"When I was a boy, I laid in my twin size bed and wondered where my brother was" —Mitch Hedberg
Pic: author screenshot via YouTube
I. The Funny Walk-On
Back in college, I played the part of the resident comedian for the basketball team. After all, the guys figured—what I lacked in skills, I made up for in brains. Perhaps.
In truth, though, it wasn't so much my sense of humor was sharp as was it I've long been blessed with two things: a sharp memory and an even sharper ear for talent.
From Carlin to Pryor to Dangerfield, I could spew out the best material of virtually any great comedian. And because "good artists copy," said Picasso, "[and] great artists steal,” I merely mastered the art of knowing how to match the right comedic bit with the right scenario.
Ahhh, but as I was set to see: my reign as the resident comedian was on the verge of coming to an abrupt end.
Mid-season our coach added a walk-on, some guy named Ronnie.
One day while on a road trip, a few of us strolled into a hotel elevator. The newcomer randomly blurted: “My hotel doesn't have a 13th Floor because of superstition, but c'mon man . . . . people on the 14th floor—you know what floor you're really on!
What room are you in?" he then said to himself, in continuation of the bit. "1401," he answered. "No, you're not! Jump out of that window and you'll die earlier!"
The guys roared with laughter. I smirked. But like a frozen dinner freshly placed in a microwave—Ronnie was just getting warmed up.
"Hey Turner," Ronnie said while directing his gaze at me, "guess what?"
Ronnie rubbed his hands. Seconds later he said, "I met the girl who works at the hotel front desk, she gave me her number. It’s ZERO! I tried to call from here, some other woman answered. I then said, 'You sound older!' ”
The guys again roared with laughter. I smiled but was inwardly fuming.
This guy was stealing my thunder. And so, I said to myself, "I've gotta study this guy to figure out the key to his sense of humor."
II. Love at First Hear
Over the next few days, I made a deliberate effort to hang out with Ronnie. One day after practice while camping out in his dorm room, I finally mustered the nerve to ask how'd he get so darn funny.
He flashed a toothy smile. "Kick back and relax, my friend," he said, "and have a listen to the funniest comedian of all-time."
Ronnie popped in a CD. Mitch All Together was live in surround sound. Ahhh, it was love at first hear!
Minutes into the act, I blurted, "Well I'll be . . ."
Ronnie winked. His abrupt rise to the top of "team comedian" merely called for sprinkling in the occasional well-timed recitations of Hedberg's act.
From the moment I first heard Mitch say, “Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read,” I knew my ears were being treated to the funniest jokester of all. Oh, did this guy master the art form like no other!
Given that at the time I was double majoring in English and Philosophy, I took special delight in Hedberg's mastery of both figurative language and human nature. Quite simply, Hedberg mastered the well-timed double entendre:
I got a king-sized bed. I don't know any kings, but if one came over, I guess he'd be comfortable. Oh, you're a king . . . you say? Well, you won't believe what I have in store for you. It's to your exact specifications!
Non-sequiturs and satire are to Hedberg what rabbits and hats are to magicians. He simply exhausted the menu of literary devices.
I recall laughing so hard at the following joke, upon hearing it for the first time, that I had to ask Ronnie to press pause:
I was at a casino standing by the door, and the security guard came over and said, "You're gonna have to move! You're blocking the fire exit." As though if there was a fire, I wasn't gonna run. If you're flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit.
Ahhh, nothing like love at first hear.
III. In Closing
Pic: Erin (Quotes)
It's been almost 20 years since ol' Mitch told his last joke. Hedberg embodied the notion of the troubled comedian who found humor buried in his sorrows.
Plagued by stage fright throughout his career — a career cut short by those off-stage demons, of which no amount of fame and screams from adoring fans will ever suffice to fan away either that smoke or screams emitted from a burning soul —Hedberg found peace in his comedic genius.
“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs,” Nietzsche once said; “he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”
In short, though Hedberg by no means invented laughter, he elevated the art that gives rise to laughter.
In honor of the funniest comedian of all-time, I'll end this piece by staying true to Hedberg's mantra to "always leave the audience laughing":
One time a guy handed me a picture, he said, "Here's a picture of me when I was younger."
I said, "Dude, every picture of you is when you were younger!"
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