“Once, I saw this wino. He was eating grapes. I said, ‘Dude, you have to wait.'”
That’s what you got from comedian Mitch Hedberg. Random one-liners, short and funny musings on life and the occasional self-depreciating remark, all strung together in a set of non-sequiturs delivered in a laid-back tone. In an age where being loud and insulting others has become integral to comedy, Hedberg was the complete antithesis of the norm.
Sadly, the comedy world lost one of its most promising talents when Hedberg passed away from an apparent heart attack on March 30 in a hotel room in Livingston. He was 37. Rumors of a drug overdose circled, but Hedberg’s mother, Mary, made a statement claiming her son had a heart condition since birth, something he always felt “anxious” about.
Word broke of Hedberg’s passing on the Howard Stern Show on March 31. Within hours, speculation spread across the Internet, with many firmly believing that this was an early April Fool’s Day joke. Numerous Web sites and several newspapers began publishing articles on his death, but it was not until an official statement was made on his Web site days later that fans began to realize this was not simply a prank that had gotten out of hand.
Though his death was relatively ignored by the national media, overshadowed by the deaths of both Terri Schaivo and Pope John Paul II, the comedy world and his growing legion of fans felt the shock of Hedberg’s untimely passing. Many comedians who knew or had toured with him expressed fond memories of the offbeat comedian.
“I saw a craftsman that made it look easy,” Dane Cook wrote on his Web site in reference to first meeting Hedberg in 1995. “He spoke his honest thoughts, the things that made him laugh, on stage and that is damn hard to do.”
One of the most touching tributes came from up-and-coming comedian Mike Birbiglia, who was stunned when he was asked to open for Hedberg in Dayton, Ohio five years ago. Birbiglia truly admired Hedberg, not only for his talent but also for his extreme generosity.
“He offered to come to New York City for the release of my CD at The Comic Strip,” he wrote on his Web site. “I kept giving him an out so that he didn’t feel obliged to do it, but he insisted on it. So he flew himself to New York and performed on two shows for nothing. I offered to pay him and he kept refusing. He just gave me a hug and walked out the door.”
This generosity was only a small part of Hedberg’s unique style that distinguished him in the comedy world. Physically, he looked different than most comedians. He was not polished and poised on stage, but instead presented a grungy, ’70s stoner style with his long hair and trademark tinted glasses. Many didn’t know that the glasses were a sign of his shyness and stage fright. He often did his sets with his eyes downcast or closed completely.
His comedy act in itself also set him apart from other comedians. His jokes were simple, witty observations on everyday things, like broken escalators, pancakes and king-sized beds. They were the kind that made you pause and think for a moment before you broke into a fit of laughter. His straightforward style, unique delivery and friendly nature will be sorely missed by his loyal fans and fellow comedians. Make God laugh, Mitch!