• Mitch Hedberg jokes still inspiring

    Mitch Hedberg

    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
    , 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.


    11 thoughts on “Mitch Hedberg jokes still inspiring

    • July 26, 2014 at 1:12 am

      Wasn’t steven weight a 10 year veteran before hedberg entered the scene? I agree all are very similar but the timing seems off. Even demitri wrote conans late show monologs as early as 2000.

    • October 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm


    • November 21, 2009 at 3:56 pm

      I live in a studio apartment with my girlfriend.
      In a studio apartment there is no There, only Here.
      Im mad at you, im going over there on the couch. Sorry you are still here!

    • August 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm

      “See I think it’s great how sometimes two things can happen at the same time, like how your snarky remark doubled as a golden opportunity for my shameless self-promotion?”

      Every comment is clever when you are the author.

      Honestly though, I enjoyed the article. Although some of Hedberg’s jokes can make me smile, for the most part I thought he was an unfunny heroin addict. I could not imagine paying to see Hedberg perform or listening to an album, but the analysis of individual jokes amuses me to no end. If you have more than a passing interest in the topic, Freud has an early book-length work on the subject of jokes (novel in academia, which has tended to concentrate on ‘the comic’ rather than the construction of jokes).

    • May 25, 2009 at 12:26 pm

      I don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive. Speaking of which, you can see my Joke Every Day project where I wrote, recorded and posted a joke video up on youtube every day for a year at http://youtube.com/mikeblejer.

      See I think it’s great how sometimes two things can happen at the same time, like how your snarky remark doubled as a golden opportunity for my shameless self-promotion?

    • May 20, 2009 at 11:24 pm

      Maybe, you should spend some more time writing jokes and less time analyzing great comics.

    • May 19, 2009 at 1:02 pm

      I like when comedians use a Mitch-esque joke, it keeps his style of humor alive.

    • May 18, 2009 at 6:05 pm

      It’s probably gauche to reply on your own article, but thanks.

      If you’re interested, my website http://mikecomedy.com has other analytical articles in the “Not Funny Blog” section.

    • May 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm

      very thought provoking. great analysis. good job!

    • May 18, 2009 at 12:29 pm

      “So if you’re a comic and you’re copying Mitch, don’t stop, just maybe dig a little deeper.”

      Or get better at math.

      Dude, seriously this was awesome. Really, really intriguing. I’m pissed I didn’t think of it.

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