this is the most informative article i have read on mitch hedberg. it includes an interview with hedberg’s wife, lynn shawcroft:
Sunday night, March 20, 2005. The last moments of the last show. Carolines comedy club in New York City was packed â€” table after table of devoted fans, jealous rivals, and even a few rock stars. All there to see him. The man on stage. And they were roaring.
Mitch Hedberg blinked into the ocean of applause and let slip a lopsided smile. The 37-year-old comic was crushing. After almost two decades in comedy, the former fry cook had all but been handed the deed to the most important stand-up joint in the country. So he grinned and ambled off the stage into the arms of his wife, Lynn Shawcroft. Later that night, with the crowd still swirling, the couple slipped out the door into the neon embrace of Times Square.
Over the next week, they went off the grid, moving from hotel to hotel, dodging phone calls from increasingly concerned family and friends. On Tuesday, March 29, nine days after the Carolines gig, they holed up in an upscale hotel in Livingston, N.J. Early the next afternoon, Lynn called her husband’s publicist, who called his manager, who called his parents. One of the greatest comedians of a generation was dead.
”Young comedians are always trying to ape someone else,” says Conan O’Brien. ”Even when they’re good you can always tell where their influence was. ‘This guy is doing a Seinfeld with a twist.’ ‘That guy is doing Sam Kinison toned down a notch.’ And then you see someone like Mitch, and it’s like his brain was put in backwards.”
Hedberg’s stage persona read ”stoner freak.” He hid his face behind flowing hair and trademark amber sunglasses. He stared at the floor as he mumbled his lines. But he may have been the closest thing that contemporary stand-up had to a comic’s comic â€” a man who was absolutely revered by his peers.
His stuff was absurdist. Observational. At once completely clean and totally twisted. Other artists would marvel at lines like ”I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.” On the page, his humor might seem simple, even a little silly, but when delivered in his beat-poet voice it was like listening to a creature that had fallen to earth.
”I always asked people, ‘How many times did you see him?’ ‘Once.’ ‘Once?’ That was like seeing the Grateful Dead once,” says Randy Kagan, a friend and fellow stand-up who frequently opened for Hedberg. ”You can’t see the Dead once. You had to see ‘em over and over again to get an idea. That was what Mitch was like to me.”
And to his fans. Few other comedians had as passionate a cult following. Everyone from college kids to Canadian grandmothers called themselves partisans, lining up for blocks to see his shows, buying both his albums, and gleefully going online to swap favorite sets. By the end, they would even anticipate his punchlines, shouting them out if Hedberg couldn’t get them off fast enough. (”Didn’t you hear of a dramatic pause?” he’d complain whenever an overeager fan stepped on his jokes.)
George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, and Lewis Black were admirers. David Letterman had him on his show 10 times. There were dark rumors, sure, but no one wanted to believe that Mitch Hedberg was using heroin, a drug that could render him part of the grim lineage of Lenny Bruce and John Belushi. Not when the comedy was so warm and the guy delivering it was so nice.
”People would go, ‘Mitch is going to die’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know,”’ says Mike Birbiglia, a Hedberg protÃ©gÃ© who performed at one of the final shows at Carolines. ”He seemed to pull it off. He had this invincibility to him.”
Last week I helped my friend stay put. It’s a lot easier than helping someone move. I just went over to his house and made sure he did not start to load s— into a truck.
Mitch Hedberg was a listless baby and a difficult kid. The first six years of his life were spent in and out of a University of Minnesota hospital for heart problems (”I don’t think this heart will last forever,” he would write in his journal as an adult), and he started staging sick-outs from school as early as first grade. High school was a disaster â€” Hedberg graduated only by the grace of a sympathetic principal. And the second he got his diploma, he was out of there.
”I got a call from Wendy, our daughter who is a year older,” says his mother, Mary Hedberg, 61, who lives outside St. Paul. ”And she said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what’s goin’ on with Mitch, he’s packing paper bags.’ And I said, ‘With what?’ And she said, ‘Clothes.’ By the time we got home he was gone.”
Hedberg ended up on Florida’s Atlantic coast. He slept on the beach. Smoked a lot of pot. Spent Thanksgiving at the local mission. When he called home it would be to ask for money and to issue a progress report on a pamphlet he was writing called The Drifter’s Handbook, which was full of advice like how to get a free shower (sneak into hotel rooms just after someone checks out).
The vagabond life was perfect for a goofy 18-year-old with heavy metal hair and a wicked sense of humor. And it only got better in late 1989, when he met a kind, 20-year-old art student named Jana Johnson in a bar in Fort Lauderdale. ”By then he had an apartment, he and this guy Eddie,” she says, laughing. ”They were ice-cube poor. This apartment had nothing in it â€” they were literally eating ice cubes. But he was happy, there was no doubt about that.”
Before long, Hedberg and Johnson were a couple. While she finished school, he held down distinctly unfunny jobs â€” from fry cook to early a.m. distributor of promotional fliers for a local drugstore â€” and started doing his first open-mike gigs, mostly at a club called Haggerty’s in Boca Raton, Florida. He bombed, repeatedly. ”We were there for one of his first times,” remembers Mary Hedberg. ”He was…okay…” Hedberg’s 64-year-old father, Arne, shakes his head and snorts: ”Try terrible!”
The work started coming, though. The late 1980s and early ’90s were boom years for stand-up comedy, and before long, he hit the road, landing a job touring a chunk of the country not-so-affectionately known as ”the Spud Circuit.” Hedberg adored it. It didn’t matter that he got zero reception â€” his humor was way too odd for crowds weaned on sex jokes and airplane humor â€” he was doing what he wanted to do and getting paid to do it. Better still, he was constantly on the road. The heartland was filled with run-down bars and out-of-the-way corners, places that a man with an appreciation for a strong Jack and Coke and an eye for surreal detail could fall in love with. He would return from Spokane or Grand Forks or Great Falls bursting with stories for Johnson, who handled the bookings and bills while he worked the road and slowly improved his act. ”He was always painfully shy and socially awkward,” says former Man Show cohost Doug Stanhope, who frequently played shows with Hedberg in the mid-’90s. ”I mean, ‘pulling a Mitch’ was sneaking out a back door at a party or a bar without saying goodbye to anybody.”
Success came slowly. A spot on MTV in 1993. Killing at the ”New Faces” showcase in Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival in 1996. Booking his first Letterman. Then his second. And his third. In 1998, he made a glorious return to Montreal. His headlining set â€” a hilarious 10-minute ramble â€” left a theater of more than 2,000 people weeping with laughter, and as soon as the festival was over, he had a $500,000 sitcom deal with Fox. Mary and Arne Hedberg danced in their kitchen with joy when they heard the news. Hedberg just smiled his sheepish grin and cashed the check.
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
Nothing would ever come of the sitcom deal. It wasn’t for lack of trying â€” it’s just no one could find anything that would work on Fox for Hedberg. But now he had some serious money. That, and a new friend named Lynn Shawcroft. The two had been briefly introduced back in 1996 at the New Faces showcase. By the fall of 1998 they were close, and soon Mitch moved out of Johnson’s apartment and into the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. ”We were together nine years,” Johnson says. ”We tried, but that October we broke it off completely.”
Hedberg had fallen in love. Shawcroft was adoring and a little wild â€” the perfect match for his brilliant, insecure, and sweet temperament. They married a few months later. ”It happened in February of 1999. We found out in November,” says Mary Hedberg. ”I found out in an e-mail from another friend. She said, ‘Well, now that Mitch is married…’ I was at my desk and tears, lots of tears, just came flying and I said, ‘Married? Mitch is married?’ He didn’t want to tell us. They told us later that they didn’t want us to be hurt for Jana.”
The new couple hit the road. Whereas Johnson had kept a job at home, Shawcroft was more than happy to live out of rental cars and airport terminals with her new husband. They started traveling and didn’t stop. Watching horror movies in hotel rooms. Ordering chicken burritos. Doing shows and then swiftly sneaking out the door. Shawcroft’s job was to have the exit route planned and the car already started by the time Hedberg finished his set. They fancied themselves American outlaws, comedy’s answer to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. ”He was into that whole romantic rock & roll Jim Morrison/Kurt Cobain thing,” says Johnson. ”It was who he was.”
The duo became famous for flaky behavior, stuff like deciding to drive cross-country to gigs on a whim and leaving a van at the Phoenix airport for seven months at $16 a day. (”By the time we got it out,” she laughs, ”the bill cost more than the van.”) ”Mitch and Lynn were together all the time,” says Hedberg’s longtime manager, Dave Becky. ”They lived in their own little world.” And that world included drugs.
No one is quite sure when Hedberg started seriously using heroin, but Shawcroft says he had tried the drug before they met. From the outside, it was hard to tell what was going on. Hedberg and Shawcroft’s relationship was startlingly opaque â€” Mary Hedberg estimates she and Arne spent a total of 24 hours with the couple over their six years of marriage â€” and the stand-up scene is filled with high-functioning drug users. Against that backdrop, he was the picture of professionalism. Despite rumors of heavy drug use, Hedberg would arrive, perform, and leave audiences happy.
”Mitch was a live-and-let-live guy,” says Becky. ”When we would talk about [the drug gossip] he would always say, ‘I’m fine, man. I’m writing jokes. I’m selling tickets. My fans love me.’ He never would say, ‘I have a problem. I’m in trouble. I’m unhappy.’ We always tried to get to the bottom of what he was doing and he kept saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”’
But the rumors were becoming too pervasive, too worrying. In the summer of 2002, Mary and Arne tracked down the couple in Texas and confronted him about substance abuse. The conversation did not go well. ”Lo and behold, they talked us out of it,” says Arne, with a shake of the head. ”’This is all just a big myth. Here’s why and blah blah blah.’ They teamed up on us. The truth is, they snookered us.”
Any pretense that the comedian was clean was shattered a year later. Hedberg had just wrapped up a series of shows at an Austin comedy club when he and Lynn were stopped at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. A federal officer opened up a red bag covered with white flowers that had Hedberg’s name on it. Inside was a Red Bull can with three syringes and a smudge of heroin on the bottom. When the officer searched Hedberg’s backpack he found a fistful of pills â€” Valium and Xanax, as it turned out â€” that the comedian said he’d gotten from someone downtown. (He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge.)
Hedberg spent two nights in jail, where a routine examination showed that an infection had been festering in his right leg for months. He was shipped to a county hospital, and while he was there, doctors told Shawcroft the leg was in alarmingly bad shape. Mary and Arne arranged to have Mitch transported to a Houston hospital, where surgeons operated for 13 hours. The leg was saved â€” though Hedberg would limp for the rest of his life. But after that nobody had any illusions that Hedberg was actually okay. In fact, everyone was scared to death. Everyone except Shawcroft. ”To me it was a relief,” she says quietly. ”I mean, when he got arrested it was very scary. But it got us to stop working for a couple of months and almost back to health. For a while.”
I haven’t slept for 10 days. Because that would be too long.
Lynn Shawcroft sits in a hotel in Beverly Hills. The red paint on her nails is flaked and chewed. Her face is puffed and her eyes are hidden by dark sunglasses. Ripped jeans dangle over dirty sneakers. She looks a wreck.
”I’m scared,” she says in a thin, watery voice. ”I don’t know if I can do this.”
”Here’s the thing you really need to know,” says Kagan, who spent significant time with both Shawcroft and Hedberg. ”The story of Mitch Hedberg is a love story. A great love story.” Today, Shawcroft just looks at her shoes and says, ”It is a love story. It is, it is, it is.”
The time since Hedberg’s death has been tough on Shawcroft. There was the funeral. The endless condolence cards to answer. In fact, since her husband’s passing, she has become extremely hard to reach, refusing interview requests and avoiding most friends’ telephone calls. Now, as she opens up for the first time, it’s clear that the little moments hurt the most. ”I opened one of his journals after he died,” she says, ”and there was a line, ‘Do you believe in Gosh?”’ She grins. ”The f—er could write. I’d turn around and he’d have five new jokes.”
She starts shaking a bit as she remembers the end. ”We were going to Baltimore [that last night]]. We had been in New York for all these days, and we had kept jumping hotels…. It was the most confusing night of my life. I was in the bedroom, and then I went in the bathroom. And when I came out he didn’t look right. So I grabbed him and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth and called 911.”
”It’s so hard. How am I going to do this? He was beyond even a best friend. He loved monster movies.” She looks up as if to say Betcha didn’t know that. ”He did. He couldn’t watch them on his own, though. He’d make me watch them with him.”
She stops, gulps air, and takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are wet with tears.
The thing that’s depressing about tennis is no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall. I played a wall once. They’re f—in’ relentless.
Back in 2003, after he was released from the hospital, Hedberg fought his way back to performing, playing 54 cities around the country with Dave Attell and Lewis Black. He missed only one show on that tour, in Phoenix. He had gotten stuck in traffic.
But as the money grew better and better â€” a Comedy Central special and a CD had sent his price tag as high as $25,000 for a night’s work â€” his health was getting worse and worse. It didn’t help that he had been on the road for six years straight. There was never a vacation. He and Shawcroft rarely made it to their home in the mountains outside of L.A., and then it was just a quick stop to collect piles of mail. They traveled so much that Mitch laid out $84,000 for a motor home, the only way he could see to drive from gig to gig. ”He was working too hard,” Shawcroft says. ”He partied hard, too, but I think everyone attributed everything to drugs without realizing that he was burning out as well. Now I look back and wish when we were in Texas I had just said, ‘No more.’ No more.”
His last tour â€” with singing comedian Stephen Lynch â€” was tough. For the first time in Hedberg’s 19-year career, there were reports of bad shows, sets where he would show up obviously drunk or stoned and lie on his back in the middle of the stage and burble nonsense. ”That happened toward the end,” says Clear Channel’s Geof Wills, who booked his last two tours. ”Sometimes [he was] brilliant. Other times I thought, ‘Hey, Mitch, that wasn’t the greatest thing in the world.’ He was clearly compromised.”
The final six shows at Carolines in March of this year were typical. About half of them were bad. Not awful. Just bad. Mitch would look at his notes and fret when the jokes didn’t sing, or just speed through his set. The rest were phenomenal, though, glorious 60-minute blocks that left people crying into their two-drink minimums.
It’s still unclear what exactly killed him. His parents say he struggled with peripheral pulmonary artery stenosis all his life, and Shawcroft, who has not released the coroner’s report to the public, confirms it was a heart attack. Even so, speculation persists that drugs might have played a role. ”Does it really matter?” asks Becky. ”He’s gone.”
Shortly after the funeral in Minnesota, something remarkable happened. Fans who had never met Hedberg â€” kids who listened to the albums once a day and housewives who thought escalators and bullfrogs could be funny as hell â€” went online to trade stories and jokes and to work out their grief. Other comedians chuckled over his odd behavior and A-plus material. Staff at clubs remembered his generosity. (”He didn’t care if you were the guy emptying the Dumpster, he’d tip you into the next tax bracket,” laughs Kagan.) They mobbed the memorials held around the country. Shut down the website. Bought up the merchandise. Hundreds of letters poured in to Mary and Arne’s house in Minnesota, and the phone didn’t stop ringing.
”My goodness, the calls,” says Mary. ”We had one gentleman call from Georgia to say, ‘You don’t know me. But I loved your son, and I just wanted you to know that.’ And just, you know, just…those things just meant so much to us.”
”He left a lot of brilliant comedy for people,” says Becky, letting a smile play across his lips. ”My grandkids are going to listen to his records and get him. I really like that. The bottom line is this: He was a stubborn motherf—er who was also just a really good dude. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. And you know what? He was a f—ing genius. And that’s the truth.”