Mitch Hedberg was supposed to be the next Seinfeld.
Before his rapid decline, Hedberg was arguably the best club comic of the last decade—an achievement that sounds, in our era of cross-promotion, something like "the best backup shortstop on my mom's slow-pitch softball team." But that was his real ambition. In interviews and in his act, he always insisted that stand-up was a self-sufficient art—he joked that the industry's drive to convert comics into actors and talk-show hosts was like saying to a chef: "Alright you're a cook. Can you farm?" Even at the height of his success he toured relentlessly, headlining four nights a week at smallish clubs and college campuses. He died, in fact, in a hotel room between shows.
Hedberg was an awful candidate for the next Seinfeld, not because he wasn't funny, but because his humor was so deeply rooted in stand-up. It was his native language; anything else would have been a clumsy adaptation. We're lucky, in a way, that he never crossed over. There's something sacred about the untranslatable (the Italians have a proverb: traduttore, traditore—"translator, traitor").
The "next Seinfeld" position is currently vacant, though there have been murmurs about, for instance, Arrested Development, and even about the recently canceled and deeply un-Seinfeldian series Committed. Success on the scale of Seinfeld is essentially beyond prediction, and it has nothing to do with stand-up comedy. Maybe Hedberg's death will mark the official end of the search.
Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video clips from Mitch All Together © Comedy Central.