Last Laugh

Mitch Hedberg was supposed to be the next Seinfeld.

Hedberg on yogurt When the comedian Mitch Hedberg died suddenly on March 30, at the age of 37, it was the end of an entirely hypothetical era—of legendary sold-out stadium tours, of repeat performances as Oscar host, and, naturally, of the dominant reign of Hedberg, the most popular and innovative sitcom in TV history.

None of that ever happened, of course, and most people outside of stand-up comedy have never heard of Mitch Hedberg. The media were busy that week with a crescendo of oversized public deaths—Johnnie Cochran, Terri Schiavo, and the pope—so Hedberg was dispatched with the kind of perfunctory mini-obit that gets all of the facts right but all of the essentials wrong (he was described as “spacey,” “absurdist,” “surreal,” “rambling,” “beatnik,” “stoner,” “slacker,” each of which is about half an inch off). Meanwhile, on the Internet, Hedberg’s fans were remarkably effusive, even for fans. A memorial bulletin board on his official Web site quickly drew thousands of posts, in which some people wrote that they felt closer to him than to their own families. An reviewer, after what must have been some complicated math, concluded that Hedberg’s death was “infinity times more tragic than those of Terri Schiavo and the pope put together.” Google listed Hedberg’s name as the week’s fastest-climbing search—ahead of Schiavo, the supreme pontiff, and even Jessica Alba.

This asymmetrical response—quiet in the newsrooms, blaring on the ‘net—is emblematic of Hedberg’s career, which seemed forever on the brink of mainstream success. In 1996, he came from nowhere to dominate the prestigious Just for Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival, then spent two years touring and earning devoted pockets of fans. His act was singular and magnetic: He would stare at the floor, with his eyes often closed behind sunglasses and a screen of shaggy hair, and mumble tentative one-liners about koala bears, hotels, and cinnamon rolls. Soon the industry plugged him into its big-money promotion cycle: Letterman booked him compulsively on the Late Show, Variety named him one of its “10 comics to watch,” and Fox signed him to a half-million-dollar sitcom deal. In 1998, when Seinfeld swaggered out of America’s national living room, Hedberg was on many critics’ shortlist of successors. Time magazine actually said it: “the next Seinfeld.”

Hedberg on Pizza Hut The compliment, of course, was a time bomb: high praise for two years, then—when Hedberg inevitably proved the prophecy wrong—permanent evidence of a squandered career. His deal with Fox fell through after network writers couldn’t come up with a marketable vehicle for his style. He was passed (and then lapped) in the race for widespread name-recognition by probably every comedian you can think of: Ray Romano, Bernie Mac, Jon Stewart, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Kimmel, ad infinitum, all the way down to the cast of Last Comic Standing. His career ended in a classic Behind the Music flameout: a heroin arrest, gruesome (but spurious) rumors about an amputated leg, a flurry of canceled performances, and reports of almost impossibly disastrous shows. When Hedberg died, officially of heart failure but speculatively of everything else, the verdict was in: He may have had his cult, but he was no Seinfeld.

In Hedberg’s prime in the late 1990s, however (which is best captured on his first CD, the charmingly amateur Strategic Grill Locations), the Seinfeld comparison seemed plausible. Like Seinfeld, he was an apolitical white guy who defamiliarized everyday life in a way that seemed to transcend comedy. But, unlike Seinfeld, he was easy to like. While Seinfeld’s humor always had an edge of social superiority, Hedberg’s radiated pure affection: He loved his audience, his jokes, and almost everything in the world—waffles, doughnuts, roommates, electric fans, bananas, animals:

My apartment is infested with koala bears. It’s the cutest infestation ever. Way better than cockroaches. When I turn on the light a bunch of koala bears scatter. But I don’t want ‘em to, you know, I’m like “Hey, hold on, fellas. Let me hold one of you. And feed you a leaf.”

Hedberg on rotisserie chicken It’s impossible to capture his unique delivery in print (so watch a clip!). He stretched words out to three times their normal length, conspicuously omitted contractions, stressed syllables with the randomness of someone just learning the language. (He once told an interviewer that he had an “almost mathematical” feel for syllables.) He laughed at his own punch lines and apologized constantly: “All right, that joke is ridiculous. That’s like a carbon copy of the previous joke, with different ingredients. I don’t know what I was trying to pull off there.” It all seemed completely authentic.

Though Hedberg may have been hailed as the future of comedy, his material was actually closer to the kind of pure and harmless language puzzle of the “Who’s on First?” routine. His jokes were concise little logic problems:

I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.
I hate flossing; I wish I just had one long curvy tooth.
A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.
I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semicircle.

This is not the broad social humor that plays well between commercial breaks. Sitcoms aren’t about jokes, they’re about zany neighbors who eat too much of your pizza and photogenic dogs who give you meaningful looks.

Before his rapid decline, Hedberg was arguably the best club comic of the last decade—an achievement that sounds, in our era of cross-promotion, something like “the best backup shortstop on my mom’s slow-pitch softball team.” But that was his real ambition. In interviews and in his act, he always insisted that stand-up was a self-sufficient art—he joked that the industry’s drive to convert comics into actors and talk-show hosts was like saying to a chef: “Alright you’re a cook. Can you farm?” Even at the height of his success he toured relentlessly, headlining four nights a week at smallish clubs and college campuses. He died, in fact, in a hotel room between shows.

Hedberg was an awful candidate for the next Seinfeld, not because he wasn’t funny, but because his humor was so deeply rooted in stand-up. It was his native language; anything else would have been a clumsy adaptation. We’re lucky, in a way, that he never crossed over. There’s something sacred about the untranslatable (the Italians have a proverb: traduttore, traditore—”translator, traitor”).

The “next Seinfeld” position is currently vacant, though there have been murmurs about, for instance, Arrested Development, and even about the recently canceled and deeply un-Seinfeldian series Committed. Success on the scale of Seinfeld is essentially beyond prediction, and it has nothing to do with stand-up comedy. Maybe Hedberg’s death will mark the official end of the search.