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Six years ago, Time magazine dubbed Mitch Hedberg “the next Seinfeld.” On the cover of Mitch All Together, his recently released second CD, however, the 36-year-old comic looks more like Kurt Cobain, spaced-out and golden, his blondish brown hair falling across his forehead, his eyes hidden by amber sunglasses. And in Berkeley, California, on a Tuesday night in April, as Hedberg plays to a sold-out audience of around 800 Cal students, the analogy holds.
Onstage, Hedberg is mumbly, warm and unassuming, a shy, self-conscious talent at work. After 15 years as a standup, he remains on the margins of pop culture, but in certain circles, he’s a superstar. Staring down at the floor, wearing baggy jeans and two red shirts, he reels off impressively compact one-liners, flubs setups, pauses, meanders, comments on his own performance. It’s like comedy as mid-’90s indie rock; the screw-ups are part of the charm.
“If you’re a fish stick — nah, I blew that,” he says, and the crowd eats it up. “If you’re a fish, and you want to be a fish stick someday, you have to have really good posture.”
His voice generates laughs on its own. One moment it’s a soft Cajun drawl, a few words later it shifts into a barrio staccato. Like archetypal stoner savant Jeff Spicoli’s, Hedberg’s diction is oddly formal. “I bought a doughnut, and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut,” he tells the crowd. “I do not need a receipt for a doughnut. I give you the money, and you give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We do not need to bring ink and paper into this.”
Much of what he says is more clever or amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but the crowd roars anyway. And you can’t chalk this up to alcohol, because everyone seems pretty sober. Plain and simple, they’re infatuated.
“Koala bears are so cute — why do they have to be so far away from me?” Hedberg asks. “We need to ship a few over, so I can hold one, and pat it on its head.”
This, one imagines, is how his fans must feel about him. While there’s nothing exclusive or alienating about his cool, he seems to exist in his own koalalike zone, cuddly and approachable, but also a bit of a cipher, hidden behind his hair and his sunglasses, fundamentally remote.
“Mitch has always been fairly uncomfortable in social settings,” says fellow comic and Man Show host Doug Stanhope. “He doesn’t hang out at all anymore, but even in his opener days, he was aloof. We’d go out and party, and he’d sneak out a back exit without saying goodbye. That was just his way.”
Hedberg grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. After high school, he moved to Fort Lauderdale and got a job as a cook. There, he started performing standup, and pretty soon he was moving around the country in typically itinerant standup style. First he spent a couple years in Seattle, then San Francisco, then New York, where, like generations of bohemian spirits before him, he took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel. In 1999, he left city life behind and moved into a tiny two-bedroom cabin in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, 90 miles east of Los Angeles. He and his wife, Lynn Shawcroft, a fresh-faced blond from Toronto who also does standup, have lived there ever since.
In Hedberg’s days as an opener, his laconic, low-energy stage presence didn’t always play well. “A guy with Mitch’s pitch and cadence wasn’t really the best thing for warming up a roomful of strangers,” says Geof Wills, a comedy booker for Bill Graham Presents. “I used to get letters complaining that he wasn’t funny and that he’d never go anywhere in this business.”
In 1998, though, his performance at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal had network executives and other industry professionals dreaming up all kinds of ambitious itineraries for him. Hedberg’s quirky slacker persona wasn’t typical mainstream fare, but at the same time, his appeal cut across all demographics. His act wasn’t political; it wasn’t gross or sexually explicit. Instead, he made sweetly absurd jokes like “Rice is great if you’re hungry and want two thousand of something.”
“Usually if you can please everybody, it’s because you’re not doing anything unique,” says Stanhope. “But Mitch was unique, and he still had mass appeal.” Sensing his potential, Fox signed him to a sitcom development deal reportedly worth $500,000. Comedy Central gave him a half-hour special, and he made frequent appearances on Late Show With David Letterman. In 1999, he released his first CD, Strategic Grill Locations. Los Enchiladas!, a feature film he wrote, directed and starred in, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival the same year.
The movie, described as “Clerkslite” by Variety, failed to find a distributor. Nothing ever materialized out of the Fox deal, either. While Hedberg’s profile in the standup comedy world continued to grow, his status as the next big crossover comedy star waned. And according to those who know him, that was fine with him. “Even when he had the sitcom deal, he mostly talked about how it could help his standup career,” says comedian Kathleen Roll.