A Comic’s Second Life, Despite a Deadly Overdose
Late into a set he was performing at a club in Ontario, Calif., in January 2005, the stand-up comedian Mitch Hedberg stumbled over the payoff to a new routine, in which he argued that there were too many L’s in the word lull. Laughing along with the audience at his tongue-tied gaffe, he said, “Some of these jokes work; they’re, like, half there,” adding that unfortunately for this crowd, people “had to miss out on the good half.”
Mr. Hedberg would never get to perfect the gag: two months after that show he died of a drug overdose.
Tragic juxtapositions like this can be heard throughout Hedberg’s final album, “Do You Believe in Gosh?,” which Comedy Central Records is releasing on Sept. 9. Compiled from shows that Mr. Hedberg, a St. Paul native, recorded at the Ontario Improv just before his death at the age of 37, the album offers a final chance to hear a lanky, longhaired joke teller whom comedy fans have been missing for more than three years.
For Mr. Hedberg’s colleagues and loved ones, however, the album is a climactic step in a lengthy grieving process — an acknowledgment that this influential comedian really is gone.
“You know what it is,” said Lynn Shawcroft, Mr. Hedberg’s widow. “It’s part of letting go. And losing control a little bit.”
For Ms. Shawcroft, the decision to release “Do You Believe in Gosh?” is an intensely personal one. For the six years she was married to Mr. Hedberg, the pair were on the road almost perpetually, playing hundreds of shows a year at which Ms. Shawcroft, a comedian from Burlington, Ontario, often opened for her husband. During that time she watched him develop his idiosyncratic stand-up style: hundreds of concise bits and nonsensical observations (“I’m sick of soup of the day — it’s time we make a decision”) that Mr. Hedberg delivered in an easygoing, let’s-party drawl, usually while looking at the floor.
Admirers and advocates still remember Mr. Hedberg as an ascendant talent with numerous late-night television appearances and two best-selling comedy records to his credit. “If he had lived, he would have been the guy who played Staples Center and Madison Square Garden,” said Dave Becky, Mr. Hedberg’s longtime manager at 3 Arts Entertainment. “And then from those opportunities, if he wanted to make a movie or do something on HBO, he would have had the chance.”
To Ms. Shawcroft, her husband remains a beloved partner in work and in life: the man who agreed to marry her on a mutual whim during a 1999 visit to San Francisco, and with whom she abandoned their beat-up motor home in the parking lot of a Red Roof Inn in Southern California, and who constantly encouraged her in her own stand-up performances.
“He was one of those people who took on comedy like people take on art,” Ms. Shawcroft said in a telephone interview from the cabin she shared with Mr. Hedberg in Running Springs, Calif. “Like, ‘This is what I’m doing, no matter how it goes, no backup, and come on this journey with me.’ ”
Mr. Hedberg’s struggles with heroin, among other controlled substances, were hardly a secret. (“I used to do drugs,” goes perhaps his most famous one-liner. “I still do, but I used to, too.”) Yet the circumstances and the suddenness of his death were a shocking contrast to his mellow stage persona: on March 29, 2005, in the midst of a grueling tour, Ms. Shawcroft found him collapsed in their hotel room in Livingston, N.J. An autopsy found that Mr. Hedberg had numerous drugs in his system, including cocaine and heroin.
Ms. Shawcroft said that the events of that day were still too raw and painful to discuss. But she recalled the months of seclusion she sought after Mr. Hedberg’s death, cutting herself off from a barrage of inquisitive phone calls and news-media reports that declared her late husband the Kurt Cobain of comedy.
“Especially when drugs are involved — even I saw it with Heath Ledger’s death — people can immediately diminish a person,” Ms. Shawcroft said. “And you start going, ‘Well, what’s the right way to die?’ And you don’t even know if you’re doing it right.”
After re-entering public life, she was hesitant to release the album that became “Do You Believe in Gosh?” The shows that Mr. Hedberg had taped in his final days were not recorded for public consumption, but as practice runs for a live album that he planned to record. The loose, unrefined sets are full of typically surreal, Hedbergian observations about hot-air ballooning, Dr. Scholl’s foot-care products and fajita-scented cologne. The comedian occasionally trips over his words, and mocks himself when an untested joke bombs. (“This comedy is all part of my get-rich-slow scheme,” Mr. Hedberg tells the crowd at one point. “It’s working.”)
For Comedy Central Records, which has sold 400,000 copies of Mr. Hedberg’s 2003 stand-up album “Mitch All Together,” and another 200,000 copies of its reissue of his independently released “Strategic Grill Locations,” there was a greater impetus to deliver new material to his famished devotees.
“He’s one of the most famous comedians who’s not really well known in the public sphere,” said Jack Vaughn, vice president of Comedy Central Records. “The average person on the street might not know who Mitch Hedberg was, but 400,000 records is a lot of records, especially for a comedy release.”
Still, Ms. Shawcroft said, she was fearful of contravening her husband’s final wishes, and how she might react if the album were reviewed poorly. Eventually she concluded it was not her job to protect Mr. Hedberg from his detractors, whether traditional news outlets or random bloggers. “You really want to defend this person to every level,” she said. “Like: ‘Do you understand? He changed my life.’ And then you realize you can’t. You can’t convince everybody.”
Comedy Central Records hopes to turn the release of “Do You Believe in Gosh?” into a celebratory event. On Sept. 9 the label has scheduled live comedy shows in six cities, featuring comedians (including Ms. Shawcroft) who will pay tribute to Mr. Hedberg in their routines.
And Ms. Shawcroft and Mr. Becky (both are executive producers on the record) continue to discuss possible film and television projects that would tell the story of Mr. Hedberg’s life, including a documentary made from footage that he shot during his many years on the road.
Yet whenever she steps off the stage, Ms. Shawcroft cannot help but mourn the absence of a serene voice with an unplaceable, vaguely Southern accent, that was always exhorting her to try harder and push further with her comedy.
“This one time,” she recalled, “this woman was heckling me, and backstage Mitch goes to me, ‘You should have just said, “You’re not the president of comedy.” ’ That was always his idea: No one’s the gatekeeper, and if you keep working hard enough and you are talented, you’re your own decision maker.”