When you think of legendary stand-up comedians, names like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce and Chris Rock come to mind. But how many of us could recite one of their jokes on the spot?
Best known for his bizarre nonsequiturs, superb one- liners, awkward stage presence, unconventional delivery and (ab)use of recreational drugs, Mitch Hedberg is arguably one of the most original comics the world has ever known. Even without ever quite reaching a mainstream audience, he continues to have a devoted fan base almost seven years after his tragic, untimely death.
As proof, more than a dozen local artists have come together to transform Hedberg’s comedic brilliance into actual works of art.
“I think the thing that makes Mitch a great subject for artwork is that his one-liner jokes are visual in nature,” explains participating artist Adam Fergurson. “You actually can see what he’s talking about in your mind’s eye and that’s really what makes his brand of humor funny and unique.”
The exhibit, simply titled I Love Mitch Hedberg, will be unveiled on Saturday during what is sure to be a rather epic tribute event and comedy showcase. A lineup of comics from around the area have been invited to perform, including Phil Porter, who actually once shared a bill with Hedberg. There will also be a video presentation, unreleased footage of Hedberg from back in the day and a special appearance by his widow, Lynn Shawcroft, who helped organize the exhibit, along with friend Gavin Hecker, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art.
Though perhaps not surprising, many of the artists note that the comic’s strange and rather varied material allowed them to hone creative juices they wouldn’t normally utilize. “Mitch Hedberg makes you think differently about the world while making you laugh, which is something to celebrate,” says Sophie Strachan, a participating mixed-media artist whose work will also be on display.
For the show, Strachan designed a poster making a subtle reference to one of her favorite Hedberg quips: “On a traffic light, green means go and yellow means yield, but on a banana it’s just the opposite. Green means hold on, yellow means go ahead, and red means where did you get that banana?”
“Before this joke, the connection between a traffic light and a banana would not have occurred to me,” Strachan says. “Sometimes life needs absurdity and Hedberg gave us that.”
Fellow exhibiting artist Dana Osburn opted to probe even deeper into this absurdity with an animation featuring an Oprah Winfrey puppet enacting various lines from Hedberg’s standup.
“Hedberg, for me, represents everything that is so distinctively indistinct about the ’90s and early 2000s,” she says.
On the event’s Facebook page, Shawcroft recently wrote: “I believe Mitch’s legacy is his art—his beautiful words and jokes. I also hope that his legacy is to inspire art.”
In many ways, the exhibit can be considered a tribute to all comedians who, more often than not, go under appreciated as artists and performers, both alive and in death. ■
Opens Sat., Oct. 1, 7pm. Free. Through Fri., Oct. 21. Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, 531 N. 12th St. 267.519.9651. philamoca.org