I know I'm supposed to be funny here. But it's not every day one of your heroes dies.
When Kurt Cobain shot himself, I was twelve. I wasn't that into music, and grunge didn't capture my angst; my angst involved a date to the seventh grade dance and a social studies test. I didn't understand why so many people were that affected but now I get it. My Kurt Cobain just happened.
Last night, comedian Mitch Hedberg died in his hotel room. But unlike Cobain, Hedberg didn't kill himself intentionally. Some are saying it was heroin, some a heart attack. But whatever it was, it had to do with Mitch's lifestyle. It was widely known that Hedberg was into drugs. He even had a great joke about it. "I used to do drugs," he'd say. "I still do, but I used to also."
I was drawn to Hedberg immediately when I saw his Comedy Central Presents special years ago. Since then, I followed his career closely. And since then, I became a comic myself. On December 30th of last year, I performed at the Hollywood Improv with Randy Kagan, one of Mitch's openers. Randy invited me to come to Mitch's New Year's Eve show the next night and meet him. Not wanting to break my plans and figuring I'd get the chance again, I turned Randy down. I may have memorized all of his material, but I never met Mitch.
At 1:29 AM last night/yesterday morning, I got an e-mail from a comedian I barely knew telling me that Mitch Hedberg died. I wrote back asking for sources, and praying it was not a terrible April Fool's joke. That's the thing about comedians we're not allowed to die anywhere near April Fool's or it will take a while for people to know we're not kidding.
Mitch was a fantastic writer. With an off-beat delivery, he wasn't destined for greatness, he was greatness. He was somewhere between a cult figure and a household name and one or two more TV specials away from comedy legend.
I scoured the web for something about Mitch. No news stories, but a few reputable sources replicating the rumor. I still refused to believe it. By 2:00 AM I was exhausted and upset and figuring I'd find out the truth in the morning. I barely slept.
Mitch had a unique way of twisting the obvious. Jokes about how escalators don't break, they just become stairs. About how people shouldn't rewrite scripts, they should just make copies. And my favorite about how he doesn't have a girlfriend, he just knows a girl who'd get upset if she heard him say that. Mitch's bizarre perspective, his original pronunciation of words, and his obvious enjoyment of his own set helped him pack auditoriums, and convinced guys like me to listen to him whenever possible.
At 8:00, I got up. Still no news. At 9:00, I called a reputable booker who worked with Mitch, and he confirmed my fears. But I still didn't want to believe. At 10:00, I called the Baltimore Improv, where Mitch was scheduled to perform this weekend. The receptionist said she didn't know. That gave me enough hope to wait two more hours and call back. Another woman said she didn't know either. If the club still thought he was alive the day of the show, then he was alive, right? No. It was finally 9:00 in LA, so I called his management and they gave me the closure I needed. Mitch was dead; The Baltimore Improv was probably just trying to prevent the show from being cancelled while they scrambled for a replacement. Whoever decided they'd keep telling callers that Mitch's death was "still just a rumor" may be a good business man but they could use a lesson in character.
Mitch is my Kurt Cobain, my Jimmy Hendrix, my Janis Joplin, my James Dean. Mitch is someone who cut himself down before we were ready to let him, someone whose brilliance was only matched by his self-destructive nature. Though I always loved his material, I never liked the way he lived. Which was made worse now that it's also the way he died. But I'm not mad at Mitch for leaving us too early. I'm mad at myself for being too stupid to meet one of my heroes while I was still able to. Now I'll never see Mitch's act live, I'll never shake his hand, and I'll never get to thank him for inspiring me. But I can keep him alive by listening to the work he left behind.
One of the interesting things about having dreams is that we often forget who inspired them. Mitch will never know how often he made me laugh or how much he moved me to write. I never knew Mitch Hedberg. But I did know how much Mitch Hedberg stirred me. And that's not something I'll ever forget.
I read this column over to make sure my emotion didn't cloud my words. I worry that I wasn't able to be as concise as Mitch was simultaneously irreverent and relevant. For it to be a true tribute to Mitch, I should really re-write it before I send it out. Or maybe I'll just make a copy.
We'll miss you, Mitch. I already do.
Steve Hofstetter is the author of the Student Body Shots books, which are available at SteveHofstetter.com. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.