Interview: Humorist/Journalist Peter Hyman

Filed Under Interview, Print, Stand-Up Comedy

Peter Hyman recently penned an article in the January issue of Spin (unfortunately NOT available online) which focused on the trend of stand-ups forsaking comedy clubs for touring more like indie-rock bands. The piece also revealed the circumstances behind Mitch Hedberg’s death last year, causing some of the late comic’s fans to complain about opening old wounds.

Along with authoring The Reluctant Metrosexual, a very funny collection of essays, Peter Hyman is a stand-up himself and host of a new talk show series at NYC’s Makor. The first installment starts tonight at 7PM and is entitled “A Laughing Matter: A Comedic State of the Union”, where the current comedy world will be discussed by humorist Andy Borowitz, stand-up Eugene Mirman and CBS Vice President of Development Lisa Leingang. Tickets are $12 in advance and are available here or call (212) 601-1000.

Peter and I recently corresponded over email about Mitch Hedberg, his Spin piece and, of course, tonight’s show.

The piece was originally conceived as a profile of Mitch Hedberg but changed into a piece on stand-ups preferring indie-rock style tours rather than comedy clubs. Do you feel the noise from the revelation of the circumstances behind Hedberg’s death would have been blunted if you could have done the fuller portrait you intended?

No.  I don’t think so.  If anything, a fuller profile might have provided more context for that revelation.  I’m not suggesting that in any way I would have deigned to try to determine why Hedberg did what he did.  There’s no way to ever know.  All that I saw fit to do was to factually state what I had learned from official sources, because I believe that there was an unanswered question regarding his death. A longer profile would have painted a fuller picture and the news might have, to some, seemed more fitting in such a piece.  However, I was not trying to make “noise” in any regard.  My intention, and my obligation, was to report the truth.  How that truth is received by any audience is beyond my control.  But, simply having some awareness that a certain segment of the audience might be upset by the revelation is not reason enough to avoid printing such facts.

In your blog you put a human face on your reporting on Mitch Hedberg, writing how you resisted using the word “overdose” to describe Hedberg’s death. You also say reporting the fact doesn’t have any value judgement on it. Have Mitch’s family, friends and fans recognized this distinction and your own conflicts about the story?

I’m not in a position to say how anybody feels or how this news impacts them, especially when it comes to his family. I do know that, based on the postings on his memorial site and the comments on my blog, some of the his fans feel that the news represents an intrusion of his and his family’s privacy.  Others have called it sensationalistic.  At a certain level I understand their anger, and I suppose I’m their easiest target.  Again, the writer cannot control how what he writes is interpreted by those who read it.  But, on balance, I feel it is always better to reveal the full truth and then let others decide how they deal with those truths.  I have no issue with his fan base being angry at me, and I do respect their passion, and their desire to protect Hedberg’s legacy.  To me his legacy is his work and his comedy, not how he died.  How he died is, like Doug Stanhope has said, simply a matter of trivia.  I suppose, however, I believed it was a trivia worth reporting on.  But in no way was I presenting a moral judgment or a prescription for how a life should be lived.

You mentioned in the article how others compare Mitch Hedberg to Kurt Cobain, but other than drug problems and an early death, I’m not sure I see many other parallels. Mitch Hedberg didn’t seem to be an artist in pain like Cobain, but rather playful and life-affirming. Do you believe the comparison is apt?

No, I don’t believe the comparison is apt at all, which is why I pointed out that, apart from certain surface similarities, they were very different.  Both had longish sandy blonde hair, for example, but that’s completely superficial.  In particular, I was indirectly referring to the long Entertainment Weekly piece that came out in August, which basically called Hedberg comedy’s Cobain.  As someone who works in the media, I understand the need to draw comparisons, but I also realize they are essentially hollow.  I drew a distinction because, as you say, their ‘art’ was so drastically different.  As I said my blog posting, and had said in an earlier draft of the piece, Hedberg seemed, if anything, to have a ‘life wish.’  His comedy, while exceptionally smart and thoughtful, was never dark or alienating.  He never did jokes that said ‘look how clever I am.’  He was, in many ways, a merry prankster of populism, accessible to Williamsburg hipsters as well as their grandparents living in Boca Raton.  Cobain, on the others hand, was a full of poetic angst.  Hedberg seemed to be a guy who lived life to the fullest, and who really loved what he was doing.  He was, by the accounts of those who knew him best, one of the most generous and kindhearted people to walk the earth. From what I was able to gather in interviews, what he loved most was touring with his wife, and doing comedy. 

You’ve performed stand-up yourself before, do you find comedy clubs less welcoming and enjoyable than alternative spaces? Do you think Comedy Clubs will adjust in response to their new venues?

Most of the performing I’ve done has been in so-called “alternative” spaces.  The few experiences I’ve had in comedy clubs have been mixed, but obviously it’s much easier for a comic who lives in the East Village to get up at Rififi or Mo Pitkins, in front of other people who live within a 15 block radius, and make fun of the Strokes or 30-something guys who still ride BMX bikes.  It’s a bit harder to do that at Yuck Yucks in Boise, which is more a knock on comedy clubs than it is on Boise.  There are people who want to a laugh at the Strokes in Boise, but they aren’t going to comedy clubs. That is Patton Oswalt’s philosophy for starting the Comedians of Comedy. 

From all of the people I spoke to in the piece, especially those seeking to take their comedy out of the clubs and into other venues, the club system can be somewhat stifling, simply because clubs shoot for that middle common denominator.  It’s the economics of the situation.  They want to please a suburban audience, in most cases, and they book comedy that will be appealing to a broad demographic. Also, most people who are going to a comedy club are going to see “comedy,” not a specific comic.  This means that they really don’t know what to expect, other than that they should be “entertained” while enjoying at least two overpriced drinks.  Compare that to music.  Most people don’t show up at Bowery Ballroom because they want to see “rock and roll,” they go to see a band they follow.  At the same time, I do think there is something to being able to make any audience laugh, and there are comics who can succeed in any venue.  Comedy clubs are great training grounds for this.  As for whether they will change— I don’t know.  Zach Galifiniakis said he didn’t think it would be long before comedy clubs were ripping their chairs and encouraging mosh pits, in an effort to make themselves seem “more rock and roll,” implying, of course, that such a move was purely commercial.

I’ve seen some take issue with a life in comedy equated with a lonely, sad existence. Do you believe the cliche is a bit more true than these people want to admit?

I cannot get into anybody’s head, and any effort to generalize about an entire profession or class of people is dangerous.  From doing stand up myself, I can tell you that it is a lonely and very singular endeavor.  And living the life of a working road comic is, at some level, lonely.  Some comics love the solitude, which is why they do it.  Others, I’m sure, are very sociable and gregarious, and find life on the road trying.  It’s hard to generalize, but any undertaking that has a person on the road 300 nights a year is bound to be somewhat lonely.  Rock stars complain about it all the time—just listen to any power ballad about the perils of the touring life.  Are salesman who travel the same amount each year lonely? Perhaps.  I guess the interesting follow up question is whether this loneliness, if it exists, somehow inspires comics to write, and to create.  I’d like to believe it does, but again, I’m not sure you can say that for every comic.

Can you give us a preview of your new talk show series at Makor and its first installment “A Laughing Matter: The Comedic State of the Union”?

Aside from perfecting cold fusion and creating a lasting peace in the Middle East, the talk show will seek to strike a middle ground between your run of the mill boring old panel discussion and the superbly funny but ultimately satirical take of, say, The Daily Show.  We’ll be exploring real topics, but in a way that is, hopefully, comedic and entertaining, kind of like Charlie Rose with a sense of humor.  The first installment will be an exploration of the current state of comedy, both in terms of the industry and the craft.  Also, there will be free Kosher wine at all the events, which is really the main selling point.

Again the information for the show tonight (Jan. 11th): 7 PM, Makor Center at 35 West 67th Street (btw CPW & Columbus) - Tickets are $12 in advance. Order here or call (212) 601-1000.

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