Saying Goodbye to Mitch Hedberg
A review of the tribute concert for the fallen comic
Email Article  Print Article Brian Orndorf (briano)    
When comedian Mitch Hedberg was reported dead in March, 2005, it didn't send shockwaves of heartbreak through the comedy world, it sent crushing disappointment. Here was a comic who didn't embrace the spotlight, but found himself on a bullet train to success, powered by his innovation and complete commitment to the absurd. His death (initially reported as heart failure, but soon revealed to be a rather elaborate drug overdose) stopped Hedberg at the peak of his career, robbing his growing fanbase of pitch-perfect observations and head spinning one-liners for years to come.

My introduction to Mitch came in the mid-1990s, while watching David Letterman on a random summer night. Here was a peculiar dude with long hair and a palpable fear of the audience performing a bit about corn chips with grill marks on them ("Better flip that Frito, Dad, you know how I like it"). It was love at first sight. Since I'm both a complete stand-up junkie and an unrepentant comedy snob, Mitch crashed through that rigid barrier I maintain to keep the atrocious comics out. In an ocean of unbearable hacks, he was this odd buoy with a freshly idiosyncratic sense of humor.

Being from Mitch's home state of Minnesota, I had the chance to sample his comedy live on several occasions. The strangest performance came in 2003 while on tour with Dave Attell and Lewis Black. Mitch's behavior that night was somewhere in the fog between playful and zonked out of his mind, culminating with the comedian retreating behind the stage curtain to deliver some of his material. As always, it was undeniably funny, but something was off about Mitch at that moment that didn't sit right.

Criminally, that feeling would eventually snowball into tragedy.

It took a great deal of time to find the right headspace, but Mitch's parents, along with local sponsors, finally decided to send the comic off with his fans, organizing a tribute show on April 30, 2006 at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Also acting as a benefit for juvenile diabetes research, the Mitch Tribute Show brought in a 1985 Chicago Bears line-up of comedians to come and pay their respects to their friend, idol, and fellow laugh craftsman. It was a night to celebrate the fallen jokester, and to finally turn tears into belly laughs.

After a poignant slide show of Mitch pictures dating back to his childhood (featuring some awkward high school metal-hair years), the show kicked off with local political comic Tim Slagle, who was about as funny as a prison riot. Slagle is an awful stand-up, and he couldn't tell a story (or joke) to save his life. Forced to address 2,000 Mitch fans with his laugh-free musings on "the pot" was about as uncomfortable to witness as watching Michael Douglas tongue kiss Kim Basinger in "The Sentinel." Excruciatingly, Slagle was also selected to be the host of the evening, and he ended up bumbling that simple task as well, often screwing up the intros and stumbling over his own well-rehearsed bits. There's a good reason nobody knows who this guy is.

Oddly confined to a strict two hour block of time, the tribute had to make its way through eleven comics, each with only minutes to get comfortable with the vibe of the room and spit out some jokes. Talent like Doug Benson, Rich Vos, Bonnie McFarlane, and Greg Behrendt didn't quite find the right pulse to the evening, even when they scored heavily with their material (Behrendt's dressing down of Halloween rituals was an absolute riot). These are funny people for sure, but as the larger names came out, the emotion of the evening was felt more strongly, and at times poetically.

The heart of the show was represented by Lynn Shawcroft, whose touching display of open wound stand-up comedy gave the entire evening an uncomfortable twinge that Mitch would've heartily approved of. A comedian by trade, Shawcroft is better known as Mitch's widow, and even a year later the pangs of sadness still managed to break her down. A perplexing mixture of self-conscious joking (odd for a stand-up vet), bouts of tears, and jarring non sequiturs referencing Mitch's death, Shawcroft provided the night's most curious display as she trotted out the comic's idea notebooks and read aloud from the myriad of jokes and unfinished thoughts that Mitch had scribbled down in haste. With Shawcroft struggling to hold back her emotional floodgates, the notebooks supplied one of the show's few glimpses of Mitch's mind at work and at play.

The "stars" of the evening came out swinging, including deadpan mastermind Todd Barry, "Last Comic Standing" contestant Dave Mordal (a local comic who seemed as thunderstruck about the death as Shawcroft), a pitch-perfect Patton Oswalt, the always welcome Nick Swardson (anther local boy, who shared some anecdotes about starting his career with Mitch in the 1990s), and closing with Dave Attell. A force of nature comic with a heart of pure gold, I've witnessed Attell's profanity-laden wrath on many occasions, but I've never observed him as relaxed as he was on this night. Uncharacteristically smiley, laughing at his own punch drunk insanity, and frequently checking out the backstage reactions to his material, Attell was in full command. One of the few comedy spokesmen who took the time to field questions about Mitch immediately after the death, Attell had a lengthy personal history with the fallen legend, and the generosity of the evening seemed to light him up from within.

The most valuable player of the evening had to be Mike Birbiglia. While much of the audience wasn't exactly familiar with this doughy, middle-management-looking comic, Birbiglia brought the house down with his aging frat guy material. At the end of his stage time, Birbiglia detailed a riotous story about opening for Mitch years ago, and then being forced to cover for him when mid-show, Mitch decided to break for the bathroom. It was one of those exquisite, heart-warming moments that put a smile on everyone's face and provided further proof of Mitch's loopy, unaffected charm.

It felt appropriate to let the man of the evening close the show. A clip of Mitch from an undated David Letterman appearance was projected on a screen up on the stage and showcased a bright-eyed and enthusiastic comic just beginning to take over the scene. The Orpheum audience knew the jokes by heart, but they still laughed; the performance a quintessential piece of Mitch history that closed the show on an enormously emotional note. It broke down the comics as well, for the final curtain call was marked with teary eyes and intense, stressful hand wringing. Especially Shawcroft, who was an absolute wreck. A final gesture of respect was made by bringing Mitch's parents on stage, who looked shell-shocked and quivered basking in the thunder of the standing ovation they received.

Finally putting a face on the distressing loss of Mitch Hedberg, the tribute concert made it crystal clear to me what a tremendous void was left behind when Mitch made his critical error in judgment. Watching the comics tell stories and trot out their jokes, seeing the love emanating from the audience, and remembering my own history with the comedian, April 30, 2006 proved to be a loving, treasured night to say goodbye to our friend Mitch, and to promise to keep his cockeyed take on the world in our hearts forever.

2006/05/13 오후 1:12
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