The Death of Mitch Hedberg: An Attempt At Some Insights
In the issue of Spin magazine that came out this week, I have a piece entitled "alt comedy goes rock and roll." It's a trend story on the convergence of comedy and rock and roll, and it looks at a number of comics who embody this spirit. One comedian who did was the late, great Mitch Hedberg, who died on March 29, 2005, in a hotel room in Livingston, New Jersey (nearly all of the original obits had this wrong, reporting his death as being on March 30th, due to an initial discrepency over the time of death; some continue to misreport the facts; others have the story right).
The article I had originally intended to write was a profile on Hedberg, and an examination of his life and perplexing death. For a variety of reasons, that piece grew into the article that ran instead. But as a result of my initial reporting, I uncovered the autopsy and toxicology reports, which were completed in early May by the State of New Jersey. Under the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA), I filed a request for information with appropriate governmental agencies. Several weeks later I received the reports.
Sadly, they confirm what many suspected all along: That Hedberg died of "accidental" causes (as opposed to natural causes, as was originally reported). The cause of death was listed as "multiple drug toxicity," including cocaine and heroin. The autopsy is simply a statement of facts. It does not detail how or when or in what precise manner the items found in his bloodstream killed Hedberg. Nor do they account for how or in what capacity his heart condition (called peripheral pulmonary stenosis) may have impacted him, if at all. At least one doctor that I spoke to said the condition likely had nothing to do with it. Again, I am not making a claim either way. Nor do I know precisely what Hedberg was doing that night.
In fact, I was so resistent of making a judgment that at no point in the article is the word "overdose" used. That term has come via the Associated Press (and various others who picked up the AP story) coverage that picked up on my reporting.
As many of his friends and loved ones have said, how he died is less important than the fact that he was taken early, and that the loss is tragic. As a fan and an appreciator of his particular brand of genius, I agree with this. However, as a journalist reporting on a public figure, I do feel that the information reported in the article is both justified and relevant. I am sorry that the truth turned out to be what it did, especially for his family. I interviewed his parents for the original article, and they are kind, warm people. Sadly, Hedberg was planning to get help after the tour he was then on, according to what his mother told me. But taking a break proved difficult for him. As his fans well know, he toured non-stop, mainly because he wanted to constantly deliver for them. Like a spinning top, his existence seemed rooted in perpetual motion. Come to rest too long, and the laughter might stop.
Nearly everybody I spoke to about Hedberg suggested that he lived his life to the fullest, and was aware of the consequences of his actions. Despite what was clearly a dark habit, he seemed full of lightness and altruism, and tales of his generosity to fans and other comics are legion. Far from having any sort of death wish, he seemed instead to have a 'life wish.'
As many seemed to believe, he simply pushed life too far.
I do hope that the news does not serve as an "I told you so" for many who wanted to reduce Hedberg and his act to stoner babble (or whatever other stereotype people applied). That would be an unfortunate legacy for man who was so gifted, so unique and who, by all accounts of those I interviewed, was a truly kindhearted person (rare in everyday life; rarer still in the world of entertainment).
(We interrupt transit strike hysteria to bring you the following:)
In a few short days, Jews everywhere will look on with envy as the Gentile world celebrates Christmas. For although some experts contend that a rigid non-secular orthodoxy polarizes the various sects that make up this great nation, many of us in the Jewish faith secretly long to celebrate Christmas, and we embrace this holiday as our own. Some of us are even 'Yuletide Jews,' sneaking off to indulge in holiday festivities and other forms of jolliness behind closed doors. Why do we Jews love Christmas so much?
Christmas Is One Day, Not Eight: While the conventional wisdom among non-Jews suggests that the eight nights of Hanukkah yields a bigger bonanza of gifts, this has not proven itself out over time, as any Jew will tell you. In fact, the so-called 'eight night's theory' often works against the gift recipient, because gift givers can string together a series of cheap presents and feel they've been generous. It's quality, not quantity that counts. Moreover, the serial nature of Hanukkah requires interaction with relatives for a week's worth of evenings. Christmas celebrators can meet their familial obligations over an extended, egg nog-filled morning, with the freedom to be back home in time to watch reruns of Law & Order that afternoon.
Christmas Occurs on a Fixed Annual Date: Christmas may come only once a year, but at this point in time, most people know what that exact date will be. When will Hanukkah occur? It's easier to perfect cold fusion than it is to make this prediction. The festival of lights can fall anywhere between Labor Day and December 31, and it changes annually. For a Chosen people, we are remarkably indecisive on this issue. In fact we cannot even agree upon a spelling for our holiday.
Christmas Allows More Interaction With Nature: The Yuletide season brings a bonanza of oxygen-rich greenery: Enormous Douglas fir trees brimming with verdant life, wreaths woven of holly, mistletoe hung from every last doorway. Entering a home decorated for Christmas is like walking through a botanical garden. What do Jews get? A sparse Hanukkah bush, if we're lucky. And, as it turns out, most Jews avoid the lighted bushes altogether, remembering that our last experience such an object led to forty years of wandering through the desert. Even with the advent of iPods and bottled water, this is a destiny most Jews are not anxious to repeat.
Christmas Meals Are Not Entirely Potato-Based: Like Communism and the launch of new Coke, potato latkes are wonderful in theory. But after the first dozen or so, the heavy, flour-based fried objects begin to lose their appeal, and they are hell for anyone trying to follow Atkins. Yet, eat them we must. Sure, we get to dress latkes with all manner of topping, but this does not make for a well-balanced meal, despite the contention of certain Talmudic scholars that sour cream and apple sauce, when mixed together, constitute an as-yet unnamed sixth food group.
Christmas Is Recognized As An Actual Holiday: Despite the fact the we have been in business for nearly 6,000 years, the Jewish people have not been able to successfully convince human resource departments that Hanukkah is a legitimate holiday. For this reason, Jews who wish to observe in an environment free of PowerPoint presentations must use valuable vacation or personal time. This often requires groveling, the filing of paperwork and confusing discussions involving the term 'rollover days.' Christmas, on the other hand, is universally viewed as a national slack period of rest when only Scrooges and medical professionals would deign to toil in their respective workplaces.
Inside Baseball: Now Arrested Development Is Just Toying With Us. In A Good Way
The best line from tonight's (12/19/05) episode of Arrested Development involved a reference that, I would guess, none but small minority of the show's audience will catch. During the scene where Michael Bluth is recruiting a group of painters to help 'act' in an elaborate scheme to scare his father, one of the painters says "Fernando was in the Groundlings" to which Fernando replies, "just classes."
The line refers to the celebrated Los Angeles-based imrpov troupe whose alumni include Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow and Paul Ruebens (his Pee-Wee Herman character was created there). It's not the most obscure reference in the world, but it definitely has an inside comedy feel (particularly the "just classes" follow up). Unlike most shows on television, content to cast with the same old two dimensional sitcom actors, AD has recruited heavily from the hypertalented world of improv, particularly for the smaller roles. This 'risky' casting is but one of the aspects that make AD the best show on network television (for 3 more episodes, anyway).
It seems to me that the writers, aware that the thin ice they were on with FOX has now completely collapsed, are out to have as much fun as they can. The writing is as fresh and intelligent as ever, and Michell Hurwitz is not taking his foot off the accelerator.
As reported by Reuters today, word on the street is that Showtime may be the white knight that rides in to save Arrested Development from eradication. AD, in case you missed it, was recently cancelled by FOX. Given that it is the most innovative and well written show on network television, FOX's decision makes perfect sense, and shows how short sighted and risk averse television executives are as a species.
The fact that AD ended up on a network at all never really made sense. The possible move by Showtime would offer the Emmy-winning show both salvation and the freedom of a less restrictive environment. For Showtime, which has yet to produce anything that rivals HBO, the deal would make perfect sense, providing a crown jewel to sit alongside The L Word.
If all goes well, perhaps the Bluth family will live to see another season. Only one questions remains: Does anybody actually subscribe to Showtime?
The only potential upside to the cancellation would be that it might bring David Cross back to his beloved NYC more quickly, so that he can re-start/re-join Tinkle
Canada's Liberal party announced today that if it wins in the upcoming January 23rd national election, it will seek to ban all handguns. It goes without saying that this would be both an obscenely positive policy and a reform that is too progressive and intelligent to be passed here, in the land of the Right To Keep and Bear Arms.
It seems particularly fitting that this news comes on a day when the world mourns the death of John Lennon, shot dead 25 years ago this evening with a Charter Arms .38 (the photo above, courtesy of New York magazine, is the actual gun). The small service revolver is popular among law enforcement officials. Former security guard Mark David Chapman legally purchased the weapon for $197 at a Honolulu gun store several months before he flew to New York to kill his idol.
Would an outright ban on handguns have saved the life of John Lennon? It's impossible to determine. All that Canada's Liberal Party seems to be saying is that it's willing to give peace a chance.
Another Fine Mess: The NW Corner of 13th Street and 1st Avenue
The photo above is the view from my fire escape, just off the front parlor of my modest but comfortable East Village walkup apartment. The mess you are viewing has been there for six months, since the day the city condemned the decrepit brick building. Aside from the fact that the monstrous green wall is an eyesore and creates a dangerous, narrow walking path along First Avenue (exposing pedestrains to its heavy, truck laden traffic), it's been hell on the local establishments that were law abiding tenants of the property, until bricks began falling from the sky.
The two most vibrant of these were the Mee Noodle Shop (which was Allen Ginsberg's favorite Chinese restaurant--he reportdedly liked the steamed flounder in garlic sauce) and a closet of a take out place (or "cuchifrito") called "Spanish American Food" that served delicious, cheap "Spanish" food (though the family that ran it were Puerto Rican). A man could eat three squares there for less than $10 a day, and many a man (and woman) did, including scores of local cops, bus drivers, Con Ed workers and others employed by the City of New York.
Sadly, their yellow rice and black beans are now but a dream. Both restaurants have been forced out of business due to the larger structural issue facing this building. In a three block radius that has, in the last two years, seen the addition of a Dunkin' Donuts, a Blimpies (replacing one that had been at the corner of 14th and 1st for many years), a Subway and a Popeye's Fried Chicken, the loss of two local favorites is particularly meaningful. Nothing is sacred in the path of commercial, chain-based mallification, but the owners of this building owe a debt to these establishments for the harm this has done to their businesses, if not the larger loss of vibrancy to what was once a lovely corner.
At the very least, they ought to clean up the mess they've made.
I received an email today from a gentleman named Jon Dodd. Mr. Dodd, it seems, came across an article I wrote for New York magazine in May 2004, about the increase in taxi cab fares. It's a harmless enough piece-- mildly snarky, sure, but also factual and well reported. Or so I thought. Mr. Dodd seems to disagree.
His email was subject-lined "You are the most obnoxious person alive." This is certainly an achievement, though I'm not sure how scientific his survey was. I can think of at least three people more obnoxious than me, but two of them are dead. They are: the philandering King Henry VIII, Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin and Joey Buttafuoco
He went on to to offer the following choice excerpts:
how can you live after writing the things you've written? Some of the most inane drivel Ive ever read, and of course, you: probably the most vapid, insipid writer ever...Talk about trash... but its not so much the content so much as its your tone. This tone of obnoxious entitlement. To actually say Friends reflects life in NY, Jesus. Were you being ironic?... Goddamnit. Why are you so obnoxious? PLEASE answer me, PLEASE tell me, I would like to know what events in your life led you to be this way. I want to know for 2 reasons: sheer morbid fascination, and to actively avoid the choices you must have made.
I do feel badly that my writing offended Mr. Dodd to the point of using explicit language and forcing him to question the rationale for my existence. I offer no defense or excuse, and I do respect his criticism. I don't get very much hate mail, though he may well be correct. As for his query regarding my reference to 'Friends': I have no recollection of doing so in any piece of writing, though if I did, Mr. Dodd, then, yes, it was done with ironic intent (though, apparently, poor execution).
Hello. If you are reading this then you've stumbled onto the very first entry of Manufactured Dissent, a new blog written by a white male on a late model iBook, someplace in New York City. If you're a fan of linguistics (and who isn't), perhaps you're aware that the name of this blog is lifted from the title of a Noam Chomsky book called Manufacturing Consent. I prefer to think of my borrowing as a referential homage, but so be it. I am drunk with the power of the First Amendment and, dammit, I'm grabbing the reins of my inalienable right to free speech, starting today. If this means pissing off the admirable Prof. Chomsky, that is a price I will gladly pay. You, dear reader, are worth any indignation I might suffer.
As you are considering this blog, a fair question may enter your mind: Why does the World Wide Web need yet another electronic journal? Will this blog save the environment or spread peace to war-torn nations? Will it bring back dead loved ones? Will it serve and protect this great nation? Will it, in short, make life feel magical again? In all likelihood, it will not. But then again, that is beauty of a blog. One never knows. Other bloggers have received robust book deals despite a lack of "traditonal" journalistic/writerly experience (I'm not standing in judgment, really, so much as I am curious about the land grab). With that as a backdrop, why can't this one aspire to relieve the misery of mankind? With the right font choice and a cable modem, after all, can't we do anything we set our minds to?
I believe we can.
And with Manufactured Dissent, I hope to prove this. Tune back in daily (or every so often) for more ideas, more inquiry and, of course, a healthy dose of idiocy.
For now, I will leave you with this thought: Someday soon, the last person born before the invention of (and, more importantly, widespread dissemention of) television is going to pass away. What this means is that there will cease to be any living person who can recall the world before television. The same, of course, was true of fire, indoor plumbing and radio, so I'm not sure precisely why this notion frightens me, but it does. At the very least, it is something I do think about, though I've not yet figured out a way to write about it intelligently (as is obvious from this post). Certainly, Steven Johnson would disagree with my curmudgeonly view.