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Mitch Hedberg, 37, Dies; Offbeat Stand-Up Comedian

From News Services
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page B05

Mitch Hedberg, 37, a stand-up comedian who channeled his shyness into an act of offbeat musings, earning him a nationwide following and repeated appearances on the "Late Show with David Letterman," died March 30 in a hotel room in Livingston, N.J.

Pending the medical examiner's report, the cause of death appears to be a heart ailment, said his mother, Mary Hedberg. She said that her son, who struggled with drugs and alcohol, was born with a heart defect and frequently was anxious about his condition.

Mitch Hedberg had recently completed a 44-city theater tour. He had a role in the movie "Almost Famous" and wrote and directed "Los Enchiladas!" (Mark Matson)

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Hedberg said speculation that her son's death was drug-related was gossip. "It's not a secret Mitch used drugs. Whether that played a role in his death or not, we don't know," she said.

Mr. Hedberg made jokes about his drug use a staple of his act. He took a hiatus from performing for several months after he was arrested in May 2003 in Austin for felony possession of heroin.

Mr. Hedberg recently had completed a 44-city tour and was between dates on the East Coast. With his wife and opening act, Lynn Shawcroft, he toured constantly, most at home with an itinerant comedian's lifestyle.

Mr. Hedberg delivered absurdist, random observations in a spacey staccato. His long, dirty blond hair harkened to the image of a 1970s stoner.

His beatnik approach to the life of a stand-up contributed to his popularity among younger comedy fans. His act married a timid, slacker drawl with jokes that understated the absurdities of life in a consumer culture. The jokes came one after the other, with no apparent segues.

"Rice is great when you're hungry and want 2,000 of something," went one joke.

"I tried to walk into a Target, but I missed," went another.

His rambling, non-sequitur style often drew comparisons to Steven Wright, but Mr. Hedberg disagreed.

"If I made potato chips and put them in a can, people would say I was ripping off Pringles," he said. "But what if I put them in a bag?"

When casting directors chose him for productions, such as the film "Almost Famous" in 2000, it was sometimes to take advantage of his retro-1970s look.

In 1999, after Mr. Hedberg drew raves at the Just for Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival, Time magazine suggested that he could become the next Jerry Seinfeld. Television deals followed, although Mr. Hedberg never got his own sitcom. He wrote and directed the feature film "Los Enchiladas!" in 1999.

Mr. Hedberg was born in St. Paul, Minn. He overcame stage fright to become a comedian after high school, when he was living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and working as a restaurant cook.

On the road doing low-paying gigs, he would sleep in the back of a pickup. Eventually, he moved to Seattle and became more established, although he still worked as a cook.

Besides his mother and his wife, he is survived by his father, Arnie, and two sisters.

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