Mitch Hedberg has long been touted as the next stand-up due to become a sensation, but the laid-back comedian has taken his time on the way to the top. He made an independent film (1999's go-nowhere Los Enchiladas) instead of jumping into a sitcom, and has been grinding away on the club circuit instead of biding his time and waiting for mass exposure. Hedberg's commitment to the grassroots approach has made him a cult favorite, especially on college campuses, where his two comedy CDs, Strategic Grill Locations and Mitch All Together, have been passed from dorm to dorm in a way that recalls the heyday of Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong. Hedberg lines like "I haven't slept for 10 days, because that would be too long" and "Rice is great if you're hungry and you want 2,000 of something" have been appended to e-mail signature files and posted on message boards almost as much as Steven Wright jokes. Moreover, Hedberg's distinctive style—mumbly, half-baked one-liners, delivered while the comic stares at the floor through sunglasses and thick bangs—has established him as a quiet, wry voice in a stand-up scene that's often neither. While winding down one of his marathon tours, Hedberg spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his background, his methods, and the petty frustrations of a comedian's life.
The Onion: How many days out of the year are you on tour?
Mitch Hedberg: What is there, like, 356 days in a year?
O: More or less.
MH: About 300. One or two of those days each week is spent traveling, though. I got to add that in—otherwise, the hourly rate is astronomical. But this is the end. The Mitch Hedberg Playing A Club For More Than Three Days Tour is over. I'll never be doing this shit again. It's fun to go into a town, do a show, and leave the next day. But this stuff is like, you're here on Thursday, and then on Sunday you walk into a restaurant and they ask you if you want the usual.
O: That's not good?
MH: Well, I guess it's good. Because I do want the usual. The longer you're in a town, the better, because that means people want to see you. Most of these clubs have, what, 300, 400 seats? So the more shows I got going on, that just makes me look good, I guess. Three nights is cool. But some of these clubs, you do two, three shows a night, so you got to spread it out. That's crazy. I'd like to do one show, because you can put it all in there. So many people don't realize, they go, "I don't think he's funny," and I go, "I got two more shows to do," you know? Come to the third show. Man.
O: Do your fans come to more than one show a night?
MH: Sometimes. Those are the people that you just gotta wonder, "Do you really want to see me again?" Because the surprise factor's going to be gone. I like it when people come to see me again, but you end up playing to that person only. You know there's other people out there, but you also know that the person who came to see you again is there. You're like, "I hope he's happy again," man.
O: You generally play a lot of college towns, right?
MH: Yeah, I've been playing a lot of college towns, a lot of college campuses. It's weird, though, because when you're playing a college, they don't always know how to deal with you. Like, they'll call you at 5 on the night of the show and ask you if you want to go out to eat and stuff. No, man, I just want to get ready for the show. They think "getting ready for the show" means hanging out with them and eating food, but it involves being by yourself and trying to think about anything but that shit. But they laugh a lot, man. I can't believe it. I'm glad I can do it. When I first tried, I got like one college for the year, but now I've got, like, double digits! [Laughs.]
O: Where do you live when you're not on the road?
MH: I've got a cabin in California that's falling apart. It was a cabin, but now it's a shack. Wherever I am now, I try to extend my stay. These hotels, I call and say, "Can I extend my stay?" And if they say "Yeah," that's where I'm going to live for a while. It's cool. You got to always take advantage of getting your room cleaned, man. You may think it's nice not to have anybody in your room, like your privacy's not being invaded. But there's nothing like walking back into a clean room. You've got to remember that.
O: What did you first do for a living?
MH: The first major thing? Restaurant work, of course. Whatever I could get my hands on. I tried a couple of other things, but kitchen work was the best for me, because I took to a nomadic lifestyle before I started doing comedy. If you travel and get to a town and need a job, restaurants are always there. Kitchen work, man.
O: Were you angling to be a comedian that entire time?
MH: Not really. I knew comics and I loved them and I loved being funny, but I didn't understand the whole concept of becoming one. A friend of mine from another restaurant let me know about these things called open mics. That's all it took. My first couple of times on stage, I was like, "This is what I'm doing for sure." I was so excited.
O: Were you using your one-liner style from the beginning?
MH: Not really. I mean, I was, but then they wouldn't laugh at it, so I would add more lines, and before you know it, there were many, many lines in the joke. The one-liner style, that came because I'm not a good storyteller. I would add on to a concept that I thought was funny but was getting no laughs, and I'd get more uptight. I decided to get to the point quicker, get rid of all the fat. When I tell a story, it's always been very much just the facts, so all my jokes are really stories that are broken down to the most factual sense. That's where the one-liner comes from.
O: Did you admire other comedians who've had that kind of style? Henny Youngman? Steven Wright?
MH: Actually, when I first read my act described as "He does one-liners," I was like "No, no, I'm so much more than that." I guess the one-liner kind of comic sounds like a guy who can talk and talk and whatever the subject is, he can pull out a one-liner, but I couldn't do that. I didn't like the association. I mean, I love Steven Wright, but so many people started saying "Steven Wright" to me, and I would get mad, because I never wanted to be thought of as copying anybody.
O: What comedians do you like?
MH: You know, I like the Triumph The Insult Comic Dog man [Robert Smigel]. He really makes me laugh. I know he's just a comedian with a puppet, but I've just grown to love him. When it comes to someone who's like a little bit real to me, I like Marc Maron. I also think Dave Attell is so funny, even offstage. Basically, it's just a constant show, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some people say, "I saw Dave Attell's show." I say, "Ah, you saw, you know, one hour of it," you know? The first comic I ever saw was Gallagher, and I thought he was funny, I won't lie to you. At the time, I wasn't doing stand-up, so I had no idea he was so hated. Once I became a stand-up, I had to hate him, but I still remember the day I liked him. I just saw Andrew "Dice" Clay again, and I have to tell you, man, I think all it took for me was 20 years to settle down and see how funny he is. I'm glad he's still on the road. When he was at his peak, I didn't check it out, but now I see what the hype was about, man. Now I see. And I also love my wife. I married a comedian, Lynn Shawcroft, and she's blown me away ever since I first saw her.
O: Are you and your wife going to have kids and take them on the road with you? Raise them to be comics?
MH: I would love to have kids, but, uh... I was doing some shows up at the Montreal comedy festival a few weeks ago, and one of those other comics had their kids backstage. And the backstage area is a pretty fun area. It's where you wind down, and you can do some things. I was lighting up a pipe—a tobacco pipe, of course—and my wife was smoking, and when the baby would come around, we'd kind of hide 'em behind our backs and say, "We're sorry, we're sorry." And they'd say, "Aw, don't worry, we don't care." But we care! This is a baby, man! C'mon, you know? It was weird. I would never want to impose that on any other guy who's in his holy zone of backstage before the show. If I had kids, they wouldn't get a pass backstage.
Kids are in the future. There's no doubt about it. I just don't want to write kid jokes yet, really, and that's a guarantee. Even some of my favorite comedians have kids and then immediately write kid jokes. That's the fastest fall I've ever seen in comedy, subject-wise.
O: How much time do you spend working on new material?
MH: Oh, all the time, man. I just got to start writing it out in full, though. Now I'm down to writing the shortest amount of buzzwords possible, hoping I'll remember it. It's hard to step backward from those words and say, "What did that mean? What do the words 'owl' and 'my dad' mean together?"
But I love the new material. Always. Goddamn! Right now I might think of something, you know? If I said something really, really funny in this interview, I would write it down. So far, I've got nothing written down.