SF Sketchfest: Mitch Hedberg Tribute
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
The San Francisco Sketchfest ended just last night, but we got a little bit of coverage from last Wednesday’s Mitch Hedberg Tribute courtesy of Ian Lendler, author of Alcoholica Esoterica.
It was an odd concept for a comedy festival show– a memorial concert. But then, nothing about Mitch Hedburg was too normal. He was the bastard child of Seinfeld and Stephen Wright. Observational, but with such a surreal take on the world that it qualified more as a personal viewpoint than a series of jokes.
The show was a series of home videos, footage of a half-hour set he did at a club in San Francisco a week before his first Letterman appearance, and his independent film, “Los Enchiladas,” all of which was narrated and explicated by his friend and comedian, Brian Malow, and his wife, Lynn Shawcroft.
The home videos and stand-up were absolutely fascinating. The video was of Mitch and Brian talking about his upcoming stint on Letterman, whereupon Mitch rattled something off the top of his head, “Your jokes are all great. It’s like a wizard gave you a magic pen that makes everything you write be funny.” Mitch then writes this down in his notebook. That night, we see him perform that joke on stage in San Fran. It bombs. Mitch tries it again later in the act. It bombs even more. Mitch ditches that bit of material.
And that’s what was utterly absorbing about the night. Not only did we see several instances of Mitch incorporating his random thoughts into the act, but we watched the process of him writing it, re-writing it and trying it out. Mitch gave off the lovable stoner vibe on stage, and lived it in real life, but if the footage showed anything it was that he took his craft damn seriously. Pen, notebook, staring at a page. He did this every day.
Anyone who knows their Hedburg knows him through his limited recorded acts– the Strategic Grill Locations album and his Comedy Central show. But the pre-Letterman show that we got to see last night was incredible. We watched a comedian have to win over a crowd who didn’t know who the hell he was and didn’t give a damn. It’s easy to tell jokes when a crowd of people have paid money to see you and are screaming your name. It’s hard when a roomful of sullen drunks in a comedy club is waiting to be impressed.
So Hedburg didn’t immediately launch into his jokes, he came out and presented the crowd with a concept: He was a dishwasher at the club. He won the contest to see who was the funniest dishwasher, so he got to do stand-up that night. Sample Joke: “Hey, you know when a whole pile of dishes comes all at once…that sucks.”
This immediately deconstructed the whole comedy-club observational-humor thing with one punch line. The audience was willing to work with him after that, and he moved into his regular act. (Another fascinating part of watching him perfect his jokes– his signature “Dufraine, Party of 2” joke was originally “Anderson, party of 2.” He just changed it on the fly and liked the sound of it.)
After a brief, funny and moving speech from his wife, Lynn Shawcroft, the crowd was treated to the first ever non-Sundance viewing of Hedburg’s self-written and directed 70-minute film, “Los Enchiladas,” about a Mexican restaurant in a mall in Minnesota. How was it? Well…
The basic review would be: crap. But that’s not quite right because anyone who’s seen an undergrad film from NYU know the vibe of Los Enchiladas– a lot of hipster attitude, a total lack of technical know-how, coupled with no plot or characters to move things along. But with that said, it really was worth watching. For instance, have you ever wondered what it would be like to hear everyone in a movie speak as if their dialogue was written by Mitch Hedburg? It was kind of cool, if a bit monotonous.
Fortunately, the inept moments leavened by a few brilliant scenes. For instance, Marc Maron appears as a menu-writer, who invites the restaurant chef out to a local bar to give a reading of his menu. And Hedburg displays a real talent for subtle, behavioral humor when he shows us the little interaction between couples discussing the menu options. This sounds totally lame in print, but it really came off as the best part of the movie, simply because it was humor derived from a real situation as opposed to goofy, overwrought characters and scenes that populate the basic indie comedy (like “Clerks”).
Just as a side-note, which really rattled Your Frog Abroad Correspondent (YFAC): A good deal of the host’s reminiscences about his life with Mitch revolved around their drug experiences. This is perfectly fine and fitting, considering it certainly seemed to play a large part in Mitch’s life. But what disturbed YFAC, who is by no means a prude about drug usage (ed’s note: no shit), was that the host and the crowd really treated this material in the college crowd “WHOOOO! DRUGS!” vein. Being high was treated as a proof of awesome-ness. And again, this certainly was in keeping with Mitch’s spirit…but was no one in the audience aware of the fact that we were here to commemorate a man who died from drug abuse?
YFAC did not need a “drugs are bad, m’kay?” speech. But to allow the crowd to cheer these moments without reminding them that, you know, the guy did kind of destroy himself with drugs seemed disingenuous.
Overall, this was an amazing night. To see lost footage of one of the great stand-ups of our time was worth the ticket alone. But to see the home videos of him the day before the show working on that night’s material was a revelation. Sadly, it was also a reminder that the only thing we have of him now is video and memories.
P.S. His mother got on stage and asked folks to please donate to the Mitch Hedburg Foundation which can be found at Mitch’s website. The family is donating the money to causes that were close to Mitch’s heart.
I’ve teased this before in the Blotter, but this footage sounds like the beginnings of a great documentary. Here’s hoping it makes it more places around the US.
For what it’s worth, I love Brian Malow. He was obviously close to Mitch and worked with him often, but never ever even considered exploiting the connection… unlike a name-shall-not-be-spoken comic I worked with whose credit on the club marquee was a quote by Mitch saying “very funny” and who spent a chunk of his act talking about touring with him, and was angling to use his mailing list—all within 6 months of his passing. As a comic, I understand wanting/needing to hook on to whatever can get you ahead, but it was wrong that this comic was riding a gravy train of someone who had just passed on. IMHO. That said, I’m thrilled that Malow - a classy, funny, thoughtful guy - got to host this event.