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Mitch Hedberg’s Minnesota: The people and places that shaped the iconic comic

Kim Thompson

Kim Thompson

On March 30, 2005, Minnesota-born standup Mitch Hedberg died at age 37.

While Hedberg wasn’t necessarily one of the best-known comedians on the scene, he was one of the most beloved. He had a knack for oddball observations on mundane things, and his concise style made him unendingly quotable.

"I like refried beans. That's why I want to try fried beans,” he told a crowd during one bit. “Maybe they're just as good, and we're wasting time."

“The thing that's depressing about tennis is no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall,” he joked another time.

Prior to his passing, Hedberg had shown up on multiple Comedy Central shows, performed 11 times on The Late Show with David Letterman, and had earned the respect of his fellow comics.

But before any of that happened, before he even dreamed of being a comedian, Hedberg was just a kid growing up on the east side of St. Paul. These origins are a big part of his story. But, since his death was the result of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, Hedberg’s legacy has been shaped greatly by the end of his life.

Mitch’s father, Arne, remembers being visited by magazines like Rolling Stone after his son’s death and realizing, “all they really wanted to zero in on was his drug use, and they didn’t want to know him as a person. They just wanted to dig into that stuff.”


With that in mind, here's a look at the local people, places, and experiences that turned Hedberg into such a funny, likeable guy.
 

Ames Elementary

“When I was a boy, I would lay in my twin-sized bed and wonder where my brother was.”—Mitch Hedberg

Mitch booking a gig in 1996

Mitch booking a gig in 1996 Tim Schlecht

“I met Mitch at Ames Elementary School on the first day of kindergarten,” says Tim Schlecht, Hedberg’s lifelong friend. “We sat right next to one another.”

Hedberg attended Ames, now closed, from kindergarten through sixth grade, where he was a pretty shy kid. “When you first met him, he’d be a little reserved,” says Schlecht.

Arne remembers this as well. “He was so extremely shy that it was almost awkward. If we took him to a family gathering—especially my family up in Duluth—my god, he was just stiff with fear.”

Angie, Mitch’s younger sister, notes that this shyness is common with Hedbergs. But with that shyness, “humor definitely runs in our family,” she adds. Humor wasn’t a perfect defense mechanism, though, and Mitch would occasionally act out in response to discomfort.

“I remember in the first grade I knew something was strange,” says Arne, recalling that Mitch didn’t like his teacher that year. “All of a sudden, he refused to go to school. I would have to actually put him over my shoulder and carry him up halfway to school and the teacher carried him the other half.”

When the teacher died unexpectedly that year, Mitch relaxed, and was able to go to school without a problem. Arne never learned what it was that upset Mitch so much.

During this time, Mitch developed an odd habit: He would recline in a chair, close his eyes, and rock his head back and forth. “[He did this] every single day for at least an hour,” says Arne. “He continued to do that his whole life. It was almost scary sometimes.”

White Bear Avenue and Seventh Street

“I wanna hang a map of the world in my house. Then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that 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. —Mitch Hedberg

In his earliest years, Mitch and his two sisters were raised by their parents, Arne and Mary, near the intersection of White Bear Avenue and Seventh Street on the east side of St. Paul. In Schlecht’s recollection, it was not an unusual childhood. “We were pretty strait-laced kids,” he says, recalling things like playing kickball with the other neighborhood children.

But it was in this house that Mitch began to show his comedy chops. As a child of the ’70s, Mitch came of age in the early days of Saturday Night Live and Second City TV. “We’d make up our own skits, and Arne and Mary would watch,” remembers Schlecht.

Mitch was also a fan of Steve Martin, and while he wasn’t outwardly trying to be a standup comic, his comedy skills quickly emerged. Schlecht remembers that some days, after school, they would be locked out of their houses while their parents were at work. Sitting on the Hedbergs’ screened-in porch, Mitch “started cracking jokes,” he says. “He’d be making fun of his sister, he’d be making fun of me.” Schlecht is quick to point out, however, that Mitch could be funny without being mean.

Schlecht, who was on the road with Hedberg when he actually gave standup comedy a shot in 1989, mentions the same thing about the beginning of Mitch’s comedy. “When he first started, he didn’t swear in those early days. Onstage he’s, ‘I don’t want to swear. I don’t want to talk about sex. I don’t want to talk about poop.’” The swearing may have changed, but Mitch’s ability to veer away from well-trod subjects became a major part of his appeal.

His sister Angie, who was born five years after Mitch, remembers her brother entertaining her while they were home alone. “He used to disappear under the front porch and then he’d come out with a fishbowl on his head,” she recalls. “He’d say, ‘Just imagine if I was born with this fishbowl on my head and I’m trying to get dates.’ It was so stupid, but it was just the beginning of him.”

It was clear that Mitch wanted more than to just entertain his family. Arne recalls finding a letter that Mitch wrote, but never sent, to a celebrity he liked when he was seven or eight. While Arne can’t recall who the letter was addressed to specifically, he does remember what his son wrote. “He said, ‘I love to sing, I love to dance, I love to do all this, but I’m stuck here in this home and my parents are so old-fashioned they won’t let me go.’”

Mitch in 1990

Mitch in 1990

That sense of being stuck started to define Mitch as he grew older.

Harding High School

“When I was 18, I was kind of sick of living here, so my friend Tim and I packed up his Volare. We moved from Minnesota to Florida. We wanted to move to Texas, but the front-end alignment was bad.” —Mitch Hedberg

“He was pretty much a model little boy up ’til about 12 years old. Until he started maturing, and then he went his own way,” his father remembers. In addition to growing out his now-iconic long hair around age 14, Mitch started to lose interest in doing what was expected of him.

“At that age we were all getting kind of bored,” says Schlecht.

At Harding, Arne recalls, Mitch “was pretty spotty at best. He either got an A or an F depending on what he was doing.” It was determined by his interest, “certain things he really loved and other things he didn’t even show up for.”

Arne remembers receiving a phone call from a school administrator asking him and Mary if they wanted Mitch to graduate. “I think they wanted to get rid of him,” he says.

Mitch with Jana Johnson

Mitch with Jana Johnson

His parents tried to intervene but, as Arne explains, it was hard. “If you gave him advice he said he’d do it and then he’d just go his own way because he didn’t like confrontation.”

Mitch is listed under “Camera Shy” in his junior yearbook, along with all the other students who didn’t get school pictures taken. And while most of his classmates submitted senior bios the next year, Mitch has a blank space next to his name. Instead, his most notable presence in the whole thing is in the senior class superlatives, where he’s doing a handstand in his class clown photo.

Schlecht saw the other side of it. The two had grown apart during their junior high years, but started to spend more time together in high school.

They tried starting a band, though they never got good enough to play any concerts. “He wanted to be a musician at that time,” says Schlecht. That’s where the long hair came from, and a lot of his money went into concert tickets or music equipment.

With the boredom also came the beginning of Mitch’s partying. Though it would change later, Mitch was actually among the cleaner of Schlecht’s friends. “I think that’s why I liked hanging out with him, because I wanted to get away from it,” says Schlecht. “He was kind of like my rock in a weird way, because he was stable. All my other friends, they just wanted to keep partying.” For Mitch, it wasn’t the goal, it was just a way to kill time until he could set off on his own.

In 1986, Mitch graduated from Harding. A few months later he, Schlecht, and another friend hit the road in hopes of becoming musicians. They never made it in the music world, but from then on out Mitch never returned to Minnesota for very long. Instead he moved from city to city, and drove across the country going from one comedy club to another.

Mitch regularly wrote to his parents. Sometimes the letters were brief. “There’s a postcard,” Arne says, “but all it says is, ‘I had some Indian food in Vancouver, it was great.’ So that’s enough to at least let you know where he is and what he’s doing.”

Mitch performing at Seattle’s Comedy Underground.

Mitch performing at Seattle’s Comedy Underground.

Then there are the absurd ones. One of Mitch’s most famous jokes recounts misspelling “really” as “rarely” and choosing to make the letter fit the mistake. According to Angie, the line, “I rarely drive steamboats, Dad,” actually was included in a letter Mitch sent home. As she recalls, “it was so hilarious. It made no sense in the letter at all.”

It’s clear that Mitch valued that connection with his parents. In one letter Arne has kept, Mitch says he’ll make his dad’s car payments if he shaves his mustache, much like when Arne offered to pay Mitch if he would cut his hair as a teenager. Mitch never took the deal, but he remembered it enough to joke about it with his father.

In another, he says he wishes his parents could be on the road with him.

In Schlecht’s eyes, this is a testament not just to his friend, but to Arne and Mary. “His parents, they were so great, they just made you want to stay in touch with them. He was close to his folks, and his folks were great to everybody—all of us.”

Chi-Chi’s

“A burrito is a sleeping bag for ground beef.” —Mitch Hedberg

In the years he was on the road, Mitch made ends meet by working in restaurant kitchens. “He never lasted long at those jobs, but he could always get them,” says Jana Johnson, his girlfriend through most of the ’90s.

Mitch working on Los Enchiladas with Doug Stanhope.

Mitch working on Los Enchiladas with Doug Stanhope.

He could get them because he’d built up experience working at Chi-Chi’s near the Maplewood Mall while in high school. Mitch was never a foodie, but Schlecht says that Mitch “loved Mexican food.”

Angie recalls that Mitch would smell strongly of Mexican food when he would return home at night, and the experiences he had at the restaurant would have enough of an impact on Mitch that they would become the basis of his lone feature film, Los Enchiladas.

The movie follows a group of restaurant employees and their sketchy bosses as they prepare for Cinco de Mayo.

According to Johnson, who starred in and co-produced the movie, Mitch “was always a Minnesota boy.” When they had the money to make the movie, she says, “there was no question that that’s where we were going to go.”

In fact, they were able to film at the same Chi-Chi’s that Mitch had worked at in high school. They had to shoot in the middle of the night so the restaurant could stay open during normal business hours. “The first night they sent the manager to stay there with us overnight,” remembers Johnson, “and the second night they just handed us the keys.”

Los Enchiladas never saw a wide release, but it did make it to the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.

Robert and Sixth Streets

“I got to act with Peter Frampton in a movie. We had to smoke pot for a scene, but it was fake pot. Do not buy pot on a movie set. But I got to smoke fake pot with Peter Frampton, that’s a cool story. It’s as cool as smoking real pot with a guy who looks like Peter Frampton. I’ve done that way more.” —Mitch Hedberg

While making Los Enchiladas , Mitch and other members of the crew rented an apartment on Robert and Sixth in downtown St. Paul. It was affordable, but it was a difficult experience.

“We were shooting overnight and then we would come back to sleep during the day,” says Johnson, “but they were building a parking lot next to us, and so the jackhammers would go on during the day. So we had wood over the windows, and I’m sure it wasn’t a very nice area, so we just fit right in.”

Living in squalor wasn’t new to Mitch. After leaving Minnesota, Schlecht recalls sneaking into hotel rooms between when occupants checked out and when the maid service started so they could shower, or spending a day doing hospital laundry for a measly paycheck. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make because he was committed to a life in entertainment.

One morning Schlecht, who was staying in the downtown apartment while he worked as the set photographer, was leaving to hang out with his brother when he was picked up by a police officer. He had been incorrectly identified as the perpetrator of a sex crime.

Later that day, Mitch bailed him out of jail. “He had a big heart, man,” he says. “There was a lot of small stuff that he would do for you.”

Angie agrees. Mitch would often buy her things she needed for her house, or extravagant gifts that she wouldn’t necessarily even want. “I always felt guilty about that, but he was just very generous, very giving.”

She remembers him being generous with strangers, too. “One time there were college students that were talking to him. They didn’t have an air conditioner, and they were telling him how hot it was. So he had an air conditioner delivered to them.”

Acme Comedy Co.

“As a comedian living in Hollywood, everyone wants me to do things besides comedy. ‘Can you act?’ ‘Write us a script!’ They want me to do things related to comedy, but not comedy. It’s as though I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said, ‘Okay, you’re a cook. Can you farm?’” —Mitch Hedberg

While his movie career never quite took off, Mitch found plenty of success as a comic. He returned again to the Twin Cities to record his most famous album, Mitch All Together, at Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis.

When Mitch would return to Minnesota for standup gigs, he would usually stay at home.

“There’s something that’s always going to be kind of small-town, no matter if you’re from St. Paul or Minneapolis, about being from Minnesota,” says Johnson. “It’s just a different mentality.”

He would even bring some comedian friends to meet his family. “Growing up, it was kind of cool,” Angie says, “because when he was performing a lot of times comedians would stay in the extra bedroom.”

In the years since his death, fellow comedians still visit the Hedbergs. “Kevin Hart shares my brother’s manager,” Angie explains. “He was very honored to meet my dad, which was an amazing thing: to have Kevin Hart honored to meet Mitch Hedberg’s dad.”

Roselawn Cemetery

“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.” —Mitch Hedberg

Though he died in New Jersey, Mitch was returned to Minnesota for his burial. His final resting place is Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville. His mother was buried next to him after her death in 2012.

At the funeral proceedings in the Twin Cities, it became clear just how many people had been touched by Mitch’s kindness and sense of humor over the years. “It was hard, because a lot of people came that we hadn’t seen in years,” remembers Angie.

His third grade teacher, Mrs. Finke, was one of the first people to arrive at his wake to pay respects. “She just loved my brother,” Angie says.

But it wasn’t just people who’d known him personally. “At the time we were handling Mitch’s T-shirt sales for him,” says Arne. “After he died, we looked on the internet, and there were thousands of orders for T-shirts—thousands! It took us weeks to [send them out].”

The corporate world had a presence, too. “Mitch used to be a voiceover for Jimmy John’s,” says Angie. “There was a very, very, very large bouquet from Jimmy John’s at his wake and everybody was like, ‘God, did he just really love Jimmy John’s, or what?’”

To this day, Mitch is beloved. But it’s still hard for people to believe that the oft-quoted comedian came from normal, humble beginnings in St. Paul. Angie still surprises people when she reveals her relation to him. “When [my co-workers] found out he was my brother nobody believed me. I had to literally pull up pictures, and everybody was stunned.”

Though he died at 37, Mitch Hedberg accomplished a lot in his short time on Earth. The love that so many people have for him—from those who knew him before he was famous to those who only know him through his jokes—will continue to live on.