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Mitch Hedberg, 37; Comedian Was Known for His Offbeat Musings

Times Staff Writer

Mitch Hedberg, a stand-up comedian who channeled his shyness into an act of offbeat musings, earning him a nationwide following and repeated appearances on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” died Wednesday of apparent heart failure in a Livingston, N.J., hotel room. He was 37.

Hedberg’s occasional jokes about the drug culture suggested his own drug use (he was arrested two years ago in Texas on suspicion of heroin possession). But his mother, Mary, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in Hedberg’s native state that the comedian was born with a heart defect, terming speculation that his death was drug-related as “gossiping.”

Hedberg had recently completed a 44-city theater tour and was between dates on the East Coast. With his wife and opening act Lynn Shawcroft, Hedberg toured constantly, most at home with an itinerant comedian’s lifestyle.

The couple also took to touring by motor home, while Hedberg scribbled new jokes in his notebooks.

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It was his beatnik approach to the life of a stand-up that contributed to his popularity among younger comedy fans. His act married a timid, slacker drawl with jokes that understated the absurdities of life in a consumer culture. The jokes came one after the other, with no apparent segues.

“Rice is great when you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something,” went one joke.

“I tried to walk into a Target, but I missed,” went another.

“An escalator can never break. It can only become stairs.”

The style drew comparisons to Steven Wright, though Hedberg’s look -- stringy hair that often covered his eyes, thrift-store clothes -- was his own. When he was cast in productions, such as the film “Almost Famous” in 2000, it was sometimes to take advantage of his retro-1970s look.

In 1999, after Hedberg drew raves at the Just for Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival, Time magazine suggested that he could become the next Jerry Seinfeld. Television deals followed, though Hedberg never got his own sitcom. However, he did write and direct the feature film “Los Enchiladas!” in 1999.

His true place was onstage -- and on the road, where he built a big enough following that he could headline clubs, theaters and college auditoriums and sell his CDs. His purist devotion to stand-up earned him the admiration of peers.

“He had a unique delivery, almost Zen-like, and he was one of the most prolific writers I’ve met,” said comic Dave Attell, who performed in a Comedy Central-sponsored tour with Hedberg two years ago. “If you’re a comic and you’ve seen Mitch live, you always leave the club thinking, ‘I have to write more.’ His jokes were so simple and yet so complex, and to the heart of it.”

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Born in St. Paul, Minn., Hedberg overcame his stage fright to become a comedian after high school, when he was living in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and working as a cook at Applebee’s.

On the road doing low-paying gigs, Hedberg would sleep in the back of a pickup. Eventually he moved to Seattle and became more established, though he still worked as a cook.

In addition to his mother and his wife, he is survived by his father, Arnie, and two sisters, Wendy Brown and Angie Anderson.

Memorial services are being planned in New York and Los Angeles.

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