In our continued effort to diversify our content, Terminal Laughter brings you a new weekly column, Great Laughs. Proceeding from the suggestion that nowadays it’s the stuff of pop culture (and the funny stuff especially) that binds us together, we’ll explore some piece of pop ephemera that packs repeat laughs. It could be a movie, a Simpsons episode, a comedy sketch, a stand-up bit, whatever. So remember: every Thursday (more-or-less), you’ll get a new Great Laughs column. And feel free to suggest your own, as the pickings will inevitably dwindle as weeks pass.
Mitch Hedberg’s Strategic Grill Locations (1999)
By: John Semley
“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 the fuck did you get that banana at?”
While I’ll admit to having no small soft spot for doped-out slacker comedy, Mitch Hedberg’s brand of stoner jiving has always struck me as being as hilarious as it is charming. While his later albums, Mitch All Together (2003) and the posthumous Do You Believe in Gosh? (2008) present a Hedberg who is noticeably more confident, having grown into a something of a cult comedy icon, Strategic Grill Locations has Hedberg at his most bashful. And it’s this uneasiness that makes his first album so funny.
Timidly stumbling over one-liners (“I’m against picketing but I don’t know how to show it”) and chasing punchlines that don’t go anywhere (“I play sports…no I don’t, what the fuck?”), the jokes on Strategic Grill Locations are perfectly unrefined. And considering that Hedberg’s reticent rise to stand-up semi-stardom was blighted by a bunch of college kids screaming out punchlines and effectively ruining Hedberg’s hazy comic timing, this rough sensibility works wonderfully to capture Hedberg’s characteristically nervous coolness.
Mitch Hedberg in Squigglevision.
Like the bulk of Hedberg’s humour, the jokes on Strategic Grill Locations are largely observational, but carry a last-second left-turn twist that unravels the whole “what’s the deal with….?” banality of a lot of contemporary stand-up. For example, he’ll moan about the obvious stuff, like the price of snacks in hotel minibars. But instead of just shaking his head at the price of Marriott-brand macadamia nuts, he calls a minibar “a machine that makes everything expensive,” and then entertains the idea of replacing the uniquely designed goods found in minibars, from individually wrapped cashews to Coke in a glass harmonica. Later, he ponders the ethics of passing over groups of diners on a restaurant waiting list when they do not present themselves: “If no one answers they go right onto the next name. ‘Bush, party of three. Bush, party of three.’ Yeah, but what happened to the Dufrenes? Nobody seems to give a shit. Who could eat at a time like this? The Dufrenes are in someone’s trunk right now with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry.”
Between these more carefully crafted bits are all the half-baked morsels that further endear Hedberg to his audience—“A guy told me he liked cherries, and I waited to see if he was going to say ‘tomato’ before I realized that he liked cherries just. Alright that joke’s ridiculous; it was like a carbon copy of the previous joke, with different elements.” Besides the repeated drawls of “alright,” Hedberg’s whole routine is punctuated the deep groove of a double bass, which further consolidates his surrealist stoner beat persona. He’s kind of like Lenny Bruce…except his jokes are less about racism than dimples and the differences between frogs and bears. And where Bruce comes off as dickheaded and self-important, Hedberg’s laid back smoke-‘em-if-ya-got-‘em attitude is just charismatic as all hell. So really, he’s nothing like Lenny Bruce, save for some vague slam-poet sensibility.
Even though Hedberg’s later albums showed the comic as more confident, and his jokes considerably tighter, it’s the lazy quality of Strategic Grill Locations that holds the thing together. As he grew more secure, Hedberg’s delivery became louder, more brash and worst of all, the sultry smooth flow of Chuck Savage’s bass is nowhere to be found. Plus, it’s pretty tough to beat a joke like: “This shirt is dry clean only. Which means it’s dirty.”