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April 8, 2005

Requiem for a jokester: remembering Mitch Hedberg

The first best thing about being Volunteer Coordinator for the Major Activities Board (MAB) is getting to wear a headset and carry a clipboard during shows. The sense of power and authority is staggering. But I guess if I had to choose a runner-up perk it would be meeting the performers. Last year I complimented Margaret Cho on her Dr. Zhivago fur hat. She paused to glare at me. And then she forgot to thank me. This past winter I gave Mitch Hedberg and his wife a ride from Mandel Hall back to their downtown hotel. They remembered to thank me—profusely.

Before my stint as celebrity chauffeur, Mitch and his wife Lynn made MAB history when they hung around with the board and took pictures with us for a good half hour after the show. You see, it turns out that with most performers, the more certifiably B-list they are, the more A-list they act. So in light of our limited budget, we put up with a lot of snooty behavior and ridiculous demands. Hospitality riders regularly request that we stock dressing rooms with such items such as eight-pound lobsters, organic vegan cheeseburgers, and the Holy Grail. Mitch's management never sent a hospitality rider. So we gave him a bottle of water and a stool, and he seemed satisfied. Mitch seemed hesitant just to ask if someone would be willing to call a cab to take Lynn and him back to their hotel. He seemed bewildered when I told him I could drive them myself.

Mitch was just as much the down-to-earth, slow-talking hippie off the stage as he was when on it. Lynn was a female version of Mitch, but with a much stronger Canadian accent. On the car ride to the hotel Mitch perused an old issue of the Maroon that had been left in the backseat of my car, occasionally chuckling and commenting on the article that had been published to announce his upcoming performance. We talked about their favorite cities (Chicago and Minneapolis) why Mitch became a stand-up comedian ("I knew I was funny, and I didn't want to be an actor"), and the young Mitch wannabe who had stormed the stage during his performance earlier that night ("You know, just because a joke's about pot, that doesn't mean that it's funny"). When I finally pulled up to the Peninsula Hotel, Mitch asked if he could give me money for the gas I had used up in the 10-minute drive from Hyde Park to downtown. I politely refused, and when he continued to insist and I continued to decline, Lynn finally interrupted: "Mitch, she's not going to take it, so don't make her feel awkward." I was silently very grateful to Lynn for the save.

But as soon as Mitch got out of the car to get the suitcases, she turned to me from the passenger seat and started in herself. "Look, I'm just going to give you ten bucks. Take it," she declared. There was quite a bit of drive in her voice. I realized I was finally going to be forced to reveal what I had been too embarrassed to admit before. "Look, to be honest, my parents pay for my gas. I would feel really guilty taking money from you."

"Oh!" she responded, with an understanding smile; there was no stopping this woman. "Then let me just give you some money to get yourself a few drinks later tonight." This was absurd. I had to beg my superiors just to be given the privilege of driving them. I didn't deserve the privilege in the first place, much less a monetary reward. After a minute or so of back-and-forth I seemed to finally have succeeded in strong-arming Lynn into saving her cash for a more worthy cause. She got out of the car to help with the luggage, and Mitch pulled me out to give me a proper goodbye. As he enveloped me in a leather-clad hug, he thanked me again for the hospitality, and didn't let go before leaning into my ear and giving me one last chance to take his money. I had run out of articulate excuses, so I simply smiled, wished him an enjoyable stay in Chicago, and got back in the car.

When I read last week that Mitch had died of a heart attack in his hotel room, I felt that strange feeling that one gets when someone dies that you sort of knew—but not really. I was really struck by the news, but felt awkward about it—like I wasn't quite justified in being all that upset about it. Mostly I felt badly for Lynn, who clearly adored her husband. They had a quirky and nuanced rapport indicative of a truly intimate connection. I felt privileged to have been witness to one of his final shows, and even more so to have been witness to what a genuinely kind and endearing person he was.