There's gotta be more to that story: Finding solace in the delirious beauty of Mitch Hedberg's jokes
For Casey Plett, Hedberg's humour has been perfect company for the absurd tedium of pandemic life
Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.
I will be at my kitchen in the morning, drinking my coffee, making breakfast. And I will be miserable, for many of the common reasons anyone is miserable so far in the 2020s, and for some of the less common reasons as well.
What am I making? Oatmeal. Without even anything to put into it, because I am out of peanut butter and cream or any milk-like substance and so I am making the saddest breakfast in the world, which is plain oatmeal, and then as I'm stirring this oatmeal, I start laughing. And the stupidest giddy smile comes on my face and suddenly, I begin talking to myself in what might sound to a stranger like a totally weird stoner accent (except again, there is no one to hear me. Did I mention I am now laughing to myself alone?)
What I say when I talk to myself is this:
"I wake up in the morning and make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal and then I don't do shit for an hour. Which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal. I could've made the regular oatmeal and felt productive!"
If you have not heard this joke before, it might seem like a plain, just-okay joke. But if you know Mitch Hedberg, and you know this joke, you were already hearing his voice in your head and maybe you were smiling along with me. He passed over a decade ago, but there is something about his lines and their cadences that have only attained further tonic as they age. Like Caroljean Gavin (who edited a book of stories inspired by his jokes) said, he just has that effect on people.
There's a delirious beauty to Mitch Hedberg jokes. They're deranged and yet never mean, crass yet never crude; surreal but unambiguous, lapping at darkness but never, ever bleak. The first time I heard him, it was summer after I graduated high school. My friends and I were listening to a burnt CD in my parents' house. I began in the middle of the album for some reason. Right away he got us with the joke about how a club owner, who hooks him up with drugs, one day gave him ADD medication — "So then I had an extra long attention span ... Someone'd be telling a story, then the story'd end and I'd get all mad and shit. Come on man, there's gotta be more to that story! I'm on pills here!" I listened right until my parents called me for dinner, which led to them also experiencing Mitch Hedberg, which meant they were soon laughing too.
Mitch Hedberg was a drug user and that's how he died. He joked about that, too. And it's impossible not to laugh with a particular heaviness about those jokes, but dammit, you still laugh. ("I love the FedEx guy, cause he's a drug dealer and he don't even know it. And he's always on time.") He was anxious; he had permanent stage fright, something you can still see when you watch videos of him now and notice his mic is shaking. Sometimes he even closed his eyes performing. He had a joke about that, too. ("I have painted an audience enjoying the show more on the back of my eyelids.") I heard once during a performance he was so nervous that he ran behind the curtain — and he joked about that, too. ("You fuckers can't get me back here!")
Have you never listened to Mitch Hedberg? Are you finding this a sad story? Because if you feel sad reading this, then the solution is you need to listen to some Mitch Hedberg jokes, or talk to any Mitch Hedberg fan. I find it so charming, nay moving, that for someone whose cadence is so identifiable and irreplaceable, every fan's got their own subtle way of doing his lines. With most comedians, I find fanboy mimicking to be annoying, but I've never found that with him.
Years ago, I was having an intense phone call with a friend. I was unhappy about something in my life and I was talking to whoever would listen, as I did quite often when I was younger. I was at a loss for words, trying to finish telling my friend what had happened, close to tears. Eventually my friend said into the silence: "Come on man, there's gotta be more to that story."
I laughed like you do when a sob's been stuck in your throat. We both said in unison, "I'm on pills here." I felt better.
Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.