||[31 Mar 2005|08:45pm]
When I read this I felt a small piece of my world collapse.
Even family and close friends had a hard time understanding Mitch Hedberg, a St. Paul native who ran away from home and, despite living a scattershot life, became a runaway success as a standup comic.
Hedberg, whose space-case persona was as much part of his soul as it was his act, died early Wednesday morning in a New Jersey hotel room. He was 37. A medical examiner hasn't issued findings, but Hedberg's family is told he suffered a heart attack. His wife was with him.
After graduating from St. Paul's Harding High School, Hedberg rose through the local comedy ranks but made more of a splash on the road, catching his big break through a Comedy Central special. He became the Twin Cities' first breakout comedian of the 1990s.
He made several appearances on "Late Show With David Letterman" and Conan O'Brien's show, did more Comedy Central shows, produced two comedy CDs, was a favorite of Howard Stern and made cameo appearances in television and movies. His big dream, to have an HBO comedy special, was in the works.
Hedberg's one-liners, dished off in a spacey staccato, were based on absurdist, random observations. His long, dirty blond hair harked to the image of a 1970s stoner, and his success occurred in light of, in spite of and even because of his quarter-century affair with drugs and alcohol.
"I'd probably be living in Costa Rica, eating oranges on the beach, if I wasn't doing comedy," he told the Pioneer Press last September, just days before what would prove to be his last local performance, at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
Hedberg was a particular favorite with college-agers and twentysomethings. Word of his death prompted a flood of e-mail and phone calls to the Pioneer Press Thursday.
One e-mailer wrote: "I am so damn sad to hear this news. Just had to tell someone."
Another wrote: "I just can't, and don't, want to believe this is true. Entertainment surely lost a good man today!!!"
For Hedberg's parents, Mary and Arnold Hedberg of Maplewood, their son's life was often just as excruciating and puzzling as was his death. Hedberg had spent two days in jail and six more weeks in a hospital for incidents involving drugs, according to a Los Angeles Times story.
"There's no two ways about it — having a son in the entertainment industry is challenging," Mary Hedberg said by telephone Thursday.
She recalls being at work when her oldest daughter called in a panic to tell her Mitch had packed some brown paper bags and left home. Mary Hedberg couldn't get home in time to see him off or talk him out of it.
"That was heartbreaking for us, but he kept in contact with us. He called as soon as the car broke down," she said. "You know, it was like putting him through college, even though he wasn't at college. But when he got his first break, we were just so thrilled for him, because we wanted him to know he was OK, and to have that self-confidence that he could do what he wanted to do."
Louis Lee, owner of the Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, credits Hedberg, along with Lewis Black, for shaping a national resurgence in standup comedy.
"It's very difficult for one-liner comedians to get an audience going, but when Mitch worked here, you could see the kids call out the punchline," Lee said. "Mitch made the whole comedy community realize how important good writing is. It's a huge loss."
Hedberg was demonstrably thankful to his fans. Not long ago, a group of college students in Florida, speaking with Hedberg backstage after a show, mentioned how hot their dorm room was. Hedberg surprised them the next morning by showing up at the dorm with a new air conditioner.
"He had a heart of gold," his mother said. "He was a brilliant comic and a wonderful person".
Wow, he was amazing. 37. 37. unbelievable. If you don't know who he is, go buy his CD. Don't burn it, he's dead have a little respect.