By Mike Blejer
To this day, Mitch Hedberg is one of the most imitated comedians around. If you’ve been to more than one open mic you’ve provably seen a comic copying his style of accented, percussive speaking; sometimes good, usually terrible. I know that for my part I’ve heard a lot of comics telling bizarre one-liners they must have thought sounded Hedbergian.
But what is usually missing is the strong underlying logic that Mitch employed when constructing his jokes. And while he certainly made it seem natural and off the cuff, almost all of Mitch’s jokes were founded on a solid logical foundation.
To look at one example, let’s take this joke of Mitch’s:
“Every Book is a children’s book, if the kid can read.” (Album: Mitch All
Together, Track: “Saved by the Buoyancy of Citrus,” Time in: 00:27)
It’s a great joke, and it certainly comes out in Mitch’s voice. But consider the following two jokes:
“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
(Steven Wright Live, Video, Time 9:00)
“Every fight is a food fight when you’re a cannibal.” — Demetri Martin
(Album: These are Jokes, Track: “The Remix,” Time in: 01:41)
These jokes all follow the same progression:
“Every X is a Y (where Y is a type of X) under condition Z”
For this to work, condition Z has to be something possible, but unexpected given the standard interpretation of phrase Y; essentially Z makes X a Y, but given a non-standard reading of Y. The frequency of Zs occurrence (and therefore how often X actually is a Y) varies, from fairly often (a kid can read), to hopefully not all that often (a cannibal), but this feature isn’t really significant for the joke to work.
Note that the Steven Wright joke seems to be different because it doesn’t have the same exact verbal structure, but every-where expresses the same concept as every distance, so the conceptual structure is the same. These kinds of underlying structural similarities are shared by a lot of comedians, it’s just most obvious when the comedian has a pared down style.
These logical relationships are the underlying units that make a joke work, in the same way that the relationships between different chords in a song make that song work. And in the same way that you can have many songs built on the same set of chords (e.g., “No Woman No Cry,” “Torn,” “With or Without You”) without them sounding the same, you can have many jokes that share the same underlying logical relationships and each one can have its own sound. Like most of us, Mitch also mirrored himself:
I don’t own a microwave oven, but I do have a clock that occasionally cooks shit.” “I don’t have a girlfriend, but I do know a girl who would get pissed off if she heard me say that.”
Now if you pair the same underlying structure with the same vocal style, the same subject matter, and the same outlook (and you’re not the same person) now that’s where you get into trouble. Though all three of thes comedians can be said to belong to a similar family of comedy, none live in the others’ shadow, because although their jokes bear a structural resemblance, each has his own unique voice, outlook, and domain of interest. So if you’re a comic and you’re copying Mitch, don’t stop, just maybe dig a little deeper.