Comedian Mitch Hedberg, one of the most popular stand-up acts today and a cult figure on college campuses, is reported to have died Wednesday while traveling between gigs on the East Coast. He was 37. As of Thursday night, his cause of death remained unconfirmed, although some have speculated that his passing may have been correlated with recent drug problems.
I saw Hedberg last October at the State Theater in Portland. It was obvious to me, and to the several thousand other audience members whom he asked to throw him Zanax pills, that he was struggling with chemical dependency. Hedberg's alcoholism even inspired several pieces of material. At that show, he joked about how his manager saw him drinking before he went on and told him not to use alcohol as a crutch. "How am I going to use alcohol as a crutch?" Hedberg asked. "A crutch is something that helps me stand up. Alcohol makes me fall down."
"I used to do drugs," he declared later in the act. "I still do drugs, but I used to, too."
Hedberg, who was clearly intoxicated, was falling down all over the stage that night. At one point, he lay down behind the back curtain and told jokes for approximately ten minutes before rolling back into sight. He also asked the audience where the best bar in town was, and invited them to join him there after the show.
But Hedberg's onstage mannerisms were a key part of his act. Known best for his non-sequential material, which mixed Seinfeldian observational humor with Carlin-esque semantic humor, Hedberg's delivery was often slurred in a cadence suggesting inebriation. His one-liners were often inane observations typical of stoners.
"I have noticed that a duck's opinion of me is based almost entirely on whether I have bread," he had said.
Hedberg's style was unique. He was not a showman in the traditional sense; he would rarely move around the stage, or even look out into the audience during his act. More often than not, he would tell jokes from behind dark sunglasses and long strands of unkempt hair while staring at his shoes. In an age in which energetic comics like Dane Cook fly around the stage gesticulating and shouting into the microphone, Hedberg's desultory, detached method appealed to audiences in an entirely new way. While other stand-ups are performers, Hedberg might have been a buddy cracking a joke in the corner of your dorm room.
And Hedberg certainly had a fan base within Bowdoin dorm rooms. Bernardo Guzman '08 has followed Hedberg's career for about three years. "His onstage persona was perfect for his audience," Guzman said via email. "He often said that he had not yet become a household name because most of his audience lived in apartments."
"The comedy world has lost one of its freshest thinkers," he added.
While the circumstances surrounding his death are hazy, the impact Mitch Hedberg had on his fans and the world of stand-up comedy is clear. He will be missed.