What All Writers Can Learn From Mitch Hedberg

When I first started performing stand up comedy, I emulated larger than life characters. I wanted to carry on full conversations alone on stage. I wanted to bounce off walls like Robin Williams or make an audience howl like a young Eddie Murphy. It didn’t work. I bombed, and bombed often.

I took improv classes at UCB to develop my acting skills, but teachers always gave me the same note:

“You’ve got the game down. You know how to play. But you need to have fun. You need to learn how to act and embrace the persona.”

There’s the rub. I’m not an actor. I’m a writer. I wanted to find someone to play that larger than life role on stage while I whispered jokes behind a curtain. That is, until I discovered Mitch.

Of course, I knew of Mitch Hedberg. I was first introduced to him through a friend’s CD of Do You Believe in Gosh? His surreal one-liner comedy is legendary. Anyone who went to college has turned on one of his routines late at night and listened to his “whoa dude” musings. He developed a cult following and, like too many legends, died young.

“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too”

When I say I discovered Mitch, I mean I discovered how he did it. Many believe he created a persona onstage, but, deep down, it was mostly him. He proved you could be yourself and still own the room. You could relax and let the writing speak for you.

And he wrote. A hell of a lot.

Mitch Hedberg’s widow, Lynn Shawcroft, released pages from his notebooks in 2013. He always carried a notebook. He once lost a notebook and offered a handful of money to a college kid to get it back. This was a man who was on the road 300 nights a year. With an audience who would yell out the punchlines of his jokes before he finished them, Mitch had to constantly write to stay ahead of the crowd. The example above is “free writing” — putting pen to page and writing whatever comes to your mind. It didn’t have to be great, it simply had to be. As Mitch wrote in the pages above, “…you have to keep it flowing. If you halt it, the wave will crash.”

Since finding Mitch’s method, I’ve written in my own notebook every day and discovered some great words hidden in those pages. On days where ideas aren’t flowing, I’ll listen to great comedians and transcribe. It doesn’t have to be a comedian, either. You could rewrite your favorite novel or play. You’ll find as you write, you start to feel the author’s cadence and style.

I learned a lot from Mitch. Here are just three of his lessons.

  1. Buy a nice pen and bring it everywhere.
“I bought a seven-dollar pen because I always lose pens and I got sick of not caring.”

This is your weapon. The world is a different place than even a decade ago when Mitch was still here. For one thing, we all have tiny computers in our pockets at all times. It’s easy to say that pens are obsolete — a notebook app will do.

But numerous studies say otherwise. A 2009 study from the University of Washington found that students who wrote essays with a pen not only wrote more, but also faster, in complete, well-thought out sentences.

More importantly, pens don’t have a Facebook app. There isn’t a button on your Uni-ball to start a YouTube video. Typing on your phone or laptop is a gateway to distractions. The minute you look away, the wave will crash.

So, the least you can do is spend a few dollars and get a nice pen that you won’t leave behind.

2. Don’t make excuses. Get creative.

“I wanted to buy a candle holder, but the store didn’t have one. So I got a cake.”

The treasure trove of Mitch Hedberg’s writing revealed that he didn’t only write in notebooks. He wrote on everything, wherever he was. When an idea came to him, he wrote it on napkins or coasters. He wrote it on the back of donut receipts.

Perhaps no one is paying you to write. Not yet. That means your life is busy and there are a million reasons why you could put it off. Don’t. If you want to be a great writer, the most important thing you can do is simply write. Give yourself constant reminders. Actively think of ideas on subway rides and during gym workouts.

If you don’t have paper, buy a cake and write on the box.

3. Don’t write what you think is popular. Write what you know.

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later.”

Everyone dreams of writing the next great novel or the joke that will bring about world peace. Chances are, you won’t. And you definitely won’t by listening too closely to the crowd. If you want to connect to an audience, the only way you can do it is by being yourself.

This was the most important lesson I learned from Mitch. The minute I stopped being someone I wasn’t is the minute I started getting laughs. Robin Williams was the kind of person who bounced off walls. I’m not, and Mitch wasn’t either.

Being yourself doesn’t mean you can’t write outlandish science fiction or stories about dragons. What it does mean is that, somewhere in that crazy world, you have to write your own stories. Maybe the dragon is having trouble getting a date. Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Steal it if you want. Just thank me in the dedication.

Stop following your dreams. You’ll never catch up. Instead, write what you know and you might find that you and your dreams end up in the same place anyway.

Mitch’s notebooks weren’t perfect. There wasn’t a mind altering joke on every page. But that’s what free writing is. It’s hundreds of odd thoughts that will generate one good joke. Your writing could be a hundred drab pages and one beautiful chapter. Here’s the thing — you won’t write that chapter without writing a hundred drab pages.

So write. Write often. Write every day. Mitch Hedberg is the reason that I used to write every day in my notebook.

I still do, but I used to, too.


Nick Jack Pappas is a storyteller, stand up, and screenwriter in New York City. He was chosen for the NBC Late Night Writers Workshop 2015 and works as the Content Manager on Comedywire.com. Follow him on Comedywire and he’ll probably follow you back.