It's been more than three years since a drug overdose cut short the life of 37-year-old observational comedian Mitch Hedberg, and ever since, fans and friends of the man Time magazine once dubbed "the next Seinfeld" have been asking themselves some variation of the same question: What could have been?
Since his body was discovered in a New Jersey hotel room on March 29, 2005, those who knew Hedberg — who once said he was against picketing but didn't "know how to show it" — and those who simply admired his brilliance have wondered what would have come of his still-burgeoning career. One of those people is Dave Becky, Hedberg's longtime manager, who believes the comic is more popular now than he was at the time of his death.
"There's been kind of a comedy boom in the last few years, but I think the kids just really dug Mitch, and everyone passed it around, and people just kind of found him," Becky explained. "It's all ages, but I just know lots of kids in school have found him, because I have nieces and nephews who've all just discovered him and dig his stuff. He was very relatable, he was brilliant. I think that, in the last couple of years, when comedy suddenly ... you know, Dane Cook plays arenas and sells tons of records. People have been going out and discovering comedy, and people went, 'Oh, here's this guy I never heard of who's great.' Mitch was super-special and was about to explode. Unfortunately, he passed, and it happened posthumously."
Much like Sam Kinison (who died at age 38 in a car crash) and Bill Hicks (who died at 32 from pancreatic cancer) before him, Hedberg's death came at the comic's prime. He'd secured some television development deals and was a fixture on the national club circuit. He was a sharp-as-glass-shards, sometimes-edgy comic who bore a striking resemblance to Rush frontman Geddy Lee and made almost-too-obvious observations about life's subtle peculiarities ("Is a hippopotamus really a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamus?").
He died with an allegiant fanbase, one that's only grown in spades since his untimely passing. In fact, an obituary MTV News ran on Hedberg still generates consistent traffic. "Death didn't hurt him at all," joked comic and Hedberg pal Doug Stanhope.
On Tuesday (September 9), Hedberg's final comedy CD, Do You Believe in Gosh?, hit stores, giving fans one last taste of the man who said he wasn't a household name because most of his fans lived in apartments. Hedberg's offering has already topped iTunes' comedy chart and was the #7 most-downloaded album of the day, as of press time.
According to Becky, Hedberg was the kind of comedian who loved being onstage. While other funnymen see club gigs as a springboard to bigger and better things, Hedberg was content with staying a stand-up.
"He really wanted to be one of those guys who was just known as a stand-up comedian and would end up playing arenas and just touring, but he was building an audience and was right at that time when comics who traditionally did clubs were starting to do theaters, and he would have been one of those guys who played Madison Square Garden," Becky said. "He was starting to sell tickets and was about to become that guy who goes and has large amounts of fans."
Were he alive today, Becky doesn't think Hedberg's style would have changed much. He worked clean, which, these days, is rather rare in comedy, making his jokes accessible to everyone.
"I actually think Mitch was edgy in just how forward-thinking and brilliant he was, but really, at the end of the day, he was relatively clean and had jokes about food and koala bears ['My apartment is infested with koala bears — it's the cutest infestation ever'] and escalators ['An escalator can never break: It can only become stairs']," he said. "I think he was always going to just be observational, so maybe if he had had kids, he would have jokes about that. I think his material was always going to remain pure and observational and his take on the way he sees the world.
"He didn't have a lot of jokes about sex," Becky continued. " ... I think his comedy would have evolved to wherever life took him. If he spent more time in Europe, he'd have jokes about things he saw in Europe. He would just take everyday life and things that he sees and make jokes about them."
Stanhope doesn't necessarily agree that Hedberg is more popular now than he was in life but admitted the man was a genius.
"He was pretty well-known when he was alive, and he worked way too much, because way too many people wanted to see him," Stanhope said. "I hear about him just as often as I used to. I did a Norwegian tour once where, during the middle of my set, some Norwegian guy yells out, 'I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to too.' He was heckling me with Hedberg lines."
While many have compared Hedberg's style to that of comedian Steven Wright, Stanhope never thought of his friend as an observational comic. "It wasn't observational at all — it was triple-observational," he said. "The comparisons to Steven Wright were so lacking. Wright looks weird and says things that are funny and clever, but Hedberg was an actual person who thought like that. I see Steven Wright as someone who sits down and tries to think up stuff, but Hedberg was someone who thought like that. He was so ahead of his time — not on a comedy level, but on a human level. There are very few people that I ever felt inferior to, on every level."
In celebration of Hedberg and Do You Believe in Gosh?'s release, several comedy clubs across the country will be hosting comedians Hedberg was close to — including his widow, Lynn Shawcroft, who will be performing at the Hollywood Improv at 10 p.m. with Al Madrigal, Todd Glass and others. Similar events have been set for New York; Kirkland, Washington; Cincinnati; Minneapolis; and Austin, Texas
"Everyone loved Mitch and loved his comedy," Becky said. "Many comics have been influenced by him, and a lot of people got into comedy because of him. His legacy will remain forever. Twenty years from now, it will only be bigger, where people will be saying, 'He's one of the most brilliant comedians of all time,' and that he's a 'legend,' which he is."