CDs, but I bought David Cross’s. I’d like to tour with him, too, man. But you just don’t know if those crowds would cross over. And Mr. Show is a dandy show, but I can’t tell if my fans…sometimes I can’t tell if I’m more of a mainstream comic, I don’t know, but I don’t want people…I want to be able to hang with all sorts of crowds, you know what I’m saying? I guess I tend to value the laugh sometimes, and I’m very much into the laugh, but I’m not into getting the laugh at any expense, so it’s just a weird thing, you know? That’s why I admire comics like David Cross types, because they’re so funny, but they have, like, an angle. They have a place they like to be. Like I don’t think David Cross would go and do a series of Improv gigs, you know, whereas I’m always at the Improvs. It’s just different. It’s just a difference of opinions and shit, you know?
Yeah, you just don’t want to be pigeonholed into any one scene.
That’s exactly it.
I know you also have a big fan in Mr. David Letterman. Do you have any sort of personal relationship with him at all?
Well he’s very private, as everyone knows. But for the most part, I’ve talked with him, and every chance I get to say any kind of sentence to him is a golden moment for me. But all his niceties have been said through someone. But there was one time when I went on the show, and I opened up, I wanted to say this, I wanted to say, “I’ve got some comedian friends who haven’t been on the show yet, and I thought I would just say a name of one to get him some exposure.“ And I said the name of one, I said the name of a comedian in Houston, and it turns out that David took that wrong, and he got mad at me, and he called, not him personally but one of his people called, and they thought I was going on the show saying who they should be booking. That’s how they took it. So I actually pissed David Letterman off. That was harsh; I felt really bad. But then I was back on his show again, so I think he let it go.
I almost want to skip over asking your influences, because everyone automatically brings up comparisons to Steven Wright. But maybe is there anyone currently on the scene whom you’d like to champion, who we should put in the magazine. You know, they haven’t been in the magazine, so you could say their names and get them some exposure…
[Laughs] Right. Well I think there’s always a serious neglect of good comedy out in these clubs. I find some of these comics that…they don’t go on the road, some of my favorite comics, and I think that rather than trying to come up with some really funny, unknown comic, I would like to see some of these funny known comics go out and play the clubs, you know what I’m saying? I think the clubs need to be filled with good comedy because some of these clubs, man, they bring in the acts, and they bring in good acts, but some of these clubs, they need to bring in some of these acts that put some thought into what they’re doing. It’s kind of sad. I think some of the country is deprived because someone doesn’t want to go to that town, or that town’s not cool enough or whatever. So I wish some of these comics that are really good would just get out on the road a bit. I mean, everyone wants to be in movies and shit and I understand, and that’s cool, but I think we need some of these better comics to become more road-hungry, you know what I mean? Or more road-crazy. Fuck trying to be in Hollywood all the time. Being in Hollywood does help you, it does get you places, it does help your career and all that, you get some spots, but man, I just wish some of these guys would become road dogs more. And we’d have a whole scene of people who are just straight comics only. It was about, “Hey, what you got coming up, man?” “Oh, I got Birmingham coming up,” you know what I mean? [Laughs]
But you’ve also been dabbled in acting a bit.
Ah well, it’s all accidentally. You know what, the bottom line is with acting, I don’t think I’m a good actor. I don’t think I’ll ever become an actor that should be hired over anybody else by anyone, you what I mean? And that’s the bottom line. The truth of the matter is, is they want to hire me to be me essentially, which is hard to do. I would say that acting is something all comics have dangled in their face, and just because you’re a comic you’re supposed to have this great comic timing, and you think you’re supposed to be, “Aw, I fucked up this audition. If I would have got it, I would have been on TV.” Bottom line is, I never got into this to act. And I’ve had a couple of chances, but I just don’t think I should be hired over anybody else. I always think there’s someone who can do the job better than me. I hate to say that, but that’s just the truth, you know?
Right. As your joke goes, “Okay, you’re a cook, but can you farm?”
Yeah, exactly. I’ve said it [Laughs…“But can you farm?”] for years. But it’s true. “Can you farm?” is what they would say. I used to say that was my excuse because I can’t… everyone wants to be a natural at everything they do, you know, and I wanted to come into acting and be a natural, but it didn’t happen. Or for comedy, either; I wasn’t a natural. It took me years ‘til I could get to the point of making people laugh consistently. So I was given the chance to do some acting. I think eventually I will get okay, but it’s hard to get that chance. In Hollywood, acting is a different thing, because they don’t do… unless they did some theater stock or something, but I don’t got time for that shit, know what I mean? So I just like to stay on the road and do the comedy, and I want, I dunno, man, I want to be good at everything I try, but I think acting’s a different thing. I don’t think I’m good at being someone else, man, I really don’t. It’s hard; it’s hard. I’ve fought with that for years, too, because there’s so many opportunities to act as a comic.
That’s the question. I would have to say to write and direct, and I got burned the first time I did it. I made a movie [1999’s Los Enchiladas!], wrote it, directed it, but I also acted in it. My manager wanted me to be in it, and you know, I did an all right job in it, but the thing is, the movie never got bought. I played it at Sundance, no one bought it, but it burned me because it was a bad experience. I spent a lot of money. I probably shouldn’t have been in Sundance my first movie, but I also shouldn’t have given myself such a big part. I really want to just direct and write, but my manager said,” You should be in it, man,” so you can just pop off the screen and then it’s a big deal or something.
And I put myself in it, and I’m embarrassed to watch the movie because I’m in it. If I wouldn’t have put myself in the movie, I could watch it, no problem, cause I loved the movie. I just hate watching me in it. I think people made too much of me being in it as opposed to the fact that I wrote every line coming out of every character’s mouth, and that makes me saaad. So I think I’d want to do writing and directing, because I think I’d be good at it.
Dave was also in that movie, another one of those who people who have been kind of thrown into acting, and he’s just not…it doesn’t come all that naturally for him and he’s okay with that, you know?
Well the thing is, I thought he was great in my movie. That’s the irony there. But he told me stories of getting fired from the set of a sitcom and stuff, but I thought he was funny. But I basically had him play Dave Attell. I think he’s pretty good, but he ended up getting a show that’s him being Dave Attell [Comedy Central’s Insomniac with Dave Attell], and that to me would be the best situation possible. I don’t want my big spotlight to be me doing something that… I want to have it be the best outlet possible. Instead of me being some some some some, uh….appliance salesman in a sitcom or something. That’s just not going to work. That’s not going to be the best possible image of me, you know? But I thought Attell was great in my movie. Marc Maron, great. Todd Barry, he’s great too. Hilarious. All those guys did well, but they had nice, small, juicy parts, man. I’m jealous. Marc Maron’s a cocky bitch, too. He said he’s the best thing in the movie. [Laughs]
[Laughs] And what’s he doing now? He’s just stuck on the radio.
Yeah, he’s stuck on the Air America.
How does writing a movie compare to writing actual material, and what’s your writing process like?
That’s the thing, when I came down to write a movie, of course at first…most of the movie was written from segments of scenes I had written over the years. But I used to do a lot of scene-writing, and I think it takes time to make that kind of thing from sounding like you add just a bunch of different characters to a bunch of different characters with distinctive voices, and that takes talent. And that’s something that I haven’t worked on. I think since I was so burned on my first film, that’s what fucked me up, man. I kind of just wish I would have had a smaller part, and I actually think I’d be a lot better at it now, because I’ve put that whole side of me on the back burner. I took it off the stove, to be honest with you.
It’s out of the kitchen completely?
[Laughs] It’s not even on the menu, man. It’s saaad man, because I think I would have gotten better at it by now, but the stand-up side’s worked for me, and I can always go back to it. But lately I’ve been getting into some voiceover work, and I think that’s something I’m very interested in. Voiceover work is good because it doesn’t require you to do acting with your hands or your body, just voice, you know? And I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’ve had some voice work on Dr. Katz of course, and Home Movies, I’ve had some little parts on there, and I also did Atlanta Thrashers voiceover work for the hockey team, and now I’m going to do a sub chain called Jimmy John’s, so I’m going to be the new voice for them. I don’t know what they’re expecting, but I remember trying out for a beer commercial, and they knew who I was, and they wanted me to talk like I talk on stage. And I was trying, and they were imitating me better than I was doing myself, so I never got the job. Sometimes that happens, you know, sometimes people hear how you talk and they go, “We want you to talk like this,” and what they have in their head you can’t re-create.
You’re going to be giving those Quiznos hamster-things a run for their money.
Ha ha ha, that’s right, man! You know, I never thought about it that way. I could be the new Jared!
[Laughs] You’re opening up a whole new bit here.
[Laughs] I would be the disembodied Jared, though, you know. Just the voice. I actually talked to Jared on the radio recently. I was doing a radio interview and they all the sudden had Jared calling in and we happened to coincide. It was pretty ridiculous.
Did you talk sandwiches?
Yeah, we talked sandwiches, man, but he’s a pretty serious guy. I asked if he got rich yet and he said not yet. Man, that’s a lot of fucking commercials to do to not be rich yet, eh?
But at least he’s skinny, though, right?
Yeah, that was the whole point. It wasn’t about getting rich, it was about getting skinny. He achieved the goal, so I’m kind of making things harder for him.
So then what’s your goal going to be with the Jimmy John’s diet?
Ah, well, I’ll say basically they made me funnier. I’ll say that I try to eat them before I go to comedy clubs. [Laughs]
We talked a bit about how you don’t hang out with fans that much, and I’ve heard that you tend to head out the back door after shows. How is all of this connected to your stage personality, which is timid and always looking at the floor?
It’s pretty much the fact that I’m kind of a shy person. I’m in the business of comedy, obviously, and it’s not the place to be shy, but I’ve always been shy, and I let myself start to be shy on stage. I kind of ran with that, and it was a bit of a mistake, I think. I started to close in on stage, and it kind of became more comfortable for me to close my eyes and not look at people. First I looked at people and I kept my eyes open; for a long time I did. But then I started to close in and that became more comfortable. Now that’s kind of saaad because now it’s hard to snap out of that.
On stage there’s a combination of me being the entertainer and me being a bit shy, so it’s a sad thing because I don’t want people to not think I’m in touch with what I’m doing or where I am, like I’m in my own world. Maybe that’s part of the appeal, but nonetheless, I don’t want people to think I’m not living in the moment. So people right in the front row will go the entire show, and I won’t see them or acknowledge them. I think some people come to comedy clubs like, “Hey, we’re in the front row. He’s going to say something about us.” Not necessarily me, but any comic, they’ll be like, “Hey, he’ll say something; this’ll be fun.” And then they see me and they’re like, “You didn’t even look at us, man!” So I’m kind of saaad that I kind of retreated a bit. I kind of wished I would have stayed out and focused and kept my head up.