Late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a bit in his act about the pressure that successful comics face to branch out in show business and apply their talents to other ventures:
When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, “Okay, you’re a stand-up comedian. Can you act? Can you write? Write us a script?” It’s as though if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, “All right, you’re a cook. Can you farm?”
Though stand-up was always Hedberg’s bread and butter, he did a fair amount of film and television acting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, often playing characters who were very much like his soft-spoken, almost drowsy onstage persona. His guest-starring role as a slightly disgruntled counterman on That ’70s Show allowed Hedberg to return to his roots in the food service industry. Moreover, the show’s backwards-looking, Carter-era milieu perfectly suited the comedian’s retro fashion style.
Along similarly nostalgic lines, hidden behind his signature shades, Hedberg appeared in a colorful peripheral role as The Eagles’ shaggy-haired road manager in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical, ‘70s-set comedy/drama Almost Famous. Among Hedberg’s duties in the film is presiding over “the road manager poker party.” One gets the sense that the comedian arrived at the set already well into character.
Hedberg’s instantly recognizable voice and unique speech cadences also landed him some work in animation. In 1999, for instance, he was able to book a late morning session with Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, during which he reflected on his various career choices: “I used to be a hot tar roofer. Yeah, I remember that… day.” He also enlightens the ever-nodding doctor with his droll take on cell phones, foosball, and Kinko’s. It’s interesting to note here how Hedberg’s mumbling delivery momentarily causes problems with Laura, the receptionist (voiced by Laura Silverman).
That same year, Hedberg also landed a recurring role on Home Movies as a preternaturally cool fifth grader, conveniently named Mitch. Though this character was not drawn to resemble the real-life Hedberg, as was the case on Dr. Katz, the comedian’s personality is unmistakable here. This fifth grader wears a permanent stoner smile and seems to have made a career of slouching. Very much unlike series protagonist Brendon, Mitch never stresses out, even when scheming against a romantic rival.
Perhaps the best onscreen encapsulation of Hedberg’s life and career, however, is 1999’s Los Enchiladas!, an obscure, low-budget, low-fi comedy in the Clerks vein for which he handled writing, directing, and acting responsibilities. Centering around a sketchy, badly run Mexican restaurant in the Twin Cities, where Hedberg’s migratory, free-and-easy character labors distractedly in the kitchen, the film clearly draws from the comedian’s real-life experiences. He talked about his past in a 2004 interview with The A.V. Club:
The first major thing [I did for a living]? Restaurant work, of course. Whatever I could get my hands on. I tried a couple of other things, but kitchen work was the best for me, because I took to a nomadic lifestyle before I started doing comedy. If you travel and get to a town and need a job, restaurants are always there. Kitchen work, man.
The film’s cast includes amusing performances by comedians Dave Attell (as the restaurant’s dirtbag manager), Marc Maron (as a pretentious menu writer), and Todd Barry (as a very understanding motel manager). The calm center of the film is Hedberg himself, as a man who prides himself on moving from town to town and never staying with any job or any woman for too long. The script for Los Enchiladas! gives the comedian numerous opportunities to make his characteristic observations, such as this Hedberg-style zen koan: “Playing frisbee ain’t about making a living. It’s just about living.”