In Memoriam: Mitch Hedberg

[14 March 2007]

By Matt Gonzales

Editor’s note: This review originally ran in PopMatters on 30 November 2004.

Mitch Hedberg is a leather-jacket, tinted-sunglasses-wearing proto-beatnik. It’s immediately obvious. He’s a rebel who likes to pause, then tell curiously staccato jokes with delivery that falls somewhere between John Wayne, the Fonz, and a Dr. Seuss character. And then, he pauses again.

Mitch Hedberg is rock-and-roll, and he knows it. He’s doing his best to live out his own stupid, sordid, rock-and-roll flameout dream. And as the effects of his presumably hard-drinking, pill-popping ways continue to reveal themselves to his fans, the whole deal becomes more and more of a serious downer.

I am a big fan of Mitch Hedberg, and was mighty psyched to see him live for the first time.

But I was also worried. Worried because I recently read a review of a train wreck performance. At that performance Hedberg couldn’t remember his jokes. He sprawled out back-first on the stage floor, then asked the audience for drugs. The audience threw them onto the stage, and he took them. Things reached a nadir when Hedberg responded to the entreaties of a woman in the front row by sitting next to her and eventually sucking her face, earning the disapproving shrieks of an audience that had had enough.

So I was worried, but I was also naturally excited by the possible spectacle of a sad clown coming undone in front of a roomful of strangers.

When Hedberg took the stage, my heart tightened. He looked unnaturally pale, too thin, and unhealthily somnolent. The first words out of his mouth, issued as he made small circles on the stage while unsteadily gripping on the microphone stand, were truncated and hardly audible semi-syllables that seemed to foretell a disastrous night. The more I sensed this, the less I wanted it to happen. Not so much out of sympathy or concern for Hedberg, but rather out of concern for my own mental welfare. Meltdowns are great on Internet message boards or TV, but a little too emotionally close when happening in real time twenty feet in front of your face.

Somehow though, he pulled it together. As the night went on, his steps became surer, his jokes more lucid, and his delivery stronger.

He did manage to spill both of the screwdrivers he brought out on stage, and at one point he directed the two monitors toward one another and started to sit between them until a howl of feedback made him jump back and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if feedback wasn’t so loud? Mitch, you’re doing fine. Hang in there.

That plea for approval and affirmation wasn’t the first one of the night. After what he felt were some inadequate laughs he implored the audience to “laugh even if you don’t mean it,” and repeatedly criticized his own jokes—something that must be near the top of the “What Comics Should Never Do” list.

That said, Hedberg pulls these kinds of things off. We love him, not only because he’s incomparably skilled at crafting absurd aphorisms that combine the stupid and smart, but also because he is dark and damaged. He tries to heal his hurt with a kind of comedy that only a certain audience, in a certain frame of mind, can appreciate. Mitch will never be famous, and I suspect this eats at him. He knows that unlike other successful comics, he will never graduate to an acting career.

“That’s like working really hard your whole life to be a chef,” he told the audience, “and after you finally achieve it, somebody comes and says, ‘Great—can you farm?’”

His career has reached its peak, and he knows it. Here’s to hoping he figures out a better way to deal with that fact.

Stephen Lynch was decidedly less rock ‘n’ roll. His modest, but ardent, fan base would deeply disagree, I’m guessing: I’ve read some Amazon.com reviews of his albums that celebrate Lynch as edgy, aggressively, politically incorrect, and not afraid to cross “The Line.”

Sure, he’s crass. But he’s crass in a banal way, and with such hackneyed subject matter that the final effect is drearily vanilla.

Lynch, like Adam Sandler, does the whole singing-comedian thing. He writes songs, mostly verse-chorus-verse, singing in a voice that is both fey and operatic. The chorus, of course, is always a punchline.

Songs include “Special Ed” (He’s a little bit speeeeshall!”) and “Ugly Baby,” with lyrics that include:

Her head is misshapen and weird
She’s skinny like a twig,
at least her nuts are big
But her hair color doesn’t match her beard

...then, in a Sandler-esqe tremulous, nasal scream: “Damn that’s an ugly baby! Damn that’s an ugly ass baby!”

To give credit: Lynch is not untalented or unfunny. His between-song quips and anecdotes were actually amusing and easily the best aspect of his performance. A few of his songs surprised me, particularly “Craig Christ” a song written from the point of view of Craig, a bad-motherfucker and—little-known—brother to Jesus.

Lynch, unlike Hedberg, may have a future in acting should he desire to pursue it. He is at his best when he interacts with the audience. The funniest moment of his set was an improvised bit during the song “Superhero.” He asked audiences members to suggest superheroes, and someone yelled “Jesus!”

“Jesus?” Lynch said, as he stretched out his arms. “I am Jesus!” He glanced at each of his hands, mimicked the sound of two nails being hammered in, and murmured, “This happens every time.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/in-memoriam-mitch-hedberg/