In the ether

The late Mitch Hedberg lives on in a new album.

PURPLE HAZE Hedberg's singular voice resounds through space and time.

PURPLE HAZE Hedberg's singular voice resounds through space and time.

Jack Vaughn remembers seeing Jackie Mason live at age seven. He started collecting comedy albums at 13, spent a significant chunk of the ’80s mesmerized by late-night comedy shows and then, in 2001, he caught a comic named Mitch Hedberg on an episode of Premium Blend. Floored, he immediately purchased the drawling, floppy-haired absurdist’s self-released CD. “I couldn’t believe there was something that funny that no one knew about,” Vaughn recalls. “So I put together a proposal to start a comedy record label and pitched it to Comedy Central.”

The labor of love was born nine months later. Now CCR, headed by Vaughn, offers more than 50 titles by roughly 30 comedians, and though the undertaking has never been primarily about numbers, Vaughn’s concerted efforts have translated into positive net profits for a remarkable 80 to 90 percent of releases. The label’s push helped Dane Cook appear at No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 with 2005’s Retaliation, earning it the distinction of being the highest comedy appearance on the chart since Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy. CCR has also offered invaluable validation and exposure for offbeat and nonhousehold names like Demetri Martin and Pleaseeasaur. Consequently, says Vaughn, “I’ve had the good fortune of signing almost everyone I’ve wanted.”

The latest release, however, brings Vaughn back to the beginning. It’s a live recording of cult hero Hedberg, who died in March 2005 of a drug overdase at age 37—and it’s the powerhouse label’s most anticipated project to date. Do You Believe in Gosh?, a phrase taken from one of Hedberg’s final journal entries, contains all-new material taped in January 2005 at the Improv in Ontario, California. “We just happened to record the shows, just for the fuck of it,” explains Hedberg’s widow and Gosh’s co-executive producer, comic Lynn Shawcroft. Hedberg was about a year away from recording a third CD when he passed, she says; as a result, the album is a loose, informal affair that fully captures the of-the-moment experience, warts and all.

“The best way I could describe it would be to call it a representation of Stage Three Mitch, with Stage One being the slower, drawlier delivery as heard on Strategic Grill Locations, and Stage Two being the more rapid-fire delivery of Mitch All Together,” Vaughn offers. “Stage Three is a happy middle ground.”

Jam-packed into 40 minutes are not only his signature off-kilter one-liners (“I got a vest. If I had my arms cut off, it would be a jacket,” and “That would be cool if you lived with a monster; you would never get hiccups”), but also some longer bits, loose premises (concerning riding in a cold-air balloon and trains serving as wake-up calls) and even one misfire (a joke about the Badlands), which Hedberg correctly evaluates as “fuckin’ dumb.” There’s also quite a bit of audience interaction; in a riotous track called “Phil,” Hedberg conducts an unusual Q&A with a boisterous patron.

Unlike a handful of existing bootlegs from his final year, Hedberg sounds fully in control on Gosh, his loping cadence rising to a high pitch as he describes a sheet as “a ghost that had passed out.” And it’s during the subdued, human moments—when he offhandedly chuckles, “Yeah, yeah,” or “I like it when people laugh for no reason”—that it truly hits home how deeply both the wholly original thought process and style and the vulnerable artist behind them will be missed.

“The new material was fantastic, and it would be criminal not to release it. What we absolutely will not do is put something out that’s substandard or a rehash of the past two CDs,” Vaughn promises of his and Shawcroft’s collaboration (a portion of proceeds will benefit the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted). “We both want the same thing: something that will stand as a representative final album and is as close to what Mitch was working on as possible.”

Even Shawcroft, who was plagued by doubt throughout the year-plus process, confirms that the album is already successful in at least one regard. “After I gave Jack the audio I was like, Oh no, why did I do this? What if I ruin Mitch’s legacy? Should I just walk away? And then we started editing and it started sounding good. Honestly, it’s the first phase of letting go.”

Do You Believe in Gosh? is available on Comedy Central Records Tue 9; local comics mark the date at Comix in Mitch Across America: One Nation Under Gosh.

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