Monday, April 04, 2005

Mitch Hedberg, a comedian with a punchy one-liner delivery that he perfected to become one of comedy’s brightest talents, died last week.

I was fortunate enough to have interviewed Mitch on two occasions, both times by phone while Mitch was on the road. The first was in early 2003. We had scheduled a late afternoon conversation, and when I called his room at the Embassy Suites in Raleigh, North Carolina, he was groggy. Clearly, he had just woken up. He was in dire need of coffee.

“I just woke up,” Mitch told me. “I wanna do a good interview. Can you call me in ten minutes?”

I did, and we spoke for an hour. And I later realized that when Mitch had said, “I wanna do a good interview,” he meant it. In over 15 years of interviewing musicians, comedians, actors and others, I have never heard anyone say anything like that, before or since. When I called him back, he was friendly, warm, and open. This was not a guy giving lip service to some journalist. This was a 15-year show business veteran who really wanted to do a good interview. Which he did.

Here are the two articles I wrote about Mitch. Both were written for City Link Magazine, a Fort Lauderdale-based entertainment newspaper, so they are both a bit Florida-centric.


This article appeared in Fort Lauderdale’s City Link Magazine in early 2003.

Mitch Hedberg
By Larry Getlen

Comedian Mitch Hedberg has built a career in a manner not unlike most successful stand-up comics – awkwardness for the first few years, slowly evolving into more and more polished (and funnier) material over time thanks to hard work, writing, touring, bombing, and slowly but surely perfecting his craft.

But there is one aspect of his career that is unusual for someone in his profession.

He got his start right here in South Florida.

While there is scant opportunity now for aspiring comics to hone their craft here, the situation was different in 1988, when Minnesota native Hedberg traveling southward down Route 35 with a friend, hit Texas, and made a spur-of-the-moment decision about the next step in his life - left to Florida, or right to California.

They turned left.

“I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill, and Lauderdale by the Sea,” recalls Hedberg, who earned money by participating in medical drug experiments, and served as a cook at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper.

“They had a little hamburger and sandwich stand they brought out to the beach during the day,” says Hedberg, “and I got a job doing that, standing out in the sand with all these girls. I had to dress up like a cook, so I looked a bit ridiculous. We’d make hamburgers and tuna sandwiches, and I remember I had to take this bucket of tuna out of the refrigerator on the beach. You know how some things are better left unseen? That’s why kitchens have closed doors. Although I actually did meet a girl doing that. It was wild.”

Hedberg’s first time on stage saw him perform a sketch with a friend at an open mic night. It was in Boca Raton at a restaurant called Haggerty’s which featured comedy seven nights a week. He quickly realized that he’d be happier performing on his own, and did his first stand-up set at a club called Governor’s on the intercoastal.

“There were about 30 people in the crowd, which was a lot for an open mic,” says Hedberg. “I actually did good. I got laughs. I don’t know why, because I knew I wasn’t saying jokes that were funny, but people were laughing. I think it had more to do with nervousness, and people latching on to that and maybe feeling sorry for me. But I got laughs, and I got spoiled. There were a couple of times I got laughs after that, and then I didn’t get laughs for about a year.”

While he suffered from stage fright, Hedberg knew right away that stand-up was his calling.

“I knew immediately,” says Hedberg. “This kid I worked with said, ‘you’re not gonna make money with it,’ and I said, ‘yeah, I am.’ I knew what I needed to do. I mean, I knew I wasn’t good, I wasn’t kidding myself, but I knew I could get good. I saw the potential. It was something I could just do on my own, and I didn’t have to listen to anybody. So I knew right away I wanted to do it.”

At the time, there were enough comedy venues in South Florida that an aspiring comedian could perform five nights a week, so Hedberg performed at open mics around the region for the next two years, until his girlfriend decided she had had enough of Florida.

“Florida’s kind of a hedonistic scene,” says Hedberg. “So the girl I lived with, I really liked her and stuff, but I wasn’t very faithful to her. She got fed up with me and with Florida, so she decided to move to Seattle where her brother was, and she told me I could go with if I wanted. For some reason I said yes. I should have stayed, really, but actually, going to Seattle was a good move because I started to get paid work.”

In addition to saving a relationship that would last another seven years, Hedberg moved to the next phase of his career during his time in Seattle, learning the intricacies of the craft.

“I had to figure out how to write a real joke, and not just get laughs from being unorganized and stuff,” says Hedberg. “It took two years before I had five to ten minutes of jokes. Plus, when I landed in Seattle, it was a new scene and a new group of people, and I felt like a bit of a hot shot. Because I would go to open mic and be good. The people there were like, who’s this new guy? They thought I had just started. They had no idea I’d been doing it for two years, so they were like, wow, this guy can do ten minutes and kill.”

So with ten solid minutes of material under his belt, Hedberg took to the road, and the next stage of his evolution. “Once I got to the half hour position, that was another two or three years of not doing good,” says Hedberg. “Because I didn’t have enough material, really. So after two years I felt good about five to ten minutes, and after five years, I had a half hour.”

As Hedberg describes it, his style evolved in a roundabout way over time, assisted somewhat by nerves.

“It was a matter of getting comfortable on stage first, because I had a lot of stage fright,” says Hedberg. “I was very nervous on stage, and that affected my speech. So it was a matter of combating stage fright. Once I got that down, I was able to actually start talking and being coherent on stage, and writing jokes. I started to write the jokes shorter, and started to edit a lot of the shit out of there. I realized the importance of being economical with words. But conquering stage fright was a big part.”

To this day, Hedberg sees that stage fright as a major influence on his loose, rapid-fire vocal patter. “Now, I’m comfortable on stage,” says Hedberg, “but I don’t think standing in front of 300 strangers is something where I’m ever able to be totally comfortable. I don’t think I’m nervous on stage now, although people will still think I’m nervous because of my tics. I’m not nervous at all, but that had some influence.”

As his career progressed and he got to the ten-year mark, Hedberg had built his style, and was also bolder about promoting himself. At the time, MTV was running several stand-up comedy shows. Hedberg walked into MTV’s offices, unannounced and unrepresented, and asked to be seen for an audition. He got the audition and the show, and at taping was the man who would become his manager.

Doors soon began to open for Hedberg. He performed at the prestigious Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal and on several comedy shows on various cable stations, and then, one year after signing with management, got booked on Late Night with David Letterman.

And again, nerves almost became an issue.

“I had done five or six cable comedy shows up to that point,” says Hedberg, “and every time I was disappointed when I’d watch it. I’d be so nervous during the filmings that I had heart palpitations and anxiety. It was awful. I thought, if this happens when I’m at Letterman it’ll be awful. But Letterman was the first time I went out there that I felt normal, and felt good telling jokes. So I was lucky to do five or six experimental runs on these cable comedy shows that hardly anybody sees, before I got the national exposure on the Letterman show.”

Hedberg sees that the Letterman opportunity came at the right time.

“It was just a magical moment,” says Hedberg. “My body rose to the challenge. Because I was having heart palpitations, literally, while I was in front of the camera on these cable shows. My heart would start skipping beats, and I thought I would faint on camera. They have a mirror on the side of the stage at the Letterman show, and I just looked at myself and said, this ain’t gonna happen this time. And that’s what happened. My first set went really well, and I’ve been invited back nine times since.”

While Hedberg has evolved into one of the best and most admired stand-up comics on the circuit, he almost segued into another area. Soon after his Montreal appearance, he found himself with $25,000 leftover from a development deal, and decided to make a movie.

“I wrote a script and I went to Minnesota to hire people to work on my movie,” says Hedberg. “The Minnesota film board helped me out and hooked me up with people, and we thought we were gonna make a movie for $25,000. In the end, I spent about a hundred grand. I got some loans, and got into some credit card situations.”

But in the end, Hedberg had a completed movie, Los Enchiladas!, which co-starred other prominent stand-up comics including Dave Attell and Todd Barry, and seemed to be headed for big things when the film was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film’s reception at the festival was less enthusiastic than he had hoped.

“It wasn’t good, it wasn’t good at all,” says Hedberg. “The movie was a comedy, and there were three hundred people packed into this theater, and they didn’t laugh very much. It was awful. It was like a stand-up set I couldn’t control. I was watching something I wrote to be funny not get laughs, but I couldn’t change it, I couldn’t alter the pace or anything. I had to just sit and watch these people not laugh. It was horrible. You’re supposed to do a Q&A afterward, but I fuckin’ split.”

The Sundance experience was one more example for Hedberg of the precariousness of the business, and also a reminder of what a good thing he had in stand-up.

Hedberg, who still admires the movie and may put it out on DVD and sell it through his web site, returned to stand-up with renewed focus after Sundance. In 1999 he put out a CD, Strategic Grill Locations, that he sells through his web site (mitchhedberg.net) and at shows. The CD has sold around 10,000 copies so far. For his second CD, tentatively titled All Encompassingly, he signed a deal with Comedy Central. The cable channel, which recently released CDs from Attell, Jim Breuer and their Crank Yankers show, will release All Encompassingly later this year.

In the meantime, Hedberg, who would love to get an HBO special or release an hour-long concert movie at some point, will continue traveling the country, enjoying a level of success truly amazing for the guy who turned left at Texas to basically avoid college.

“One time I did a theatre show,” says Hedberg, “and the check was so big I showed my dad, and I don’t know if that was the best idea, because now he wonders what I do with the money.”


This article appeared in Fort Lauderdale’s City Link Magazine in December 2004.

Mitch Hedberg
By Larry Getlen

Mitch Hedberg is driving through Mile City, Montana with his wife and his road manager in a brand new RV. For those who thought that a life in stand-up comedy is without its rewards, Hedberg’s new traveling abode is proof to the contrary.

“We’re rolling down the road in a 35-footer,” describes Hedberg. “It’s winter up here. This is a brand new, 2005 vehicle, so it’s pretty sweet.”

Hedberg bought the RV with the royalties from his 2003 CD, Mitch All Together. The CD is his second, and has sold over 85,000 copies, an impressive number for a comedy recording.

Mitch All Together was released on Comedy Central Records, which enables it to be sold in stores. Hedberg made his first CD, Strategic Grill Locations, available independently, selling it only at gigs and through his web site. It sold somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 copies. So while Hedberg sees a much smaller percentage of the new CD’s profits, the increased numbers more than make up for it in the increased exposure.

“When you first turn over your CD, you get scared because the profit margin is a lot lower, but then your sales are a lot larger,” explains Hedberg. “You think when you’re selling it on your web site that everyone who wants to buy one is. So I sold 15,000 to 20,000 of the first one on my own, and I was happy with that. But 85,000…I’m hoping to get to a hundred.”

The new CD contains Hedberg’s usual brand of quick one-liners, such as, “I went to a doctor. All he did was suck blood from my neck. Don’t go see Dr. Acula.” While the bizarre quip has been Hedberg’s stock in trade since he hit his first open mic at a Boca Raton restaurant called Haggerty’s in the late ‘80s, long time Hedberg fans may notice a difference in his style on the new release. For reasons he can’t quite explain, his delivery is considerably more aggressive on Mitch All Together than ever before. While his head-down stoner aura remains, his delivery is considerably quicker than in the past, and many of his punchlines contain a bite unusual for the comic generally regarded as mellow.

“I was going through a period of aggressive performances when we made the date to record,” says Hedberg, who notes that while the change occurred organically, he is now working to bring about some level of correction. “I wasn’t too happy with it being as aggressive as it was. I was happy with the results of the CD, but I was definitely speeding up my delivery, and it’s a drastic change from the first one. I think my third CD will be right in the middle stylistically.”

In addition to the success of Mitch All Together, another triumph for Hedberg was performing on the Comedy Central tour with Dave Attell and Lewis Black. Hedberg was the show’s opener, and said that the tour was just as crazy as fans might imagine.

“It was the best thing ever,” says Hedberg. “Those guys party all night, non-stop. I was chillin’ out after the shows, laying low, but after a night of partying ‘till 5, 6 am, sleeping a couple of hours and then getting to the airport or being driven to the next town, they wouldn’t be cranky. They were sweet guys.”

Hedberg sounds genuinely bummed out that the tour had to end, and confirmed that Dave Attell is just as big a party hound as fans imagine – adding that Lewis Black is no slouch himself.

“Insomniac is exactly what he does. That’s how hard he parties. Even harder,” confirms Hedberg. “They gotta keep it basic cable clean, and he parties HBO style. Lewis too. I don’t know if it was a case of keeping up, ‘cause Lewis likes to chill, he’s usually more of the chill guy, but he was partying non-stop for a while. But I noticed that as soon as he had his girlfriend around, he would lay low. So I think he likes to chill, go back to the room and have a steak just as much as he likes to party, but he kept his hat in the ring just about every night.”

Perhaps the best thing about being on the road for Hedberg is traveling with his wife. Many comedians who are married deal with constant separation, but Hedberg’s wife and “compatriot,” as he calls her, Lynn Shawcroft, is a comedian as well, and serves as his opening act.

“She’s Canadian, and I met her at the Montreal festival,” says Hedberg. “She opens for me, and it’s an amazing set-up. I can’t be without her. As much as I like to stay on the road, I’d have to have something like this in order for anything to work. I’m addicted to her. I had ten years on the road all solo, having fun and experiencing what being a touring comic was. So I had both sides, which is cool, because I would have hated to experience only one side. I’m glad I got to taste both.”

Shawcroft not only serves as Hedberg’s companion, but complements the comic both personally and professionally.

“Comedically, she’s sarcastic, witty, and very fast,” says Hedberg. “Compared to me she’s probably more three-dimensional. She’s more warm on stage, a bit more charismatic, uses more eye contact. I tend to be in my own world, somewhat shy, I suppose. So she’s a little bit more open and willing to deal with people, which is cool.”

Hedberg and Shawcroft are getting to the point in their life where kids are being considered, and Hedberg has already figured out how that may work in a life on the road. He’s at the point in his career where he can get away with performing only three nights a week, so he’d be able to spend four nights a week with the family. But there is one aspect of having kids he’ll take pains to avoid.

“I don’t wanna write jokes about kids,” says Hedberg. “I lot of comics, when they have kids, they write jokes about ‘em. I’d probably have funny experiences with my kids that I’d want to write jokes about, but I just don’t wanna be the comic writing jokes about his kids. I have a fear of that.”

Hedberg, who wrote and directed a film called Los Enchiladas that played at Sundance and appeared in Almost Famous, will appear next year in Lords of Dogtown. A dramatic version of the hit documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, Hedberg plays the guy who introduces Europhene skateboard wheels to California – a key role for a skateboard movie.

Returning to South Florida brings back fond memories for Hedberg, who worked as a cook at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper during his early days in comedy. While he warmly recalls the now-defunct clubs that nurtured him, it saddens him that none of the Fort Lauderdale open-micers he started with stayed in comedy. Many successful comedians, especially in New York or Los Angeles, have friends they bombed with in the early days, and can now commiserate with about similar success. But Hedberg is the only comic from that time and place enjoying the spoils of headliner status, the CD and the RV, and he wishes that South Florida had had a bit more on the ball in terms of preparing one for comedy success.

“It was such a weak group of people,” he says of his former fellow neophytes. “I didn’t know it at the time, but now I see they were destined for a short life in the comedy world. I wish I would have come up with some superstars. I’d love to see and hear some success stories, but I think they’re all in some other business now. It’s too bad, ‘cause I had a great time in Fort Lauderdale doing comedy. I’d love for this week’s show to be a homecoming show, but there’s nobody home.”


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