Deep in the desert of Death Valley, there sits a sleepy little resort called Panamint Springs. The cottages and modest restaurant there are a part of no town, connected to no power grid. For several years, the normally quiet cacti and climes were invaded once a year in the peak of heat for four days by a loose band of comedians and their friends. In the summer of 2005, there were seventy-three of us.
On June 5th, the Sunday night of this four-day party, comedian Emery-Emery read a newspaper article about Pope John Paul II, but instead of the Pope’s name, he inserted fellow comedian Mitch Hedberg’s, both of whom had died only months before.
People wept and knelt on cobblestones as the news of his death spread across the square, bowing their heads to a man whose long and down-to-earth comedy was the only one that many young and middle-aged fans around the world remembered. For more than ten minutes, not long after his death was announced, the crowd simply applauded him…
"The world has lost a champion of human freedom and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home," President Bush said at the White House. "Mitch Hedberg was himself an inspiration to millions of Americans and to so many more throughout the world."
When Emery finished, he said that it’s sad that people know so much about people like the Pope and not enough about people like Mitch. To which fellow comedian and party-organizer Doug Stanhope replied, “But then we wouldn’t need Mitch.”
Then the power went out.
Then everyone there started chanting, “Mitch! Mitch! Mitch!…” and scattered throughout the darkness of the desert.
“We are haunted by what we cannot fully identify,” writes Joseph Natoli, “by what we cannot make identical to what we already are, have, and know.” Among the roster of beloved, recently deceased comedians—Patrice O’Neal, Mike DeStefano, and Greg Geraldo come immediately to mind—no one haunts us like Mitch Hedberg. He was a superstar in stand-up comedy when he died in late March of 2005. His widow, Lynn Shawcroft, was in attendance at the party in the desert shortly thereafter. Quoting one of his unused notebook pages, she asked me several times that week, “Do you believe in Gosh?”—a joke that later became the name of Mitch's one posthumous CD. Mitch’s laidback, sometimes self-conscious delivery and brain-backwards observations, as well as his propensity for constantly breaking character and the fourth wall of theatre, connected him to his audiences much more than many other comedians of his time. He often reacted to his own jokes as if he were in the audience and commented on the audience’s reactions, stating that a joke was funnier than they acted or that one joke was the same as another with "different ingredients.” Many of his shows were similar to those of a touring arena-rock band, where the audience sings along. His fans would wait for jokes that they were familiar with and yell out the punch lines as Mitch said them. Though his style was reminiscent of comedian Steven Wright, his humble and humane presence made him beloved by everyone who saw him. He’s now the friendliest ghost we know.
Mitch’s former tour manager and friend Greg Chaille described a dream he had after Mitch’s death:
I dipped into a very deep sleep early this morning. I had a dream that I was riding in the back of a pickup with Mitch. I don’t remember who was driving but we were moving pretty good on a clear and sunny day. He was sitting on the driver’s side facing forward, and I was on the back wheel hump on the passenger side.
I just kept looking over at him thinking, “I knew he was still around.” He would just look over at me and smile a knowing smile, like “I know what I’m doing, it’s all okay. Everything is alright.”
I was so happy that Mitch was sitting across from me I started to cry. I reached over to hug him and then I woke up.
I was at a bar in Seattle called Lynda’s with Chaille and several other comedians on the two-year anniversary of Mitch’s passing, and we all went around the table telling our favorite Mitch jokes.
"Last week I helped a friend stay put,” started one comedian. “It's a lot easier than helping someone move. I just went over to his house and made sure that he did not start to load shit into a truck."
“I had my hair highlighted because I thought some strands were more important than others,” offered someone else.
"An escalator can never be broken, it can only become stairs,” added another. “Escalator temporarily stairs! Sorry for the convenience!" everyone finished in unison.
“I think Pringles original intention was to make tennis balls,” I chimed in, “but on the day the rubber was supposed to show up a truckload of potatoes came. Pringles is a laid back company, so they just said ‘fuck it, cut ‘em up!’”
During the blackout in the desert, Chaille built a bonfire in the campground across the road from the Panamint Springs resort. We all soon reconvened there, clumsily finding our way through the dark desert where Mitch’s spirit still lingered. Shortly after his death, comedians from all over the country gathered in Los Angeles to honor Mitch’s memory. “If I didn't get a chance to say hello,” friend and fellow comedian Doug Stanhope wrote on his website after the show, “it's because it was hard to talk.”
“If you would like to hear a loud tone, press 2. If not, leave a message.”
– Mitch's outgoing voicemail message.
When his CD Do You Believe in Gosh? was released in 2008, the “One Nation Under Gosh” shows celebrated Mitch in comedy clubs in Seattle, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, New York City, Hollywood, and Austin, proving that his spirit lives on on comedy stages nationwide.
“Nobody has asked me how Mitch lived,” Stanhope wrote of Mitch not long after his death. “And Mitch lived like a motherfucker. More than most any of us will live. That isn't sad or tragic. Mitch was the kind of comic that was funny even when nobody was looking. It wasn't just for the stage, the ego, or the random congratulations. He was funny when he was alone.” Doug told me that his phone had never rang like it did when Mitch died, every caller eager to find out about Mitch's demise.
“I don't know how Mitch died,” Stanhope concludes. “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.” Here’s hoping his spirit continues to inspire, haunting our hearts and heads with laughter.
Roy Christopher is currently corrupting the youth at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His favorite Talking Heads record is Remain in Light.