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February 15, 2005

Hedberg brings shoegazing, one-liners to Mandel

The first 47 minutes of Mitch Hedberg's set at Mandel Hall on Sunday night nearly put me to sleep. Not because the comedy was bad, but because the eccentric comedian hadn't even taken the stage yet. Even with this lengthy delay (the announcement of which was met with heckling from the audience), his performance was short and sweet, lasting about the same amount of time as I spent staring at a stool and red curtains.

One of the first things Hedberg said (after taking the stage to wild applause from his cult-like fan base) was, "I'm like a clown right now." Yes, Mitch— -- if clowns shuffled and sniffled and didn't make eye contact with the audience, or if clowns emptied their pockets and wandered behind the curtains at random intervals. The essence of Hedberg's comedy, however, lies in this physical awkwardness, coupled with a killer knack for rapid-fire one-liners that -- —for the most part -- —keep the audience laughing.

In an interview with Shecky magazine, Hedberg said, "You can't completely ignore the folks, but I'm much happier saying what's on my mind without interference." This philosophy brings a stream-of-consciousness quality to his performance or, as some prefer to say, a "stoner" quality. However, listening to the mumbling coming from his mouth is actually a soothing experience, much like listening to a toddler babble.

Imagine a world where drinking water comes with tadpoles, where pineapples grow in cute little chunks, where sheets lying on the floor are ghosts, where burritos are sleeping bags for ground beef. Welcome to Mitch Hedberg's reality. Isn't it nice here?

No, seriously— -- I want some of whatever he's having.

Another interesting aspect of Hedberg's performance style is how well his repeated jokes go over with fans who already know the punch line. Many comedians fail at this aspect, but maybe Hedberg's success has something to do with his spontaneity. The fake tan, Target, Little League, rice, parrot, foosball, vending machine, golf, dolphin, tight rope, race car passenger, oscillating fan, and, of course, koala infestation jokes all seem as new and as delightful as the first time he told them.

Sometimes Hedberg's jokes are oddly cerebral, and part of their success depends on the audience members' gradual appreciation of the quirky humor. A classic Hedberg line, which he didn't use in Sunday night's set, goes like this: "I haven't slept for 10 days, because that would be too long." Trippy, and appropriately so. Hedberg's presence lies somewhere between the dopey idiocy of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and the egocentric mania of Wayne's World. He knows how to remain low-lidded and hidden behind his curtain of hair while giving the impression that he is really wide awake -- —even if he isn't exactly paying attention (or sober).

The one disturbance in Hedberg's flow -- —besides several interludes of rambling accompanied by stuttering and stumbling— -- came from an audience member who requested that the comedian take a phone call from "one of Mitch's bitches." The audience member then told a joke amidst more heckling, but quickly exited the stage. To Hedberg's credit, he picked up right where he left off. Maybe his style caters to a more intimate audience, one close enough to hear every half-utterance and quick witticism. But Hedberg adapts well to interruptions, an unsurprising attribute given that he is so sporadic himself.

After watching this man perform live, I now know why he is so often compared to seminal comedian Steven Wright, why he is David Letterman's favorite comedian, and why his cult following is so large. His comedy has absolutely no structure, but depends solely on the unique impression he gives: half street bum, half guru. Toward the end of the show, Hedberg recycled the audience member's joke as if tossing out an arbitrary one-liner, and added, "It's all in the delivery."

Thanks for the tip, Mitch.