MITCH HEDBERG w/ Chuck Savage on Bass at Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis. Filmed by Matt Ehling
Today, Mitch Hedberg would have turned forty-four years old. Here at Moontower, we are celebrating this birthday with joie de vivre and wholehearted gratitude for the great enduring gift of laughter that he bestowed upon us. We invite you to join this communal wingding and then to spend some time reveling with Mitch’s eminently quotable, fantastically inventive, and hysterically funny stand-up comedy. Gather your coworkers for an impromptu office party. Sitting in a coffeehouse with a laptop? Round up some patrons! Fun fact: ‘Twas a time when engaging strangers was, dig this, customary and… “fun.” I shit thee nay. And hey got a smartphone? Hook someone up with a clip! Hedberg harnessed his shyness into a signature style, so I say, please, “Partake.”
In this spirit, I also wanted to share a long dormant telephone Q&A I did with Mitch on October 23, 2001. Save one edit, it is reprinted here as it appeared in INsite magazine in advance of his November dates at the Cap City Comedy Club. INsite last published a print edition in October 2010 but way back in the day they had an office in the heart of South Congress Avenue, where I was gladdened to take this call. INsite owner Sean Claes carries on with an abridged online music endeavor but I still smile when I see an old INsite rack housing the Tarrytown Healthier Than Thou and the like. To Sean’s credit, the racks’ continued existence is deliberate recycling (plus advertising).
This “interview” was really a conversation, and a lovely one at that. Mitch generously chatted for over forty-five minutes— well past the point for me to hit my allotted word count and above and beyond any measure for him to have fulfilled a PR obligation. Much of what we talked about was wonderfully digressive from being potential magazine copy fodder but he was just an uncommonly affable, upbeat, tuned in, earnest, inquisitive, polite, and thoughtful person. We spoke about our native Twin Cities, the independently produced, Minneapolis-based TV show “Let’s Bowl,” which Comedy Central had recently picked up, and also the fact that at that time language was still bleeped late at night – he lamented that policy’s “crippling effect” on comedians. He eloquently chronicled TV’s overly dominant role in a comedian’s career and the importance of touring, citing Doug Stanhope as an example and whom he reverentially deemed “vulgar in a brilliant way.” We discussed some of the slimier aspects of the entertainment industry like predatory modeling “schools,” and pondered the iffy benefit of stand-up classes. Mitch was firmly in the funny “can’t be taught” camp but he withheld from dismissing classes outright. He then expressed some hope by recalling that his comic friend, Austinite Tom Hester, “an original act,” had a workshop here. Laughing, Mitch cheerily opined, “I doubt that Tom’s first lesson is `Go to Hollywood.’” Carrot Top’s evolving “look” was considered and during our entire exchange, Mitch Hedberg presented nary a whiff of cattiness or egotism.
I hadn’t looked at this piece in a long, long time. I am so fortunate to have caught some of his local performances and to have briefly visited with Mitch and his beloved wife Lynn here on two occasions but let me make no impression that I personally “knew” the man. However, we all recognize his immensely special talent. That Mitch Hedberg continues to influence, entertain, and perpetuate such a grand cascade of laughs and goodwill for so many is truly cause for a day, this day, of jubilation.
We are in now in an era, a time that Mitch envisioned and, frankly, teed up, where stand-up and comedy in general have reached a new level of appreciation (and not just another generic boom or glut but a place with actual openness and greater public discernment). Since we are in fact looking forward to Steven Wright coming to town and since the comparison was always there, I wanted to include one of my favorite Mitch Hedberg quotes and unfurl its perfect quintessence. Replying to Shecky magazine on this matter, Mitch Hedberg remarked, “I love Steven Wright but as far as him being an influence, I can’t measure that. Let me say this… if I made potato chips, and I decided to pack them in a skinny can, people would say I was like Pringles. But what if I packed them in a bag?” Exactly!
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Mitch Hedberg the Comedian
by Steve Birmingham / October 23, 2001
With his dry observational smart-bomb non sequiturs, comparisons with Steven Wright are unavoidable for this ubiquitous “Late Show with David Letterman” favorite. However, Mitch Hedberg is one of stand-up’s most original and pant-wettingly hilarious voices. Speaking by phone from his mountainside home in Big Bear, it becomes clear that his onstage persona and über-beatnik style of delivery are not quite the construct one might imagine. This is a cat that makes the Dude Lebowski seem a li’l high strung and who possesses a wonderful penchant for using the word “man” that gives Ray Manzarek and Austin Powers a run for their money. However, his laid-back and old school hipster demeanor belie a thoughtful earnestness towards his material and profession. For example, he preserved the purity of the live comedy experience on his Strategic Grill Locations CD by not editing his performance— an unheard of practice for comedy albums. INsite was tickled to get serious about the funny.
Steve Birmingham: Austin loves you, baby, but you’re Elvis-like in Houston. What’s the story?
Mitch Hedberg: Over the years, Houston’s just panned out for me. Mark Babbitt who runs the club [The Laff Stop] supported me from early on and brought me in back when I was just doing thirty minutes. He always gave me the freedom to get good, y’know. He gave me the chance to develop and get better and in the process people just kept coming out to see me. It was the truest form of building up a following the old fashion way— just constantly appearing at the club over and over again. By the time things started rolling for me, I had already developed a decent following there and it’s just a great place to go now. One of my favorite clubs for sure.
SB: I won’t burn the punchline but you have a bit that starts out saying “I got in to comedy to do comedy… but when you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things beside comedy. `All right you’re a stand-up comedian, can you act? Can you write?’ They want me to do things related to comedy but not comedy.” I think you tackle a lot about the post-comedy boom paradigm with that set up. As if being an outstanding headliner still somehow needs this “Other” for validation.
MH: Right. Right, right. If I had my way I could just do stand-up comedy and then the small things that go with that like being funny on talk shows, but still being yourself basically. Y’know, `Mitch Hedberg, the comedian, we got him on the show today but he’s still just Mitch Hedberg the comedian’, that would be great. But it’s so much now that comedy has become the stepping-stone. It just used to be that people that did comedy in L.A. or New York were there to use comedy as a stepping-stone but now basically the whole business itself is looked at as a stepping-stone. Once you’re viewed as a good headliner they say, `All right he has to do something else now. We have to put him in a movie. We got to put him on TV.’ You’re forced to rely on talents that you haven’t really been developing over the past twelve years. You’ve been developing the one talent, stand-up comedy, and now they want you to act and write. Part of the reason I wrote that joke is because my skills aren’t in acting and writing and too often I’m forced to try to do those things.
SB: I think stand-up is as legitimate of an art form as theatre and painting but it’s often thought of as just entertainment. It’s taboo to heckle symphony orchestras or a play but it’s tolerated with stand-up. What’s your take?
MH: Stand-up is an art but since it’s humor and it’s funny— a lot of guys that don’t think it’s art are probably coming from the angle that they don’t want to take it so seriously. I was working in Canada once with this kid who said that we’re nothing but salted peanuts, insinuating that we’re something to go with the drinks, y’know, of the people at the bar. I thought that was complete bullshit. I was always in this thing to express what I thought, whether it’s good or bad but I thought of it as an outlet, which more or less is an art form. I’ve always looked at it as an art but I don’t look at it as a pretentious art. I understand it has to be taken lightly because it is just comedy in the end, but the good stand-up comics are someone with something to say. Anyone I like, to me, is practicing an art form.
SB: We had a jewel of a club called the Bad Dog Comedy Theater close here in Austin. Now proprietary factors aside, the fact remains that the crowds only came out en masse for the established names. Then there would be these brilliant acts often playing to just a few kids on dates and the comedy geek patrol regulars (like myself). I mean I can’t fault anyone but people do buy season tickets for theatre and go even when they’ve never heard of the playwright. Do you feel stand-up’s resurgence hinges more on the public’s thirst for live comedy or having a bumper crop of comics with some name recognition?
MH: I think it is kind of resurging but what you brought up as far people buying season tickets for theatre is a good point. I don’t think stand-up is being appreciated as much as it could be and I don’t think it has for a long time. There’s some great stand-up comics who come to a town and if they’re not a name, they don’t attract a crowd but in reality there are brilliant people out there. I was at the Chicago Comedy Festival the first year it came and there were at least fifteen amazing comics on the bill. It was a brand new festival and no one turned out. There were shows with comics, top of the line but not famous, and they were playing to crowds of ten people, literally. It’s the sad part of comedy, it just doesn’t achieve that level of people just want to see it just to see it, and they love the risk taking and shit. Someone could go see an amazing comic not have a good show but in reality what the guy is saying on stage is funny, it’s that it’s not crowd-pleasing or something. And a lot of people can’t see through that. They have to see comedy always getting big laughs in order to understand that something is funny… I think people need to latch on to some of these comics out there that are essentially no names but are just great, and go out there and support them.
SB: What were you in to in high school?
MH: To be honest man, I got in to the freedom of not going to school. I started missing out on school and I enjoyed that… Of course I liked to make people laugh when I was in school, that was always a thing for me but I didn’t really like going to class anymore. I wasn’t college material; I learned that in high school. I also learned that I liked acting and that I had to be an entertainer of some sort. When I went to class, I used to go to acting class— things like that. I tried choir but I was a terrible singer but you got to stand by your friends in choir.
SB: You have a unique observational style and delivery and you don’t work blue or get political. Had you always started out working this way?
MH: I do occasionally have some blue material in my older jokes but it’s very rare. I think early on that I knew that sex material was so widely covered by the other comedians that I’d have to really have a fresh take on it to have something original. I knew early on I wanted to be original and I think it’s pretty obvious that in any art form originality is going to help you rise to the top. So I knew that if I had sex material, unless it was crazy original fresh, that was not going to help me stand out. So I kind of avoided it consciously. And politically, I certainly never had a grasp on politics. I’m always amazed if I can understand anything Meet the Press is talking about. I avoided politics simply out of confusion as to what they were about. I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about, which I’m sure would have happened.
SB: Can you explain why you rarely look at the audience?
MH: Yeah man, I can explain that. I have found when I look at an audience that the expressions on the peoples’ faces aren’t always up to par with the sounds that they’re making. A crowd can sound like they’re having a good time when your eyes are closed but if you open your eyes, the looks on some of those faces don’t equal the sound. That’s always disappointed me, to see a guy in the crowd who doesn’t look like he’s having fun but in general if you just listen to the crowd it sounds like they’re having fun. So I don’t want to focus on the one guy who’s not having fun. An by closing my eyes and just listening, I can’t hear that he’s not laughing but I can see that he’s not laughing. Much, more comfortable.
SB: What’s the best advice another comic’s ever given you?
MH: “Stay on the road, man! Just stay on the road. Just get on stage as much as you can” as simple as that. It’s not going to happen over night. When you start out in comedy, or probably in a lot of things, you want it to happen fast, man. You don’t want to see yourself having to do this for seven years before you start to get some feedback. But that’s truly what it takes, so I guess the person who told me just to keep doing it over and over was the person… I always hated advice, man, because it was some strange shit I would get as advice. I swear to God this one lady told me to wear more jewelry on stage. Her reason being that I would look flashy and the crowd would look at me more.
SB: Any comics you’d recommend our readers try to catch?
MH: Yeah, I’d have to say Arj Barker. Todd Barry is great. Bradley Lewis. I’m gonna have to say my favorite comic from Cincinnati, Josh Sneed. He’s amazing if you could print his name. He’s amazing. If he ever comes to Austin and you’re a fan of comedy, catch Josh Sneed for sure.