On March 30, 2005, Mitch Hedberg, the funniest person in the world, died at 37. Heroin and cocaine were reportedly involved. It was a sudden, shocking tragedy that left the comedy world shaken and bereft of one of its brightest stars. As fellow comedian Doug Stanhope put it in a blog post the next day:
I don't know how Mitch died. I know how Mitch lived and he lived brilliantly and by his own rules. The number of years next to his name is trivia. The contents of those years is inspiration.
Hedberg was an old-fashioned one-liner spitter like Henny Youngman, and an observer of the foibles of everyday life, like Jerry Seinfeld. But the simplicity of his format obscured the qualities of his work that make him a legend. "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too," is one good example of a classic Hedberg joke. "I order the club sandwich all the time. And I'm not even a member, man. I don't know how I get away with it" is another favorite.
Ten years later, comedy nerds and comedians alike talk about him in breathless tones, overcome with sentimental feelings at the mere mention of his name. Those who worked with him offer him up as a role model. Patton Oswalt's brand new book quotes an otherwise lost-to-history Mitch Hedberg line to illustrate his professionalism:
Beware of any comedian who writes for half an hour and then tells you they have 30 minutes of new material.
We asked a few members of the comedy community to mark ten years AM (After Mitch) by reflecting on his life and legacy. The result is less an intimate oral history than a few snapshots of the effect Mitch had on the comedy world. It's also a fond remembrance from a whole bunch of funny people: Marc Maron, Chris Cubas, Eliza Skinner, Hannibal Buress, and Emily Heller.
Marc Maron: Generations of young people, I think, see a sort of punk-rock or rock-'n'-roll element to him. I feel like the people who locked into Mitch early on were kind of like cool, maybe slightly druggy young people who discovered him. He's a discoverable thing. I think that's what happened with that special, like, "Did you see this guy? Who is this guy?"
We shot Comedy Central Presents the same week, and they were horrible audiences. His audience wasn't very good either. I had a horrible night, and I remember seeing him, and his wasn't great either. I remember him eventually just sitting down on the stage, almost like giving up in a way. Not really giving up, but just like, "I'm gonna do what I'm doing."
Chris Cubas: When you start, there are a lot of people telling you rules. Like, "Don't wear this," and "Make sure you look better than the audience." Seeing him go up with sunglasses on, not give a shit about any of that, just be super weird, and not listen to any of that bullshit, was a very important thing that he passed on. He wasn't trying to speak about issues. He was telling jokes about ducks. And coming from Austin, where so many people want to be Bill Hicks, and they're like, "Here comes my abortion riff!" Mitch was the polar opposite of that.
Eliza Skinner: I worked for my dad for a summer. He was a filmmaker, and I was his assistant, and we had an hour-long drive every day to the set. And my dad's not a chatty guy. I was like, "Ugh, what am I gonna talk to my dad about?" So I downloaded every Mitch Hedberg bit I could find from Limewire and burned them onto CDs, and we just listened to Mitch Hedberg. My dad's a funny guy, but a really staunch British man who doesn't like silly things. He fucking loved it, and we just giggled the whole way. He was really silly, but in a new, delightful way. Like if you'd seen oranges all the time, and then someone turned an orange inside-out and said, "It's also this." And you'd be like, "What? I never saw that!"
Hannibal Buress: I was doing some stuff that was similar to him, but the funny part is—I've told this before—I had this VHS tape from a gig that I did at the Jukebox Comedy Club in Peoria, Illinois... In my first six months of doing stand-up. I showed my buddy Mike the tape and he was like, "Yo, you sound just like this dude. You gotta listen to it." And I hadn't heard of Mitch before.
Hannibal Buress, at perhaps his most Hedbergian
I didn't even watch him that much because of that... I didn't overly listen to him because I didn't want to absorb him and channel him. Even while I admired Mitch a lot, you don't want to be described as the black version of somebody. I think there's more to me than that, you know? So yeah that would be weird. But I always felt like he was amazing, but we were just doing something in different ways.
Marc Maron: Before he was a star, if [the audience] didn't get on board, he could bomb, but if they did sort of lock in, he could kill. It was sort of fascinating, because he had a sort of taste. That was the way he was going to do it. He wasn't going to go any other way. If the audience didn't get on board, it would be a long half-hour to an hour for them. But if they did, if they got him, he would destroy. It was kind of fascinating.
"He's one of those guys that you'll hear in other comics. Just a hint of Mitch." —Marc Maron
There's a lot of comics that have passed through their Mitch phase into their own voice. But he's one of those guys that you'll hear in other comics, just a hint of Mitch. He's not hinged to a time and he's not hinged to a topic. He was a real, kind of a poetic mind. So it's a rare thing that you can sort of revisit a comedian any time and it still has a vitality to it and I think that's why Mitch is so kind of ever-present.
Emily Heller: He was definitely the first comedian I was obsessed with. I used to watch him on Comedy Central. And in the dumb kids math class at my high school, the teacher would start every class with ten minutes of "TV Talk," and I would tell Mitch Hedberg jokes—crediting him, of course. Then when I was 17, I saw that he was playing at the San Jose Improv. So me and my friend wrote an email to the club, and asking if we could go to the show even though we were 17, and promising that we would buy a bunch of food, and that we were gonna turn 18 really soon, and they said "Sure. Just make sure you print out the email and bring it when you come."
So we drove down after school one day to see the show, I don't remember ever feeling my face hurt from laughing before. He told that joke: "If you are flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit," and he prefaced it by saying, "This next joke was on the special, but there's a new part." So he told the joke, and then at the end, he said, "...unless you are a table." That was the first show I ever saw.
Hannibal Buress: I started working in the club initially because I did a guest spot in front of his sold-out crowd... I went up to his green room, which was obnoxious, because I wasn't even working at the club yet, I was just up there hanging, which I imagine was pretty awkward for him. I hate that shit when random people are in my green room.
Sometimes when you're new in comedy you have this hunger and drive that you know erodes your social skills and basic decency. That was where I was at that time and he was just chill. I know somebody would be like, "Who the fuck is this? Are you on the show? Do you work here? Who are you? You gotta get the fuck out of here 'cause you're making me feel weird." But he didn't do any of that at all! Even if he was feeling weird, I guess he wasn't the type of guy to kick somebody out and make them feel bad.
So I'm hanging out up there with him and I just ask if I can get on the show. And then one of his shows, he put me on for five minutes, let me go on in the guest spot, and then like three other Chicago comics that he had never seen before.
Marc Maron: The last time I remember seeing him was before he almost lost his leg. I think I saw him briefly here in LA, at a comedy club, and I knew that he didn't look good. He just didn't look right. I had no idea to what degree he had gotten strung out. I didn't know that the three days I spent with him in Seattle, that was about it for me—I think I went through one other sort of run and then I got sober. I remember seeing him long after that. Years of drug use, especially the type of drugs he was using, and you start to look a little haunted, you know?
Eliza Skinner: I was going to a comedian's birthday party the day he died. There weren't even strong connections to him, but as soon as I walked in the bar, Jake Fogelnest went, "Mitch Hedberg died." Just a wet blanket all over the whole bar. Then everyone was trading jokes all night. It's very jarring any time it happens. The Harris Wittels stuff felt very similar. I thought, "People still die from heroin ODs? We're still doing that? Fuck."
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.