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Comic Tragedy

The rise and fall of comedy's Kurt Cobain -- The rock & roll life and sudden death of Mitch Hedberg, an underappreciated stand-up genius

ILL-FATED FUNNYMAN Performing in Atlanta, 2003
Image credit: Mitch Hedberg: Robb D. Cohen/Retna
ILL-FATED FUNNYMAN Performing in Atlanta, 2003

Alcoholism is a disease. But it's, like, the only disease you can get yelled at for havin'. Damnit, Otto! You're an alcoholic! Damnit, Otto, you have LUPUS!

Sunday night, March 20, 2005. The last moments of the last show. Carolines comedy club in New York City was packed — table after table of devoted fans, jealous rivals, and even a few rock stars. All there to see him. The man on stage. And they were roaring.

Mitch Hedberg blinked into the ocean of applause and let slip a lopsided smile. The 37-year-old comic was crushing. After almost two decades in comedy, the former fry cook had all but been handed the deed to the most important stand-up joint in the country. So he grinned and ambled off the stage into the arms of his wife, Lynn Shawcroft. Later that night, with the crowd still swirling, the couple slipped out the door into the neon embrace of Times Square.

Over the next week, they went off the grid, moving from hotel to hotel, dodging phone calls from increasingly concerned family and friends. On Tuesday, March 29, nine days after the Carolines gig, they holed up in an upscale hotel in Livingston, N.J. Early the next afternoon, Lynn called her husband's publicist, who called his manager, who called his parents. One of the greatest comedians of a generation was dead.

My apartment is infested with koala bears. It's the cutest infestation ever. Way better than cockroaches. When I turn on the light, a bunch of koala bears scatter. And I don't want 'em to. I'm like, Hey! Hold on, fellas. Let me hold one of you. And feed you a leaf.

''Young comedians are always trying to ape someone else,'' says Conan O'Brien. ''Even when they're good you can always tell where their influence was. 'This guy is doing a Seinfeld with a twist.' 'That guy is doing Sam Kinison toned down a notch.' And then you see someone like Mitch, and it's like his brain was put in backwards.''

Hedberg's stage persona read ''stoner freak.'' He hid his face behind flowing hair and trademark amber sunglasses. He stared at the floor as he mumbled his lines. But he may have been the closest thing that contemporary stand-up had to a comic's comic — a man who was absolutely revered by his peers.

His stuff was absurdist. Observational. At once completely clean and totally twisted. Other artists would marvel at lines like ''I like rice. Rice is great when you're hungry and you want 2,000 of something.'' On the page, his humor might seem simple, even a little silly, but when delivered in his beat-poet voice it was like listening to a creature that had fallen to earth.

''I always asked people, 'How many times did you see him?' 'Once.' 'Once?' That was like seeing the Grateful Dead once,'' says Randy Kagan, a friend and fellow stand-up who frequently opened for Hedberg. ''You can't see the Dead once. You had to see 'em over and over again to get an idea. That was what Mitch was like to me.''

And to his fans. Few other comedians had as passionate a cult following. Everyone from college kids to Canadian grandmothers called themselves partisans, lining up for blocks to see his shows, buying both his albums, and gleefully going online to swap favorite sets. By the end, they would even anticipate his punchlines, shouting them out if Hedberg couldn't get them off fast enough. (''Didn't you hear of a dramatic pause?'' he'd complain whenever an overeager fan stepped on his jokes.)

George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, and Lewis Black were admirers. David Letterman had him on his show 10 times. There were dark rumors, sure, but no one wanted to believe that Mitch Hedberg was using heroin, a drug that could render him part of the grim lineage of Lenny Bruce and John Belushi. Not when the comedy was so warm and the guy delivering it was so nice.

''People would go, 'Mitch is going to die' and I was like, 'Oh, I don't know,''' says Mike Birbiglia, a Hedberg protégé who performed at one of the final shows at Carolines. ''He seemed to pull it off. He had this invincibility to him.''

Last week I helped my friend stay put. It's a lot easier than helping someone move. I just went over to his house and made sure he did not start to load s--- into a truck.

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