Mitch Hedberg is my 2nd favorite standup comedian of all time. The first is, of course, the great Richard Pryor. If you have never seen Mitch, you might be thinking right now, “Second after Richard? Not George Carlin or Chris Rock or Bob Newhart or Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld or Lenny Bruce or Ellen DeGeneres or fill in the blank?” Nope, it’s Mitch. If you have seen or heard Mitch Hedberg, you are not asking yourself that question. You are very cool.
If you are not a Mitch fan yet, let me begin by breaking the news to you that Mitch Hedberg is dead. I had to get that out of the way before I make you fall in love with him or you would hate me at the end of this review. Mitch died in 2005 at the age of 37 of a heart attack that may or may not have had something to do with heroin. If you haven’t figured it out yet, comedians are among the most tortured people on Earth. While a comedian is usually the smartest guy in the room, you can be sure that he/she is also the most insecure and socially inadequate. Mitch was no different.
But, hey, cheer up! We’ve still got “Mitch All Together.” This is the quintessential Mitch collection. It’s what the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack is to disco. It’s not new, but part of my goal here is to help you build a library of standup comedy, so that you spend your money where it will bring you the most enjoyment. This package contains a CD plus the DVD of Mitch’s Premium Blend spot, and, now this is the important part, both the cut and the uncut versions of his Comedy Central Special.
A comedian friend of mine once said you can make all your jokes funnier if you just say them like Mitch Hedberg. Mitch’s stoner/slacker delivery and vocal quality were perfect. His long hair hanging over those dark oversized sunglasses reminds you of either your youth or the movie “Dazed and Confused,” depending on your age. If your high school had a smoking area or you know that Cheech used to have a Chong, you totally feel me right now.
But, don’t think for one second that Mitch’s talent begins and ends with his persona. No, my friend, Mitch Hedberg was a genius. Now, I know that nowadays people like to throw words like “genius” and “Nazi” and “freedom” around like they don’t actually mean anything. But, believe me; I do not use that word lightly. I never bullshit about comedy. I take it way too seriously.
Mitch has most often been compared to Steven Wright. It is a fair comparison. Both do short jokes, lots of one-liners, and rarely do personal material. And yet, you feel like you get a sense of who they really are from their skewed views of the world. As far as style, Mitch is like a slower, stoneder Steven Wright (that’s right, stoneder; it’s poetic license). You probably didn’t think that was even possible. If Steven Wright were pot, Mitch Hedberg would be acid, and a lot of it. Sometimes, Mitch stops short, saying all that needs to be said on a subject-he’s in and out. Sometimes he takes his weird thoughts a step further, not really due to confidence in those ideas, but almost out of a compulsion to finish the thought.
Mitch does not believe in confining his jokes to fit one style. He can deliver a one-liner that would make the old Catskills comics proud and then seemingly drift into a stoner monologue a la Lenny Bruce in which he takes 5 minutes to tell one joke. The following Mitch Hedberg jokes read great on paper, but if you haven’t seen Mitch’s delivery, you are missing a big part of his genius. Do a bong hit and read these jokes out loud, really, really slowly.
• This shirt is "dry-clean only," which means…it's dirty.
• I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
• I bought a doughnut, and they gave me a receipt. There is no need for that, man. I'll just give you the money, you give me the doughnut. End of transaction. We do not need to bring ink and paper into this. I cannot imagine a situation in which I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. Hey man! Don't even act like I didn't buy that doughnut! I got the documentation right here...damn...I forgot it at home... it's in the file cabinet...under D...for doughnut.
• I don't have a girlfriend. I just know a girl who would get really mad if she heard me say that.
• I was gonna get a candy bar, and the button I was supposed to push was HH. So I went to the side, I found the H button, and pushed it twice. Fuckin' potato chips came out man. Because they had a HH button for Christ's sakes, you need to let me know. I'm not familiar with the concept of HH. I did not learn my AA, BB, CCs. God God dammit dammit.
I have a lending library in my standup comedy classes in which I allow my students to check out CDs and DVDs of dozens of comedians to see different comedy styles, unless that is illegal in which case I have no idea what you are talking about. Anyway, my top two recommendations (allegedly) are the documentary “Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian” and the “Mitch All Together” collection. You can learn more about comedy from those two selections than from watching all the rest combined.
Here’s why, regarding Mitch. First of all, you get to experience Mitch in all of these different situations over a period of time. On the CD, he seems way more confident than usual. It was recorded in a comedy club in his home state of Minnesota in 2003, and he is really in his element. The Premium Blend spot from 1998 is one of his earliest TV appearances, and he looks young and energetic, albeit nervous, sans glasses. Rumor has it that Mitch suffered from terrible stage fright, which does not surprise me in the least. The Comedy Central special was filmed at The Palace in Hollywood in 1999, and it is from that set that much of the wisdom is gleaned. I recommend that you watch the DVD sets in chronological order. First, watch the Premium Blend spot. Then watch the uncut version of his Comedy Central special and, finally, the version that actually aired on Comedy Central. The difference between the two versions is significant and Mitch’s behavior in the uncut version points to his demons and can show a new comedian or an interested comedy fan how a comic’s own insecurities can be his demise.
Standup comedy is a relationship between the comic and the audience, but the comic has to be in charge. The comic cues the audience what to feel or think and how to react and when. The comic tells the story and the audience buys it or doesn’t buy it. In the uncut version of his special, Mitch goes out and immediately asks how many people in the audience actually know who he is. When only a few people clap, he basically says that this is not going to go well. The audience believes him. He tells one brilliant joke after another to a lukewarm response. He keeps pointing out that, in fact, it’s not going well, calling it the “not so-special.” He said he was getting a “what the fuck is up with this guy” vibe from the audience. At one point he sits down on the stage, frustrated.
After a while on stage, Mitch finally seems to loosen up and so does the audience. He starts to get laughs and he relaxes, then he gets even more laughs and relaxes even more. He begins to groove with the flow, and announces “Cool, y’all like me now; my special starts right now.” Everything he said after that killed. He told the audience they liked him and they believed him, so they started acting like it. He was telling the story. They were doing what they were told. By the end of the special, he was having fun and getting huge laughs.
When you watch the cut version that actually aired on Comedy Central, it’s a totally different show. Clearly, laugh tracks and editing are a comic’s best friends. When Mitch bombed, it was either pumped up or cut out. A lot of the jokes that were used in the special came after his announcement that “y’all like me now.” His frustrated collapse on the stage looks like a casual chilling by a laid back hippie comic. The editor was kind to Mitch.
But, the uncut version speaks volumes about Mitch, the person behind the persona. He was nervous, self-deprecating, vulnerable, and needy. He had reached a point in his career (having a Comedy Central special) that basically meant he was somebody and yet he clearly felt like nobody. While I see this side of comedians as often or more than the “wacky” side, I know that most lay people don’t usually get those kinds of glimpses into the pain behind the genius. I’m not trying to be all Harlequin Romance about it, but it’s an interesting dichotomy worth pointing out.
Steven Wright is not the only person Mitch Hedberg is often compared to. The other is Kurt Cobain. Whether it’s the painful inability to deal with fame, the (alleged) heroin addiction, or the need for an immediate shampoo, the two icons did have similarities. Rock stars and comedians share a similar self-destructive streak. Like Kurt, we have heard all we will ever hear out of the genius that was Mitch Hedberg. You have to wonder what else was in that head that we didn’t get to hear. But, like Andy Kaufman, Janis Joplin, Bill Hicks, and Jimmy Hendrix, he is forever young to us. Mitch said he was in a band once. He said, “People either loved us or hated us…or thought we were ok.” We loved you Mitch.