Mitch Hedberg – Mitch All Together – Interview

Mitch Hedberg

Mitch All Together (Comedy Central)
By Scott Hefflon

You’re from Minneapolis originally?
Yeah, St. Paul, but still twin cities, so… yeah.

For some reason, I always thought of you as a New York guy.
I was for a while, and sometimes I wish I still was. My manager moved from New York to California, so I followed him. I’ve had the same manager for over ten years now, and he’s been really good to me.

How’d you hook up with him?
He saw me do an MTV show, Comikaze [not Comicazi, that’s a comic store here in Boston], and he liked what I was doing. Which is good. He was cool, he opened lots of doors for me, but he’s got so many clients now it’s hard to get him on the phone. He works with Chris Rock, Horatio Sands, Louis C.K., and Dave Attell, and while the scope of the company he works for, 3 Arts, is huge, he concentrates on stand-up comics.

You were part of a tour package with Dave Attell and Lewis Black, right?
Yeah, that was awesome. That started last September and lasted about five months. My best road experience. We ended with two nights in Las Vegas, that’s how we went out, man…

How long did you struggle before you started to taste some success?
I’d say it took me about five years before I could tell jokes in a row that all worked. Before that, it was, uh, like one out of eight jokes was actually funny. It took about two years before people started laughing. I’d go on stage and fumble around, cuz I knew what I thought was funny, but I didn’t know how to tell a joke, and stage fright crippled me severely. After five years, I was starting to get the hang of being funny.

A couple years after that, I started to get some TV exposure, and that’s what most people consider successful. But all that time, I was doing what I wanted to do, which made it beautiful. I was driving around the country, making people laugh, making some money.

So you were on the road, even when you were starting out?
Yeah, I was sleeping in the back of my truck, waking up in Montana. Some people think that sounds awful, but I loved living on the road, sleeping in my car if I couldn’t afford a hotel room.

As over-romantic/glamorizing as it may sound, that’s when you see the most Real Life, that’s when what you’re doing is at its most pure. When you start flying and getting driven around and get put up in nice hotels, what are you gonna make jokes about, room service and airline policies?
That’s absolutely right. You need something to draw from. I think even if I were rich and life were easy, I could still find jokes as long as I went to the grocery store. That’s where I get a lot of my jokes.

You made a joke about more people probably seeing you at the store than on Letterman
Ya know how they always introduce comedians as having been on this or that show? Nope. More people have seen me at the store. Maybe some people who travel a lot stay in their hotel room and order room service, but man, I like to get out there, I like to go to the store, I like to go have breakfast somewhere. I’m always getting my wife smokes, and I think cigarettes really help get you out of the house, get you out looking around. I smoke a pipe. If it wasn’t smokes, I’d go out to get sodas or something.

That’s what I really like about Dave Attell’s Comedy Central show, Insomnia. It’s just a funny guy wandering around late at night, seeing what’s going on. Kinda like E’s Wild On, but grittier, more real, and with more midget mud wrestling.
He has the perfect show, cuz that’s just his life, with a camera. Fuckin’ lucky, man. He gets to hang out and get drunk on TV, how cool is that? He treats people nice, too. He doesn’t condescend to them.

Man, he’s so fuckin’ famous… That’s the great thing about cable now, it’s so powerful. Dave Chappelle is huge, and when we were on tour, Dave Attell was recognized by everyone wherever we went. You don’t realize how huge someone can get from a little late night show on Comedy Central.

How about yourself? Do you get recognized a lot now?
I do, but when I was on tour with Attell, I realized what it could be. My recognition isn’t to the point where it gets annoying.

Don’t you kinda have to be a fly on the wall to get material?
Definitely. I’m a pretty private person, and here I am pursuing a line of work that lets people into your life. If I’m in a store and people come up and talk to me, I can’t watch them anymore. They’ll be watching me.

As weird as this may sound, I really don’t like meeting people after a show. I wish that what I did on stage was what people used to decide whether they liked me or not. But if I didn’t talk to anyone after the show, that’d probably seem pretentious.

It’s tough, cuz people expect you to be as funny one-on-one as you are on stage. When I interviewed Eddie Izzard, it was after midnight and he was “shagged out.”
Comics have that hanging over their heads all the time. Everyone wants you to be funny, no matter what the situation. A lot of people can’t understand that sometimes you’re serious, sometimes you’re tired, and sometimes you just aren’t feeling funny.

Comics do a lot of morning radio shows, and that’s a tough time to be funny. It takes a while to figure out when it’s right to be on, and when it’s right to kick back and kinda let people know who you really are. Also, just interviews in general are tough, and it takes a long time to not say the same thing all the time, to feel comfortable and natural.

And a big thing with me is that just cuz someone’s good at something, they aren’t necessarily good at talking about that something.
I really wish I were better at all the other aspects of being a comedian, all the stuff that happens offstage. The stage is my favorite part, and the part I’m best at. When I do interviews, I often worry that I’m not being funny and that people expect me to be funny. I’m just answering the questions. Sometimes you see comedians on shows doing their bits, and you really get no feel for them as people. But it’s entertaining.

A number of people have compared you to Steven Wright. He’s total deadpan, but the choppy sentences and non-linear “out of the blue” observations are perhaps comparable.
We both write short jokes, but he’s more surreal than I am. He puts his car key in his house and drives the house around….

And you get offered a frozen banana, but want a regular banana later, so… yes. And you cook potatoes in the oven, even if you aren’t hungry, because by the time they’re done, who knows? Same joke, different food item. Wright is random surreal, and you’re random with food.
A lot of my jokes are the same joke, but with a different noun. You can get a laugh by simply bringing up mundane stuff everyone can relate to. If you say something on stage everyone in the audience has thought to themselves, they’ll laugh.

Who are some of your favorite comedians, and who kinda inspired you to become one yourself?
When I was a kid, I was really into SCTV, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray. I really wanted to look like Bill Murray. I thought he had a great look. Actually, before I got into comedy, I thought anyone on the Tonight Show was funny. Then I got into comedy and realized how many of those guys were stealing jokes and shit.

That’s why personalized delivery is so important. Two comics can talk about the same subject, but the jokes themselves will be different because they’ll be phrased and delivered as suited to the comic’s style.
A lot of people think it’s all about delivery. They write jokes for me or tell me I should talk about this or that, thinking that if I say it my way, it’ll be funny. But you do have to have some kinda substance in there. If you watch a lot of stand-up, so many comics snap into that standard stand-up delivery. And all you have to do is not do that, and you’ll stand out.

I like David Cross, cuz his delivery is really conversational. And Dave Attell has a really good delivery. Lewis Black yells and seems pretty political, but he’s really not that deeply political when you get down to it.

George Carlin is a fave of mine. He’s been funny longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s talked about everything and always makes life and the way we live and treat each other seem quirky and weird and outrageously nonsensical.
He’s a legend. He’s a career comedian, and I can only hope… He’s been through so many phases, because as a person you go through a lot of phases in your life, and he’s used every phase successfully in his comedy. Unlike Rodney Dangerfield – not to say there’s anything wrong with it – who’s done the same basic character for his whole career: No phases.

You brought up a really great point in one of your jokes: In comedy, people always want to know what else you can do. Can you write, can you act?
It always seems to lead to sitcoms nowadays. And either you fit into it, or you don’t. You go to the network offices, and you try make these network executives laugh, you try to make them trust you. Comedians are subversive by nature. We’re out at night, we sleep during the day, we’re not on the same time-table as these network guys, but here we are in their offices, trying to make them trust us so they’ll put their money on us and build a show around us. I can make them laugh in a nightclub, but when I’m up in their offices, I’m uncomfortable because I’m not used to going to an office every day and being around people like that.

Being kind of on the outskirts of society is really good for seeing things and coming up with jokes, but the irony is that it really gets in the way when you try to get to what most think is the next level, which is sitcoms. People are always asking what you want to do, and you can only dodge that question so many times. Which is what’s so great about Dave Attell’s situation: He came up with a show that’s him, so he doesn’t have to play a character. I think that’s the best outlet for a comic: To come up with their own show where they’re doing their own thing, and people want to watch it again and again.

Executives were always asking what my point of view was, and I really don’t know. I just know I like toast and I think yogurt is funny.

Consider me naïve, but I’ve never really understood why –artistically – the goal of a stand-up comic is to star in some lame sitcom.
It’s not, but that’s what happened when comedians started getting offered these beautiful development deals. Large sums of cash dropped in your lap, a holding deal to make sure you don’t go to another network. So the first thing you get is the cash. Pretty substantial, in the six figures. And while it may not be what you got into stand-up comedy for in the first place, after a certain number of years on the road, that starts to look pretty good. And at a certain point, if you’re not on a sitcom, you’re considered a failure. It’s sad, but it’s true.

But sitcoms are such a formulaic and stifling format, whereas stand-up you have a lot more artistic control and freedom.
Exactly. And lots of very good comedians have been burned by cancelled sitcoms. I don’t want my first big public break to be comedic suicide.

Margaret Cho is a perfect example of a terrible sitcom situation, but now she’s back to her roots of stand-up and touring theaters. She has a huge following, and she’s doing great now. But imagine how hard that must’ve been… The network wanted to make a show about Korean-Americans, and they threw every stereotype in the book at her and blamed her for not making it work.

I’d be happiest just doing stand-up, but with enough exposure so people knew who I was. That’s why everyone goes to TV, because it’s so huge. The difference between a star comic and a comic who can fill some seats is a TV show. It’s as simple as that.

I could see you as “the funny guy at the bar the main characters always go to.” Like if you were always at the Regal Beagle on Three’s Company, ya know?
Yeah, I wouldn’t have to move, I could have something in my hands, and I could make a few jokes. I get 30 seconds screen time while they’re ordering drinks at the bar.

What about movies?
Some comics have gotten great roles in movies. But then your acting chops have to be there. You can be on the road for 15 years as a successful stand-up, but the second you get on the set with a bunch of actors, they expect you to be a comedic actor, and I’m not a natural actor. I don’t want to go to acting class, cuz it’s not like I went to stand-up comedy class, but in reality, I probably need some acting lessons. Now I suddenly have to be a good actor as well as a good stand-up comic.

I’d love to be in a cool movie. I’d love to walk out of an audition feeling good, instead of really awkward. The walk from the audition room to your car is the longest, strangest walk.

You played poker with Peter Frampton and the tour managers in the “$50 and a case of Heineken” scene in Almost Famous?
Yeah, it was a small part, but I got to be on a movie set for two days and sit with these guys and watch them. You can pick shit up, even in a short time like that, and that’s important. The cameras roll and you do your shit, and when they say cut, if no one comes up and yells at you, you’re doing ok.

I’d love to do a lot of bit parts like that, just to get my face and name out there a bit. If I were to do a show, I’d rather it be an ensemble. I wouldn’t really wanna carry a show. Cool bit parts, stealing little moments on screen, that would be great. You gotta use your eyebrows, man… And I don’t know what to do with my hands cuz I’m used to holding a mic, so that’s why I had a drink in my hands the whole time.

I had an audition for a beer commercial, and they wanted me to talk like I do onstage. It’s not like what I do onstage is a total character, it’s an exaggeration of one part of my character, but they were showing me how to do my lines, and they were doing me better than I was. It’s a comfort issue. It took awhile to feel comfortable on stage, and it’s taking me time to get comfortable on a TV or movie set. Part of my downfall, perhaps, is that instead of concentrating on getting a show and having meetings with executives, I’m out there on the road.

Has any actor – comedic or otherwise – taken you aside and offered you any advice? Like “I like your stand-up, but you really gotta do it more like this if you wanna be an actor”?
No, not really, and ya know, I’d really listen to that. When comics give me advice on comedy, I’m really bullheaded. I was close to someone recently who does a lot of comedic acting, and I wanted to ask them some questions, but I was afraid to ask.

Steve Martin said comedy ain’t pretty, and from what I hear, comedians are really vicious, territorial, and competitive.
They’re scary to be around a lot of the time. We’re freaks by nature, loners. I think the best person to have take you under their wing would be a director. If a director liked what I did and brought me on the set and guided me through what he wanted, that’d be amazing. I got a part on That ’70s Show because the guy who created it liked what I did and created a part for me.

I had a movie in Sundance, and it was rough to watch myself on screen. It was a comedy and it didn’t get a lot of laughs… I didn’t get into stand-up to be an actor, but it’s a parallel universe I want to explore.

Tell me about comedy festivals and comedy tours.
It’s a lot easier than touring as a band, because I don’t have a lot of equipment, just myself.

But someone in a band has the other band members to cover for them or divert attention if they’re having an off night. When you’re bombing, all eyes are on you…
Yeah, there’ve been a few times when I sure wished there were some other people on stage to take some of the heat off me… When I turn around, there’s just a wall, it’s just me up there.

What are comedy tours like?
They’re very rare, actually. The one I did with Lewis Black and Dave Attell was a rare exception. Unless it’s a theater tour like that, a club tour is going around, hooking up with different comedians different nights in different places. They can’t even hook it up so we travel together, so we’re all out there on the road by ourselves, just to make it that much lonelier. But you’re at a club for a few nights, and everyone who works there is into comedy, so you have people to hang out with for a few days.

I liked the Comedy Central tour cuz it was touring like rock bands do: One city, one show, later… No repercussions the next day. Not a lot of comics can fill a theater, so that’s why those tours are kinda rare. You need a theme, like the Blue Collar Tour with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy.

I’m going on a theater tour in the Fall with Steven Lynch. He plays a guitar and sings and stuff and is really funny. Usually, comics just play clubs with a much smaller seating capacity.

You put out your first CD yourself, and you made jokes that the only way to get it in stores was to walk in and leave it there, and now Comedy Central Records reissued that one and put out a new one, which comes with a DVD of a couple of your specials. I used to buy comedy albums – Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy – all the time. How do comedy records sell these days?
There used to be a lot more comics releasing albums back then. Some guys have DVDs, like Eddie Izzard, and Denis Leary and Jerry Seinfeld have CDs out, but the comedy section in stores is pretty pathetic. Comedy Central Records has been picking up a lot of comedy CDs now, including Crank Yankers, Dave Attell, and Jim Breur. My first album was Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy. I don’t mind watching comedy on TV or buying a CD, but to me, I like to hearing it live.

I think I’ve sold 75,000 copies of this CD, and I’m told that that’s pretty good these days. When I used to sell my own CD, I sold 15,000 copies over the course of four years. It was on my website and I sold it after shows. But Comedy Central Records says this CD will probably sell 100,000 records – hell, Chappelle sells a million – so yeah, I guess comedy records still sell ok.

Can you make a decent living by being a touring stand-up comic?
Yeah, it’s a great living. The money’s gone up over the years, and I can do pretty well. Better now, obviously, because I’ve been on TV a few times and people have seen me, so more people come out to my shows. If I keep getting little parts in TV shows and movies and keep getting comedy specials, I could probably keep doing stand up and make a good living. That kind of takes the sting out of not having a sitcom yet, ya know?