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Comedy Review: Mitch Hedberg – ‘The Complete Vinyl Collection’ from Comedy Central

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One of the best things about my day job is that I get to work throughout the day with an earbud constantly in at least one ear. Occasionally there are days where two would be preferred, but as a manager I do occasionally have to acknowledge the existence of things outside my computer screen. Hence, I keep just the one ear free while the other is constantly listening to something – anything – to distract my brain from the anxiety it naturally gravitates towards.

For the most part, that “something” has been music – usually jazz or classical, which allows me to drift along on the mood and melody without having to concentrate too much – but more and more lately I find myself gravitating towards comedy. Fully aware that this contradicts what I just wrote about not having to concentrate, I think that’s part of the charm of listening to comedy at work: It allows me to listen to something and laugh as I work instead of perhaps wanting to break down into tears at the avalanche of deadlines that may or may not be falling down around me.

Comedians like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Lewis Black, Doug Stanhope or Richard Jeni can make the longest day fly by so quickly that you barely have time to register just how much work you’re being asked to do, as you just do it. There are other comedians whom I listen to, but those mentioned are the trusted “go to” listens when I know I’m going to be waist-deep in some graphic project that might seem a bit intimidating on the surface, because the wickedly smart and smartass wordplay will distract me just enough so that I stop worrying and just work.

There’s one comedian however whom I cannot listen to at work: Mitch Hedberg.

Mitch Hedberg’s humor is so smart and so funny that it doesn’t allow me to listen and at the same time get on with getting anything else accomplished – like work. When I’m listening to Mitch Hedberg that’s pretty much all I’m doing.

Mitch Hedberg is that damn funny.

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All of this I bring up because, thanks to its new release of Mitch Hedberg: The Complete Vinyl Collection, Comedy Central is trying to get me fired. It’s true! How else would you describe it when the network decides to release Hedberg’s entire discography on vinyl for the first time ever in a limited edition box set? Included in this set are:

  • 12-inch vinyl editions of all three original Comedy Central Records albums (four LPs): Strategic Grill Locations (double LP with bonus audio, 1999), Mitch All Together (2003), and Do You Believe in Gosh?” (2008).
  • a 36-page book with rare photos, stories by Mitch’s wife Lynn Shawcroft (Executive Producer on the box set), and original essays by Doug Stanhope, Mike Birbiglia and Margaret Cho.
  • a custom USB drive with MP3s of all three albums, never-before-heard recordings, an uncut presentation of Mitch’s 1999 “Comedy Central Presents” show, and more.

I ask you, is that fair? Did Comedy Central stop think what the end result would be concerning my work output, that it would be plummet drastically as I obsessively watched and listened to every minute of such a box set instead of focusing on the literal work at hand? THEY DID NOT!

Thank God for that.

By all appearances all they did was recognize that Mitch Hedberg was an incendiary talent who unfortunately flamed out MUCH too early and perhaps isn’t as appreciated as he should be. Having only three proper album releases (one posthumous, at that) Hedberg was a comedian more along the lines of Steven Wright (who had only two official releases, I Have a Pony in 1985 and 2007’s I Still Have a Pony) as opposed to someone like Patton Oswalt (who has released six albums between 2003 to 2014) when it comes to recorded output.

Hedberg had more in common with Wright in other ways than a limited discography, of course. Both comedians work in short observations that are often more pun than pontification – yet when you string all the little gems together they masterfully present you a complete comedy performance that leaves you wanting more.

Sadly, an overdose in 2005 took away the hope for more, but when you take a look at the work he managed to leave behind in the space of his way-too-short 37 years, Hedberg stands tall among standup comedians.

Let’s take a look – thanks to this box set from Comedy Central – at that work.

Recorded at the Laff Stop in Houston, Texas in September 1999, Strategic Grill Locations was Hedberg’s debut recording. As he himself notes in the opening, he’d been telling jokes for a while but now he was going to retell many of them so that they can go on the CD and be official. Much like his second album Mitch All Together, the name of the release comes from a joke, only on his debut the joke in question didn’t make the cut.

Here it is: “See I’m a dreamer, man, and when I was a cook I’d always work with people who weren’t dreamers. Like, I was cooking at this restaurant and I put a hot dog on the grill and my kitchen manager came over, and he said, ‘Mitch, put the hot dog up here, in the right hand corner of the grill, so in case you get a whole bunch of orders at once you have all this space available.’ See that’s how I knew he wasn’t a dreamer, ’cause the day I give up my dreams is the day I have strategic grill locations. A dreamer has a philosophy: The entire grill is hot.”

Hedberg’s quick wit and failed attempt at deadpan humor – he cracks himself up way too much to remain deadpan for long – allows him to mock himself and his jokes while apologizing to the audience for doing so and still be entertaining and funny as hell.

Hedberg’s second album Mitch All Together comes from a 2003 recording at the Acme Comedy Club in Minnesota. The album title, again, comes from a joke:

“You know how they call corn on the cob ‘corn on the cob,’ right? But that’s how it comes out of the ground, man. They should call that ‘corn.’ They should call every other version ‘corn off the cob.’ It’s not like if you cut off my arm you would call my arm ‘Mitch’ – but then reattach it and call it ‘Mitch all together.’”

Stylistically the album is a continuation of the delivery on his first album, but you can easily hear that he’s grown more confident – despite dealing with ever-increasing stage fright – in his comedy. Where you sense some indecisiveness in his debut album, he just plows ahead on this one with a skill that would (and should) leave lesser comedians scratching their head and wondering if they’re in the right vocation.

Hedberg would be a hard act to follow, I’d imagine.

Do You Believe in Gosh? was, sadly, Hedberg’s comedy doing just that, following after him as it was released three years after his death. It was recorded live in 2005 while he was trying out material that would eventually be released on an album that was never to come, and it’s obvious to fans of the previous two releases that this was not quite up to his usual standards. Instead of a seamless flow from one observation to another, this album gives us Hedberg in fits and starts as he tries to recover after a joke starts to fail.

As a proper comedy album it may not work as well as it should, but it’s a posthumous testament to the talent and natural funniness of Mitch Hedberg at the height of his career. It’s a lovely snapshot of what was and what could have been.

Since 2008, other than his too-few video specials, I thought that was the entire official recorded story of Mitch Hedberg. I was wrong. This box set gives us one more – well, two really, as it includes a digital version of a cassette tape recorded in 1995 of the two sets Hedberg did opening up for the Neville Brothers.

That’s because in addition to the vinyl versions of all three of Hedberg’s official releases, there’s a small card included with a flip-out USB connection. On this little plastic card are digital versions of all the albums plus the aforementioned cassette recordings as well as two video performances.

The cassette recordings are interesting as they provide another link in the evolutionary chain of Hedberg’s growth as a performer. Much like the obvious growth from the first album to the second, when you listen to him opening up for the Neville Brothers you can hear the promise of what’s to come. Sure he’s funny, and he’s still Mitch Hedberg, but he’s not quite “there” yet, if that makes any sense. Listening to these two short 20+ minute sets, though, you can close your eyes and hear a few tentative ad-libs that will eventually be honed into perfection on his official albums.

It’s like going back in time to grab a sneak-peek into a artist’s studio as he’s working on something that you know will be called a masterpiece eventually.

That’s what this box set is, by the way, a masterpiece. I’ve got some lovely box sets of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and they’re impressive and appropriately convey the level of talent contained within. But this set shines a vibrant light on a talent that was cast into the darkness way before its time.

I cannot recommend this box set enough. Please do yourself and your funny bone a favor and buy this if you have a record player. If you don’t, then buy one and THEN go out and buy this box set. Seriously.

Not for the holidays but for every day.

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