Mitch All Together
The news that Mitch Hedberg was going to headline this year's Carnival comedy performance meant anticipation was running high. In 2003, the similarly popular headliner Dave Attell performed to a massively overcrowded tent as students from all over Pittsburgh came to attend. Overcrowding issues meant that "there was a lot of discussion as to where to have the comedian," AB Chair Chris Smoak said. Organizers debated the virtues of various areas like the Midway tent and the CFA lawn, which could host a much larger crowd.
But the decision was made to host Hedberg at Midway because of a number of benefits, including cost and proximity to the rest of Carnival. "If we had had it on the CFA lawn, it would have looked too empty -- [and] we wanted it to be part of Carnival," he said.
Hosting Hedberg at Midway, however, posed problems of its own. At Attell's show last year, the Midway tent ended up hugely overcrowded -- to the point where students were sitting in the rows and crammed along the stage sides.
This year Student Activities tried to alleviate the predicament by issuing a limited number of wristbands which, Smoak said in a message posted on cmu.misc.market, would "allow us to track attendance and ensure a safe and exciting show for all who attend." The wristbands were also issued because the seating capacity underneath the tent itself was restricted. Five hundred were given out at the UC Info Desk starting on Thursday, April 8; 160 more were given on a first-come, first-serve basis at the entrance to the Midway tent at 8 pm the night of the show last Thursday.
Many students and alumni were angry that the wristband policy was not widely publicized. Although the policy was displayed on bright yellow posters across campus, some took issue with the fact that it was never posted on the official Carnival website. The policy also had no precedent at Carnival comedian events, making it difficult to foresee. Even with the extra 160 wristbands given at the door, hundreds of students did not receive one -- and several who were able to get wristbands were denied seats because they arrived after 8:40 pm.
However, the very nature of a show being held inside of an open-air tent meant that students were able to line its outskirts and still see the acts. Smoak said that, although there was only room for 660 students underneath the tent, "We estimate 1000 to 1200 people attended -- probably closer to 1200." Given such a large attendance, Carnival Committee Chair Michelle Birchak said it simply wasn't feasible to allow for a free-for-all due to safety and fire control constraints.
"Everyone [associated with the show] wanted the maximum amount of people possible to watch the show. However, safety concerns were the total motivation for limited access within the tent."
After such precautions were put into effect, the show itself went on to loud cheers. Both Hedberg and his opener, Lynn Shawcroft, did go slightly overboard in using self-deprecation during their sets: Shawcroft, who is also Hedberg's wife, referenced her lack of material in comparison to Hedberg twice, and made her frayed nerves painfully obvious. But she continued bravely. While she was largely spared the harsh crowd of last year's Carnival, a Friday performance the next night at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, was not so kind.
After being booed and ridiculed, Lehigh journalism student Patrick Fulton reported for their newspaper Brown & White that she caved to the pressure and exclaimed, "Fuck you! I'll get off, but Mitch isn't going to like you." At CMU, at least, Shawcroft's jokes about her Canadian origins and her thoughts of going into pornography "if the comedy thing didn't work out" sufficed until Hedberg took the stage several minutes later.
Mitch had performed last year at The Improv in the Waterfront district, and his demeanor was much the same this year: rarely making eye contact with the audience and letting his hair bob in front of his dark sunglasses, Hedberg sounded as if he embodied the Carnival stereotype of someone who had taken a few hits to "loosen up" before the show. He denied this early on in the set to loud laughs: "I don't smoke before [my performances]. That would be extra scary."
Afterwards, Hedberg launched into the rest of his routine: quite different from the traditional narrative form of stand-up comedy, Mitch's set consists of random, short jokes strung together with little to no segue. These abrupt topic switches are a key element to his performance, and its originality has landed him on shows such as David Letterman and Craig Kilborn. Audience members often yell for specific jokes: "Do the tents!" "Airport, man!"
In fact, at the Lehigh show on Friday night, one drunken student even went so far as to jump onstage and put his arm around Hedberg's shoulder to whisper what later turned out to be a request for Mitch's koala joke. Mitch had been closing his eyes, as he often does during his routine, and became "spooked," as he later described, dropping the mike abruptly. He then left after mumbling "Fuck this, I could have been injured," and did not return for 20 minutes.
Fulton, the Brown & White reporter who commented on the event, said that Hedberg apologized for overreacting when he came back to the stage: and in classic Hedberg style, proceeded to make jokes about it for the rest of the show.
The Carnegie Mellon students at Carnival were, thankfully, more respectful of their performer, and after both shows, Hedberg stuck around to talk to the students and sell CDs.