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Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Trying to Know Mitch Hedberg

The following is excerpted from Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me, specifically the chapter about his experiences touring with his hero, Mitch Hedberg.

One night Mitch was onstage and in the middle of his set he said, "Oh no, I got to go to the bathroom. Can someone come onstage and tell a joke?" There was this long gaping silence, then he said, "I'm serious, you guys. I really gotta go." And it's still silent. People didn't know what to do.

Backstage I turned to Lynn and said, "Are you gonna go up?"

"Will you?" she said.

"Okay."

I walked onstage and approached Mitch. He didn't know I was there because his eyes were closed. I said, "Mitch, I'm here."

He said, "Oh, thanks, man." And walked off like this was an everyday thing. The audience looked at me and I looked at the audience and everyone was laughing hysterically. I took the microphone off the stand, looked down at the floor, and did my best Mitch Hedberg. "I am pretty good at tennis, but I will never be as good as the wall. The wall is relentless… There was a jar of jelly beans at the state fair that said 'Guess how many and you win the jar,' I was like, 'C'mon man, lemme just have some.'"

Like a lot of his fans, I knew Mitch's act so well that I could recite it on cue. It was thrilling. For one moment I was in Mitch's shoes. Mitch came back onstage, laughed, and said, "Aw, man. He did my best jokes."

* * *

A couple of years later, Mitch offered to perform at my CD release party at the Comic Strip in New York City. He flew himself in, put himself up at a hotel, and, when I tried to pay him, refused the money.

That night I opened up to Mitch and told him that my sleepwalking had gotten much worse and had started to become dangerous. There was clearly something going on that I wasn't dealing with. Mitch seemed to understand. It was as if, before that, Mitch didn't think that anything in my life could resemble anything in his life, but at that moment he did.

People always talked about Mitch's drug habit, but I never witnessed it, so I thought maybe it didn't exist, the way a kid puts his hands over his eyes and pretends no one's there. Mitch told me that he wanted to go on tour with me that fall. I couldn't believe it. I was blue highlighting it in my brain already. That night we talked about how we should play tennis together. We had planned stuff like this before, but except for our one bowling adventure, he had always cancelled.

I had this idea that if we went out on tour, we could play tennis, maybe see local sites, and somehow my non-drug-using habits would catch on. Even thinking about that now, it's delusional. It never would have happened. Mitch didn't want to stop. And no one was going to stop him, certainly not me.

* * *

I'm at the Friar's Club in Los Angeles. I've never been here before, but there's memorial service being held for Mitch. I don't know if Mitch was a "friend" as much as he was someone I looked up to. Someone who took me under his wing in a slightly removed kind of way. To call him a friend would be a compliment to me, and I don't want to be presumptuous. Especially since he's dead. If he were here, I could imagine him saying, "I'm having a memorial service and Birbiglia is speaking. That is ridiculous," and then laughing, but in a mysterious way so I don't know if he's laughing with me or at me.

I'm up late every night combing the Internet for articles about Mitch. There are thousands of blog entries and message board postings, an outpouring of support from devastated fans who were touched by his work. I come across comedian Doug Stanhope's blog entry about Mitch's death.

Doug wrote: "Nobody has asked me how Mitch lived. And Mitch lived like a motherfucker. More than most any of us will live. That isn't sad or tragic."

Mitch was the number one search on Google that week. I learned that Mitch, who had died at age thirty-seven, had heart problems from childhood that manifested in a deadly way when he combined heroin and cocaine in a hotel room in New Jersey. I didn't know this about Mitch, I didn't know anything. Mitch didn't talk about himself much and I was afraid to ask.

There was a second memorial service a few weeks later. The way Mitch's death was dragged out was testament to how much people loved him, but also to the fact that people didn't know quite what to do. Maybe if we kept having memorials, we'd get it right? I'm standing out front before the second service and Dave Attell says to me, "Are you going to say something?"

I say, "I don't know. I feel feel like I didn't know him well enough."

Dave says, "Me neither, man."

It becomes clear to me in that moment that Dave looked up to Mitch as much as I did. He's feeling the same inadequacy as I am. That he wasn't close enough to Mitch to do him justice. That somehow there must be someone who understood Mitch more as a peer who could eulogize him the way he deserves.

But Dave speaks at the service. And so do I. We do our best, but it doesn't feel like enough.

When I think about the people I've looked up to in my life, they all tend to be people who can't stop. Mitch spent his final months playing comedy clubs, often doing two or three shows a night — three or four hours on stage. Not much rest, then on to the next city — not returning home for months at a time. Lynn once told me that Mitch never turned down a job. That he had been told "no" so often early in his career that he felt like if he didn't say "yes," he might no be given the opportunity to perform again.

It felt like a lot of my life at that moment.

Some people are sad about Mitch's death. Some people are angry. Some people feel like he died the way he wanted to. But one thing is clear: we all looked up to Mitch, but maybe we should have looked straight at him.

From SLEEPWALK WITH ME And Other Painfully True Stories by Mike Birbiglia. Copyright © 2010 by Mike Birbiglia. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY

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  • Will

    Wow, I really like this piece. Unfortunately, I never really got into him when he was still around, which I really regret as his sense of humor is very similar to my own.

    Also, I really liked Mike's appearances on Carolla and the Nerdist. I'm really interested in seeing him live.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jason-Newstedt/100000178655331 Jason Newstedt

    A buddy of mine was in a movie with him. It was a ridiculous, low-budget piece of crap called "Los Enchiladas." Dave was in it too. My buddy talked about how Mitch was just happy to be there, working, hanging out. He seemed to be a kind of simple that we all secretly want to be. I miss that about him.

  • grumblichu

    I found out about Mitch's death on April 1st, 2005. My friends and I were telling some of Mitch's jokes that we knew by heart, when someone mentioned that he had died. At first, I thought it was a terrible April Fool's joke. I never knew him personally, but I still feel that mix of sadness and pride whenever someone hears his jokes for the first time. I miss you, Mitch.