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.

Even so, Hedberg more often than not managed to excel at combining one-liners with audience engagement in a manner that, despite its oddities, managed to win back the crowd. As Birbiglia writes:

During one famous theater performance, the promoter placed a dozen seats on the stage, behind the performer — something about making more money by adding more front row seats. Mitch walked on stage and performed his entire show to those twelve people, ignoring the hundreds of people laughing hysterically behind him.

Maron also remembers witnessing an instance of Hedberg’s willingness to shun stage decorum, or bad crowds, while taping his Comedy Central half-hour. “His audience wasn’t very good,” he told Vice in 2015. “I remember him eventually just sitting down on the stage, almost like giving up in a way. Not really giving up, but just like, ‘I’m gonna do what I’m doing.'” Sure enough, about midway through Hedberg’s Comedy Central Presents special, he briefly loses the crowd after a joke and decides to sit down at the back of the stage. “I’m going to do it from the sitting position. It’ll be Hedberg sitting on the stage,” he says. “People will be flipping the channels and say, ‘What’s happening with this dude sitting down and telling jokes?'”

“Sometimes people would misunderstand Mitch,” Birbiglia explains, emphasizing Hedberg’s physical appearance and demeanor: “[He] had long hair over his eyes and wore sunglasses and often spoke with his eyes closed.” Not only did the comic’s signature look never change, but his reserved, if not outright shy disposition onstage stayed the same as well — be it at a comedy club performance, an album recording, or on Letterman. During one particular Letterman appearance, this extreme nervousness came to the fore when Hedberg’s hand shook uncontrollably while he held the microphone for all fives minutes.

Of course, none of this was an “act,” per se, as he was famously shy and even suffered from occasional stage fright. Yet what helped Hedberg surpass it and the typically impersonal constraints afforded to one-liner stand-ups was his willingness to incorporate himself into the show. As he tells the Houston crowd in Strategic Grill Locations, “I like to close my eyes on stage because I have drawn a picture of the audience enjoying the show more on the back of my eyelids.” For as often as Hedberg would create and deliver short, catchy lines about oddball situations, he would also dip his toe into the pool of personal, if not emotional, material. These jokes were almost always self-deprecating because, as he would often admit during a routine, he knew just as well as the audience how ridiculous he looked while performing. This was very different from the way one-liners like Youngman and Wright were before him. It was almost a more confessional form of comedy that invited the crowd to get to know him.

For, unlike Youngman, whom the New York Times described as “[t]he most rapid-fire of rapid-fire comics” in his 1998 obituary, Hedberg’s personal style did not produce “six, seven, sometimes even eight or more jokes a minute.” His output didn’t even come close to the “50 or more jokes” Youngman would tell “in an eight-minute routine.” But if we were to characterize one-liner comedians solely by this template, then yes, Birbiglia would be absolutely right to call it a disservice to include Hedberg among them. Such speedy joke-telling typically doesn’t allow for a great deal of interaction or familiarity with the audience, let alone stories that appeal to more than just a person’s ability to keep up with fast witticisms. Hedberg told one-liner jokes, but he added so much more to their delivery and context that he rose far above the most simple of the category’s implications. He embraced the role of party host lamented by Martin and kept rolling with the punchlines.