Executive Privilege

"I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long."

It's often too simple to find the little ironies in the words of those who have left us. This past Thursday presented the comedic world with yet another tragedy - and a pause to reflect on the impact that Mitch Hedberg had on the stand-up scene.

Hedberg's death on Thursday afternoon was especially poignant to the students here at Carnegie Mellon. After all, it was only last Spring Carnival that he performed at Midway to a tent overflowing with the college demographic he was most in tune with. Hedberg was a hit immediately: his classic one-liner routine was already so popular that audience members knew bits by heart. He looked tired, and occasionally he stumbled. But few comedians today are as beloved as he was to this crowd, and his delivery was taken as part of the routine. As always, it was hilarious.

Although officially he died of heart failure, the rumors began circulating about Hedberg's death last Thursday afternoon - as fast as a speeding blog. It was no secret that he had been troubled by heroin addiction for years, and just two years ago he was arrested in Austin, Texas for felony possession. Even his mother, Mary Hedberg, said in interviews that his problem was known.
But last week in Livingston, New Jersey, when traveling between shows, gossip said that it had finally caught up with him.

I didn't want to believe what I had read, though; even Hedberg's own site still listed future show dates. It didn't hit me until late Thursday night, when an editor from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune called me in class to ask if he could run a photo I had taken of Hedberg from his Spring Carnival appearance for his obituary. Hedberg was from the St. Paul area; he ran away from home as a teen to pursue his career. Now a photo I had taken of him - the same photo that appears on the back of today's Pillbox section - was running in his hometown paper's obituary.

The year before 2004's Carnival - my freshman year - my roommate took me to the Waterfront one night to see my first Mitch Hedberg performance. I had watched the clips from his Comedy Central routines in the days beforehand, but standing in front of that brick wall on stage, he seemed all the more disarming. His delivery was reminiscent of the television stereotype 1970s stoner, and each one-liner met with a sharp burst of laughter from his audience. I was right in his hands.

But Hedberg never seemed to know that it was his audience. He stared down at the stage behind his shaggy, drooping hair and enormous pink aviators, often closing his eyes as he grinned nervously through delivery. He shuffled his feet; he mumbled asides like, "This show's goin' all right, I guess." It didn't matter that he had appeared on Letterman ten times and been called "the next Seinfeld" by Time magazine; like so many college students in the audiences he played for, Hedberg was always unsure of himself.

With the greatest talent often come the greatest demons. Although he poked fun at himself relentlessly - he often quipped, "I used to do drugs. I still do drugs. But I used to, too" - Hedberg's fame failed to infuse any confidence into his act.

In mid-March, after he called five nights in a row to cancel acts in Richmond, Virginia, I wonder if he realized his spiral. I only wish that those around him realized it as well.

"Alcoholism is a disease," Hedberg joked of addiction, "but it's the only one you can get yelled at for having. 'Goddamn it, Otto, you're an alcoholic.' 'Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus.' One of those two doesn't sound right." We were never yelling at you, Mitch; all we ever did was laugh.