I’m still reeling from the death of Robin Williams as I write this draft, so I guess my mind drifted to another comic we lost much too young: Mitch Hedberg.
For some reason, it took me awhile to appreciate Hedberg, but once I tuned in to his unique energy, like so many others, I was hooked. That man was a one-liner factory and a comic treasure: an utterly unique artist who was an expert in making people happy—and making them look at stuff they take for granted in new ways.
Hedberg was a master of questioning everyday things and finding or creating a story about them, usually an absurd one: “I wanted to buy a candleholder, but the store didn’t have one, so I got a cake.” I can never see a certain hotel without thinking of this joke: “I can’t tell you what hotel I’m staying at, but there are two trees involved.” Some of his jokes have a mathematical precision, like this one, which should be part of the kindergarten curriculum: “I like Kit Kats unless I’m with four or more people.” His comparisons are unforgettable: “Wearing a turtleneck is like being strangled by a really weak guy…all day.” We’ve all heard that alcoholism is a disease, but only Hedberg thought to notice: “…it’s the only disease that you can get yelled at for having.” That should be in the DSM-V.
Hedberg’s demeanor was half his charm, or maybe more than half. So many comics, especially male comics, take residence somewhere in the neighborhood of Asshole City. If you can sit through more than three male comedians at an open mic, your stamina surpasses mine. Hedberg, on the other hand, delivered his jokes with a smile and a bounce, like a hippie elf from Mars who is simply delighted with our weird world of candles and hotels and turtlenecks. When he said, “I got my hair highlighted because I thought some strands were more important than others,” it’s not a mean guy making fun of dumb hair treatments. It’s that hippie Martian elf celebrating the silliness of every damn thing we do.
Writing-wise, Hedberg is most like Steven Wright, who also has an unusual delivery, but one that is pitch black rather than tie-dyed. I wish we could pluck Hedberg out of the space-time continuum and ask him to deliver Wright’s jokes, then ask Wright to deliver Hedberg’s jokes. How much would hit and how much would miss? What would Wright’s gravel do to Hedberg’s lunacy? What would Hedberg’s gleam do to Wright’s lunacy? At the very least, someone should make a Hedberg/Wright comic book. Hey, Archie Andrews once teamed up with the Punisher, so why not?
Anyway, for Hedberg’s Best Joke Ever, I have to go with his escalator joke, which is:
“I like escalators, because an escalator can never break: it can only become stairs. There would never be an “Escalator temporarily out of order” sign, only an “Escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.”
The beauty of this joke is that it sticks with you forever, objectively making your life better. Once you’ve heard the joke, I defy you to see a broken escalator and not think of it. This is an accomplishment: to write and tell a joke that can get in people’s heads and cheer them up during one of life’s annoying little moments.
I’m far from the first to compare Hedberg’s jokes to Zen koans, but they really are similar in form, and they can serve a similar purpose. As I understand it, a koan is a meditation tool designed to get your mind out of a logical place and wake you up to the world around you. Hedberg’s jokes do the same: I feel like they make my brain work better. They pierce through my daily haze of annoyance with little nuggets of delight. I wish to hell Hedberg had resisted the drugs that killed him, but his jokes are like the best drug ever invented. Maybe laughter really is the best medicine.