Even family and close friends had a hard time understanding Mitch Hedberg, a St. Paul native who ran away from home and, despite living a scattershot life, became a runaway success as a standup comic.May he rest in peace.
Hedberg, whose space-case persona was as much part of his soul as it was his act, died early Wednesday morning in a New Jersey hotel room. He was 37. A medical examiner hasn't issued findings, but Hedberg's family is told he suffered a heart attack. His wife was with him.
After graduating St. Paul's Harding High School, Hedberg rose through the ranks at Minneapolis' Acme Comedy Co., and caught his big break through a Comedy Central special. He made several appearances on David Letterman's and Conan O'Brien's shows, made more Comedy Central appearances and produced two comedy CDs. His big dream, to have an HBO comedy special, was in the works.
Hedberg's one-liners, dished off in a spacy staccato, were based on absurdist, random observations. His long, dirty blond hair harkened to the image of a 1970s stoner, and his success occurred in light of, in spite of and even because of his quarter-century affair with drugs and alcohol.
"I'd probably be living in Costa Rica, eating oranges on the beach, if I wasn't doing comedy," he told the Pioneer Press last September.
"There's no two ways about — having a son in entertainment industry is challenging," his mother, Mary Hedberg, said Thursday.
She recalls being at work when her oldest daughter called in a panic to tell her Mitch had packed some brown paper bags and left home. Mary Hedberg couldn't get home in time to either see him off or talk him out of it.
"That was heartbreaking for us, but he kept in contact with us. He called as soon as the car broke down," she said. "You know, it was like putting him through college, even though he wasn't at college. But when he got his first break, we were just so thrilled for him, because we wanted him to know he was O.K., and to have that self-confidence that he could do what he wanted to do."
Louis Lee, owner of the Acme, said Hedberg not only became the Twin Cities' first breakout comedian of the 1990s but, along with Lewis Black, helped shape a national resurgence in standup comedy.
"It's very difficult for one-liner comedians to get an audience going, but when Mitch worked here, you could see the kids call out the punchline," Lee said. "Mitch made the whole comedy community realize how important good writing is. It's a huge loss."
Unlike many comics, Hedberg was demonstrably thankful to his fans. Not long ago, a group of college students in Florida, speaking with Hedberg backstage after a show, mentioned how hot their dorm room was. Hedberg surprised them the next morning by showing up to their dorm with a new air conditioner.
"Mitch presented a lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunities for traveling that we wouldn't have otherwise had, and he had a heart of gold," his mother said. "He was a brilliant comic and a wonderful person."
Dates haven't been set, but eventual visitation and services will be at Wulff Family Services, Woodlane Mortuary, in Woodbury.
A write-up of one of his final shows.