Mitch Hedberg would’ve been the greatest tweeter of all time. His musings — the foggy ramblings of a campfire acid trip, the lizard-brain reflections during a groggy shower, the banal grievances and humiliations of civilian life — were perfectly tuned to the digital age. Hedberg’s rough drafts were his art; he never feared the stupidity of a bit, and he trusted that the audience in front of him had the same twisted inner monologue rattling around their own skulls. His best jokes were about 140 characters long, and they vibrate with an innate humanity — the inarticulable spirit world whispering in your ear — whenever you lay eyes on a broken-down escalator.
Hedberg would’ve been 52 today. I never watched his stand-up when he was alive. I believe I first caught his Comedy Central special — the famous one, from 1999 — as an honorific rerun shortly after he passed from an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 2005. That tragedy shattered the comedy community (Howard Stern famously eulogized him live on air), but personally, I never felt like I lost Hedberg. In many ways, he never left. The elements that made his work great have been fully internalized by the industry. You hear him in the alternative Comedy Death-Ray era of the mid 2000s, in madcap Eric Andre sketches, in Hannibal Buress, in Anthony Jeselnik, in every all-lowercase, no-punctuation thought that briefly passes through your brain before beaming out toward the satellites above. Hedberg permanently altered the syntax of stand-up comedy. He never even broke a sweat.
So here, listed from great to genius, are 21 of the greatest Mitch Hedberg jokes and one-liners of all time. Together, they serve as an excellent set in both 1999 or 2020. Or 2050. Or 1985. Hedberg is going to be relatable until the sun explodes. We should all be so lucky.
Hedberg had a way of telling jokes that lodge themselves deep in your cognitive conditioning. This one in particular will be with me for life. “I’ve got two Diet Cokes, in case one breaks down.” “I’ve got two hot dogs, in case one breaks down.” I’ve repeated that framework over and over again, to the point that I barely remember where it originally came from. Honestly, the best way we continue to pay tribute to Mitch is to recognize how many of his tics we’ve made our own.
Hedberg’s brand of humor wasn’t for everyone. Part of the fun was watching how he’d bask in the strange looks and confused, hair-ruffling anxiety that would occasionally meet him onstage. This line is my favorite example of that.
“I saw a commercial on late-night TV that said ‘Forget everything you know about slipcovers.’ So I did. It was a load off my mind. Then the commercial tried to sell slipcovers and I didn’t know what the hell they were.”
We’re gonna guess that Hedberg didn’t know a ton about slipcovers in the first place.
“I had a paper route when I was a little kid; I was a paperboy. I was supposed to go to 2,000 houses, or two dumpsters.”
In all likelihood, this joke is a perfect representation of Hedberg’s childhood.
“I want to hang a map of the world in my house. Then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations I’ve traveled to, but first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.”
I did the math: His best bet would be the Beaufort Sea off of Alaska and Wrangel Island northeast of mainland Russia.
“This CD is going to be in stores. The only way I could get my old CD in a store is if I would take one in and leave it.”
To Mitch’s posthumous relief, nobody has any CDs in stores in 2020.
This non-sequitur gets the archetypical Hedberg response: a delayed burn of laughter, as his audience slowly registers the depth of stupidity in the joke they just heard.
“I saw a commercial for an above-ground pool. It was 30 seconds long. You know why? Because that’s the maximum amount of time you can depict yourself having fun in an above-ground pool.”
Just like Norm Macdonald, sometimes Hedberg’s best punchlines were identical to the set-ups.
“Imagine being killed by a bow and arrow. That would suck. An arrow killed you? They would never solve the crime: ‘Look at that dead guy. Let’s go that way.’”
“Look at that dead guy, let’s go that way” would be an excellent Law & Order subtitle.
Mitch was always so open about his drug problems, which makes revisiting his work a strangely melancholy experience. Especially when the jokes are as good as this one.
“I’m staying in a hotel right now. There’s no 13th floor because of superstition. But come on man, the people on the 14th floor, you know what floor you’re really on.”
I hear Hedberg saying this whenever I step on an elevator. It’s totally ruined the psychological care of the fake 14th floor.
Hedberg mercifully missed the 2010s, where we began layering every square inch of our homes and bodies with information. He never did seem like an Apple Watch guy.
According to the nonprofit Freerice, it takes about 19,200 grains of rice to sufficiently feed one adult for a day. So 2,000 is actually a bit of a low-balling here.
“Whenever I walk, people try to hand me out flyers. When someone tries to hand me a flyer it’s kinda like they’re saying, ‘Here, you throw this away.’”
This is the joke that made my dad a diehard Mitch Hedberg fan. The one thing I can count on when the family is back together is him muttering, “Here, you throw this away” when a canvasser steps in his path.
“The commercial for Diet Dr. Pepper says it tastes just like regular Dr. Pepper. Well, then they fucked up!”
It was liberating hearing this bit as a kid after my parents purged all the full-sugar soda from the refrigerator in the garage. Hedberg was on my side.
Ten words that lead to a ten-second applause break. That’s vintage Hedberg.
Hedberg, naturally, spent most of his career onstage in a variety of extremely loose-fitting button-downs.
This is the “What are we?” talk atomized to two clauses.
“I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don’t need a receipt for a doughnut — I just give you the money, you give me the doughnut. End of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this.”
This remains one of Hedberg’s most well-known bits. The only difference is in 2020, you might get a text of a receipt for a doughnut.
This particular koan has become the Hedberg marquee joke. You can even get a T-shirt of Hedberg, in his usual amber sunglasses, taking an out-of-service escalator to heaven.
“I’m sick of following my dreams, man. I’m just going to ask them where they’re going, and hook up with them later.”
Mitch’s career seemed to play out exactly like this. Nobody seemed to work less at being funny.