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Petting the Koala

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 “Clerks lite” 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.

Hedberg’s stature in the standup world continued to grow even without a sitcom. In 2003, Geof Wills, who was organizing Comedy Central Live, a 55-date tour of venues like the Wiltern Theater, tapped Hedberg to open for Insomniac’s Dave Attel and The Daily Show’s Lewis Black. In addition, Comedy Central Records was planning to release his second CD. “When I approached Comedy Central to start the label, his was the first record I wanted to do,” says Jack Vaughn, the label’s founder. “I’d been following his career for a long time.”

The occasional drug joke had always been a part of Hedberg’s act, but with his sweet, sunny disposition, he came across mostly as a moderately enthusiastic toker, somewhere between, say, your neighborhood pizza delivery guy and Snoop Dogg. So it was somewhat of a surprise when, in May 2003, airport police in Austin detained Hedberg and charged him with felony possession of a controlled substance: heroin. In the wake of the heroin bust, rumors started flying, the most startling one being that Hedberg’s leg was amputated due to complications from gangrene.

The comedian hasn’t talked much about the incident. In November 2003, Hedberg told the L.A. Times that he’d spent two and half days in jail and six weeks in the hospital, but he didn’t offer further details. On Mitch All Together, which was released in December, he referenced the arrest in his liner notes, and he referred to it on his Web site, too, primarily as a way of explaining his low profile for most of the year. “I had a crazy summer, but I’m in great shape and ready to move forward,” he wrote. “I’m being vague but I love you all.”

People close to Hedberg say the rumors were overblown. “A lot of people had doubts about [his ability to do the Comedy Central Live tour], and I remember him calling me up,” says Wills. “He said, ‘Geof, I’m fine, I won’t let you down.’ And I said, ‘You know, I’m responsible to all these different people . . .’ But he was great — he showed up, he performed, he got paid. And he still had a fucking leg.”

 

At the beginning of his set at Berkeley, Hedberg sets several notebooks on a small stool in the middle of the stage. Later in the act, he stares down at them, checking them out. They don’t contain jokes, he explains, they contain performance tips and affirmations. “Look up at the audience,” he advises. “You’re doing good.”

And it’s true, too. Since its release in December, Mitch All Together has been a mainstay in Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart, selling more than 50,000 copies so far. In addition, Wills wants to put together a major tour for him as the headliner instead of the opening act. “He was kind of underexposed on the Comedy Central tour,” says Wills. “But even so, there were people showing up just to see him.”

As Hedberg nears the end of his set, he grabs the microphone stand and sinks into a crouch, increasing the pace and volume of his delivery until even some of his lesser lines prompt waves of laughter. After he leaves the stage, the crowd gives him a standing ovation that lasts for several minutes. They’d like to hold him and pat him on his head, it seems, for just a little while longer.

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