Opinion: Mitch Hedberg – One Liner Hero

Mitch Hedberg

Talk about politics and die young and you become a Comedy God. Tell brilliantly daft one-liners and die young and you are only worshipped by a select band of comedy nerds. That’s the difference between Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg. Buzzfeed recently put up a list of what was claimed to be almost all of Hedberg’s jokes ranked in order. I’m not sure if I agree with the precise order, but one thing is for sure, Hedberg, who died aged 37 in 2005, was a genius.

Looking back on his work it is possible to put Hedberg into a wider context. His deadpan absurdist apercus follow in the tradition of Steven Wright and Emo Phillips and prefigure the work of Demetri Martin. Even some of Jimmy Carr’s cleverer gags have a hint of Hedberg's gnomic wisdom about them. And Milton Jones must surely be a distant cousin. I could go on. There is a real love of language there in the way that he finds new meanings to a word or phrase that once it has been pointed out is 'why-didn't-I-think-of-that?' glaringly obvious. There is a Zen-like beauty here.

I was lucky enough to see Mitch Hedberg live at Kilkenny's Cat Laughs Festival in, I think, 1999. It was a short set in a small pub called Kytelers, I think Phill Jupitus might have been on the bill too. I don’t remember much about Hedberg’s act because I was laughing so much (and people who know me will know I rarely laugh out loud at gigs). But his look was certainly memorable. Blue-tinted Ozzy Osborne shades and a curtain of hair hiding most of his face.

I was told that Hedberg was planning to come over to Edinburgh that summer but the dates didn’t materialise. In fact he may be the Elvis of Stand-up in that - correct me if I’m wrong – I don't think he ever did a gig in England (which may be another reason why Bill Hicks rates higher over here than Hedberg). Hedberg seemed hip, cool and pretty reliable onstage – his delivery was meticulous – but he was also a drug user and had been arrested for heroin possession. As he said in his act, "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too”. When he was found dead in a New Jersey hotel room on March 29, 2005,  the medical examiner’s office reported "multiple drug toxicity" as the cause of death. It was a tragic loss. He had apparently been signed up to make a sitcom for Fox. Time Magazine had called him 'the next Seinfeld". He could have been that big. 

Last year at Kilkenny Hedberg’s widow, Lynn Shawcroft, took part in a tribute to Hedberg, with other comedians doing his gags. They were still very funny even without his trademark laconic delivery, which just goes to show how good the writing was. These gags were nowhere near as throwaway as they seemed. They were toiled over and crafted to the point of absolute perfection.

Hedberg was a great loss to comedy. It is all too easy and simplistic to say that if he was around today Twitter would have been perfect for him. In fact there are at least two Hedberg Twitter accounts on the go at the moment attempting to keep the spirit alive. But seeing his gags written down is only part of the story, which is why I haven’t quoted many here. Have a look at the Buzzfeed list for more and, much more importantly, hunt down some clips of Hedberg on YouTube. There is nowhere near enough, but what there is is priceless. 

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