Mitch Hedberg Will Always Be More Than A One-Liner Comic

Comedy Central

“I usually get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t really like Mitch Hedberg.”

While having drinks with a friend, he mentioned this alarming opinion when I informed him that what would have been the late stand-up comedian’s 50th birthday was fast approaching. “I really tried to listen to him, but I just couldn’t do it,” he continued. “I’d rather become invested in a story than listen to a bunch of one-liners.” We quickly moved on to other celebrated comics we did or didn’t like, but my friend’s declaration stuck with me. Mitch Hedberg was, and is, one of my favorite comedians of all time. Even if, as he quips in his first album Strategic Grill Locations, “these jokes are stupid.”

But the jokes Hedberg crafted, performed, and perfected across multiple late-night television appearances, a Comedy Central Presents half-hour special, and the two albums that were released during his lifetime aren’t stupid. They’re celebrated, and even if he was primarily a one-liner comic in his heyday, that doesn’t necessarily delegitimize the value of his comedy. As Mike Birbiglia, who got his big break working as an opener for Hedberg, writes in Sleepwalk with Me, “to call Mitch a one-liner comic would be a disservice to the strong connection he made with his audience.” In other words, the fan-favorite funnyman was more than just a dispenser of quick laughs. He was also a performer who cared deeply about connecting with fans and detractors alike.

Like the earworm “Take my wife, please” by “King of the One-Liners” Henny Youngman, Hedberg’s best quips were quick, hilarious, and hard to forget. If you’re a fan, you can probably recite your favorites verbatim and without Google’s help, which isn’t at all that surprising given that Hedberg’s fame has grown exponentially since his death nearly 13 years ago. Yet Birbiglia’s insistence on not calling Hedberg a one-liner comic, and my friend’s disliking one-liners as a form of stand-up because of its apparent lack of engagement, feel like two sides of the same Mitch-shaped coin. He was a one-liner comic who also told hilarious (albeit short) stories, and a storyteller who interjected his tales with zingers.

Hedberg’s knack for churning out crowd-pleasing jokes that invited repetition wasn’t a late discovery. Ever since he rose to fame after his first appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, crowds at his shows would chant the jokes with ease. As Birbiglia recounts, Hedberg once interrupted a set to go to the bathroom and asked if anyone would “come on stage and tell a joke.” After a “long gaping silence,” Birbiglia “took the microphone off the stand, looked down at the floor, and did my best Mitch Hedberg” along with some help and plenty of laughs from the audience. “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,” he recalls. “Mitch came back onstage, laughed, and said, ‘Aw, man. He did my best jokes.'”

These experiences weren’t always positive for Hedberg, however, especially when show attendees would blurt out his punchlines mid-delivery. In the posthumous album Do You Believe in Gosh?, he describes one particular instance at the Washington D.C. Improv. “One guy yelled a joke out and I got upset because he was too drunk,” he says during a bit that he was admittedly still working on. “Anyway, I’ve got to work on that, but it’s so fucking funny.” Hedberg’s attempt to transform the instance itself into humor notwithstanding, the occurrence usually isn’t a welcome one among comedians. As Steve Martin writes in Born Standing Up, “audience disruptions, whoops and shouts, sometimes killed the timing of bits… I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making.” Hedberg never attracted Martin’s stadium-sized crowds, but his popularity — combined with his adept use of one-liners — made for a similarly “celebratory bash” over which he would preside.

This particular facet of Hedberg’s comedy also fueled an incessant drive to continuously, if not exclusively, describe him as a one-liner comedian. Speaking with The A.V. Club in one of his final interviews, Hedberg explained he had adopted the style “because I’m not a good storyteller,” but balked at the prospect of being billed solely for it. “Actually, when I first read my act described as ‘He does one-liners,’ I was like ‘No, no, I’m so much more than that,'” he said. “I didn’t like the association. I mean, I love Steven Wright, but so many people started saying ‘Steven Wright’ to me, and I would get mad, because I never wanted to be thought of as copying anybody.” Hedberg stressed that he also loved comics as disparate as Marc Maron, Dave Attell, and Gallagher, but admitted it was impossible to escape the one-liner label.