MARCH 9, 2011
I no longer use the term ‘friend’ lightly. I’ve learned over the past couple of years just how few friends I really have. The older you get you’re more likely to take people OFF that list rather than ADDING people to that list.
Outside of the guys you start comedy with, it’s a rarity to pick up new friends along the way. The solitary nature of what we do keeps us from forming real bonds with people. Unless you’re some big name arena act who travels with a set squad Every week you’re working with different comedians. No time to form a bond. The friends you had before you started comedy become cherished commodities.
Mike Destefano (Mike D) and I met briefly during auditions for ‘Last Comic Standing’ in New York. May 2010 I believe it was. The convo didn’t go much deeper than a handshake and the usual chit chat about our hometown comedy clubs. That was the last I saw of him for a couple of weeks because of the way they separated the semi-finalists. It wasn’t until we made the Final 10 that I got to interact with him for the first time.
Before our first rehearsal the ten of us had a one-hour meeting with the NBC Legal Department. Contracts were signed and the NBC Lawyers went over 10-15 pages of paperwork full of do’s and don’ts w/ regards to regards to sexual harassment, racism, tasteless jokes and media relations. The usual corporate America bullshit.
The NBC Lawyer begin to explain to us what we could and couldn’t do with regards to social media while promoting ourselves on the show to which Mike D. blurts out…
“If Any of you use twitter and Facebook to get votes you’re a fucking queer.”
The Lawyer was stunned. Mikey then continued…
“Oh, I’m not talking to you Roy…I know black people can’t afford computers.”
Had I known Mike then I would’ve realized the joke wasn’t about me or Facebook. It was about how uncomfortable he could make this upright stuffy ass lawyer chick feel. She had NO IDEA how to process what Mike was saying and it was hilarious.
On set, Mike was cordial and friendly w/ everyone but made it a point to not get too close to the other comics and he made no secrets about this either. Early mornings on set were spent in our trailers waiting to go to hair & make-up.
Most of us would congregate together and talk about the days issues. Mike D would casually stroll by, Marlboro hanging out his mouth. He always spoke but not too much beyond that… “If we’re friends, then when they kick you off this show it’ll make saying goodbye to you harder for me,” he said. “Defeating you is easier if I don’t like you.”
The show taped on Monday afternoon. So we rehearsed on Sundays around 2pm. It was at these rehearsals that you’d present your final jokes and wardrobe selections to show producers and also learn your stage marks. I’d wake up around 11am which gave me just enough time to jet to the mall with other comics who were also struggling to find the right outfit for that week. At the same time I’d be on the phone with my manger trying to decide what jokes to do. Anytime leftover before 2pm I spent alone in a parking deck going over my set.
One day we’re in the hotel lobby waiting for the van to pick us up and in walks Mike Destefano fresh off a fucking motorcycle. Had he spent all morning worrying about jokes, and clothes? Nope. Mikey D had rented a motorcycle and spent the morning riding in the California hills. The day before he was to appear on national television.
He did something while on that show that I didn’t do.
He enjoyed himself. He never took life too seriously and didn’t let things stress him out. I let the stress of being on TV every week keep me from enjoying the fact that…I was on TV every week.
Here’s proof of what I’m trying to say…
This is the clothing rack from the wardrobe dept. Separated by names. The hangers in front of each name tag represent the wardrobe options for that person for that week.
Notice the lack of hangars in front of Mike’s name tag…The man was in another world. He didn’t give a shit about a damn shirt.
The season finale’ was stressful. There was a great deal of nervous energy on set. We all wanted to win, I was more so just relieved that the mental pressure cooker was coming to an end. I almost didn’t care about the outcome anymore.
So the show starts, and the five of us walk out on stage and Myq Kaplan is the first to get eliminated. The procedure was for those NOT eliminated to walk off stage while the person eliminated got to stand w/ host Craig Robinson and say a few last words.
With the other guys I watched Kaplan say goodbye from a monitor backstage.It was heartfelt and full of thanks.
You could look at Mike D and tell he wanted no parts of that shit though.
A few commercial breaks later it’s time for the next elimination.
About 30 seconds from going on air Mike D turned to me and Tommy Johnagin and said
“If I get kicked off this show, I’m going to curse these people.” Johnagin and I all but dared him to do it. Sure enough…..
After the finale’, NBC sent the five of us on a 60-city tour that ran from Sept-Feb. Avoid a man all you want on a studio lot but when you’re cooped up on a tour bus for hours on end there’s no avoiding socializing. The hours of casual conversation during down time on tour adds up. It is then when you really get to know someone. We’d get to the venue about 90-minutes before show time. This picture is a pretty fair representation of our pre-show routine on tour.
(L to R)- Mike D & Tour Manager Dave Miller would raid the cheese and veggies before stepping out for a smoke. Kaplan and Johnagin would asses the choices of wine and the food spread. Tour bus driver “Dirty Dale” would dig in on the food and tell us road stories as I poked around on my laptop. Felipe meanwhile did inventory on his shirts and CDs before taking them out front to the merch table. He always made sure his merchandise was set before he kicked back to relax and eat some food.
So as you can see, backstage life was pretty boring. Not the life of groupies and drugs that one would imagine. In fact, pre-show was the last time you’d find all of these people in one room. Once the show started everyone went into their own separate corners. So anytime someone’s family came to a show we’d all gather ‘round and be cordial. It’s a nice change of pace. Mike D’s family was by far the most fun and enthusiastic.
I met some of them in Jersey, the rest in Arizona. At the Tempe, AZ show I met a gang of Mikes friends and family, among them a guy named “Nicky Balls”. Mike talked him up the entire bus ride to Tempe so I was anxious to see what this dude was all about. With a name like “Nicky Balls” I already knew this guy was going to be interesting.
Nicky’s persona was brighter than the lights in the room. What I found interesting was how he was able to bust Mike’s balls. The only person I’d seen do that. Somehow, I’d gotten a hold of some Crown Royal that week and was having trouble finishing off the bottle. Mike D & Felipe didn’t drink, Kaplan & Johnagin were sipping wine so I was desperate for a drinking partner.
Just my luck, Nicky Balls is a whisky man. We sat out on the patio with everyone and in between sips of Canadian whiskey and puffs of a cigarette, Nicky shared stories of growing up around the Bronx and what Mike D was like before he started comedy. Apparently they grew up around alot of mafioso types that eventually became big time wiseguys in various crime Familes in the city. Alot of Nicky’s stories ended with ”..Yeah he died. They killed him” or “…yeah he’s in jail now.” or ”yeah he was in jail…and then they killed him.”
My tales of $400 shoplifting sprees as a teenager couldn’t compare to that type of upbringing. LOL . He told us how Mike D was so much of a fuck up that the even the Italian Mafia passed on him. When you’re an Italian and Italians don’t want you…yeah.. you’re doing pretty bad.
But whether it was east coast fam or his peeps out in the desert, the one resonating theme through all of Mike’s family was how proud they were of him. Not because he got 4th place on some damn TV show. But because of the person he had become. I shared in this joy after I sat down and listened to Mike D’s interview w/ Comedian Mark Maron on his WTF Podcast
Mike is on Episode 130. Is segment starts around the 18:00 min mark.
Maron’s podcast is the closest thing to “Inside the Actor’s Studio” for comedians right now. His ability to dissect the psyche of his guests leads to far more revealing conversations than anything you’d see someone talk about on Leno or Letterman’s couch. Mike talked about his teenage years as a heroin addict. Which eventually lead to him contracting the HIV Virus. After he kicked his habit He became a drug counselor and used comedy in some of his presentations to others struggling with addiction. This snowballed into a career in comedy.
The amount of space Marc Maron gave Mike tell his story w/o having his words stepped on was great. For Mike to be able to tell his story without some shitty radio DJ interrupting him every 3 mins to do traffic or play a top 40 song led to some AMAZING stories of perseverance and triumphs that NBC cameras would’ve never captured. And even if they had, they would’ve fucked it up by running some pop-up ad at the bottom of the screen for ‘Chuck’ or ‘Law & Order’ .
The interview is a beyond amazing and Mike’s story about taking his dying wife on a final motorcycle ride before her death is a testament to how we should all be living our lives. He told that same story at the 2007 HBO Comedy & Arts Festival in Aspen. A beautiful story.
Knowing what I know now. It’s easy to see why Mike chose the bike ride over
walking around Macy’s looking for the “perfect shirt”. It’s the same reason he chose the beach walk in Corpus Christi. Enjoy Life.
D was nice to everyone. To a fault at times. We did a show in Portland and pre-show Mike brings these two white girls backstage. They’re all chatting it up. Fast forward an hour later. Mike gets off stage and isn’t feeling well so he walks right out the door and heads to the hotel. He told no one he was leaving. Not us…and more importantly..not the girls.
Intermission hits and these two white girls are back stage looking for Mike. Me and the guys make as much small talk as we can to keep them amused but after 5 mins we all go back our corners of isolation.
The silence and lack of attention weirded the girls out so they just got up and left.
The next morning on the bus I say to Mike, “Hey, why’d you abandon those two girls you met?”
He replies… “Oh They weren’t for me. I brought those two back there for you. I know brothers like to get themselves a white girl after they get a little money, so I figured I’d bring you a couple.”
I laughed. Mike Didn’t.
It was at this moment that it dawned on me that Mike was DEAD ASS SERIOUS. He assumed I wanted sex with white women and on that assumption he went out and tried to make that happen for me. Not once did he consult me first. He just figured that’s what I wanted to do. That’s how nice Mike Destefano was. Presumptive? Sure. But you have to admit, that act is above and beyond. LOL
He made those long ass rehearsal days go by quicker. Rehearsing was fucking boring. Period. No doubt it was important to a live-TV taping being done properly, but that didn’t make it any more interesting. Alot of waiting around. Host Craig Robinson worked on his lines, while tech guys played w/ lights & camera men rehearsed their shots. You could burn through a full charge of your cell phone in no time waiting to be called to set. Mike D still had a way of being lively through this stuff though.
To help us better understand the blocking of the show the studio had stand-ins for all the comics so that we could understand what we’de be doing during the actual taping.
For whatever reason NBC tried to pick stand-ins that were “ethnically” accurate. This didn’t go unnoticed by Mike D.
One week the stand in for Felipe Esparza (center) was a very stereotypical Mexican dude… right down to the construction boots. The neon shirt, the jeans. Though he was a well paid employee and made good money, it’s hard to argue that this man didn’t look like a day laborer. LOL!!!!
Mike clowned him for at least an hour straight. Mike leaned over and asked Felipe… “How many oranges are you and your cousin going to buy w/ the prize money?”
So the next week the producers found this dude that looks like a fucking Spanish sex symbol and made him stand-in for Felipe.
To which Mike D said. “Shit, he went from looking like an illegal alien to Enrique Iglesias.” He also said that my stand-in for this week looked like a gay UFC fighter. And don’t get me started on the guy standing in for Kaplan w/ the sweater tied around his waist. More “Vegan queer” jokes flowed.
Being in public with Mike Destefano was always an adventure. You always knew at some point during the day you’d end up apologizing to someone on his behalf. One day in Florida I think, we were outside a mall one day waiting for a cab to come pick us up . Lord help anyone that walked by us. A gorgeous cougar looking woman in her late 40s casually strolled into the mall. She made a brief glance and Mike immediately blurted out “Lady I’m in a relationship. Stop staring at me…geeesh!”
Probably the hardest laugh I had w/ Mike was near the back end of the tour. For whatever reason we were no longer on the tour bus and were now flying from city to city. One morning I overslept and the guys left for the airport without me. I scrambled to the airport in a cab and barely made the flight. When you’re the last person to board a plane everyone looks at you like you’re an asshole. You just shuffle down the aisle with your chin on your chest not wanting to make eye contact w/ anyone. When I get to my row. There’s Mike D.He’s sitting in the aisle seat blocking my path to the window sweat.
I politely say to him, “Hey I’m in the window can you move so I can get in”. To which Mike replies at the top of his lungs…
“I AINT SITTIN NEXT TO NO COLORED FELLA! IMMA NEED TO CHANGE SEATS”. And he hits the flight attendant call button.
Everyone who heard him say it stopped moving. The flight attendant froze. you could tell there was nothing in her training that taught her how to deal with a comment like that. What made it so funny is that Mike didn’t break character, he just stared at me. I stared back. Chuckles from Johnagin and Kaplan started a wave of laughs between the 4 of us and a race war was averted. You could feel the tension leave people’s lungs. As I looked around at them not too many were laughing. How miserable those people must be I now think to myself.
We didn’t have that kind of fun on set. That kind of horseplay only comes with someone you know….a friend maybe.
Over my 13 year career in comedy I spent more time in the past 9 months w/ my tour mates than any other comedian I’ve EVER worked with. It’s hard to not grow close to someone in that time frame. In this business it’s a gift to get to know someone on that level this far into your career. Outside of working on a film or television project I’d imagine this doesn’t happen too often.
The last time I saw Mike Destefano alive was the last night of Last Comic Standing Tour on Feb. 20, 2011. After the show the five of us plus tour manager Dave decided to hit a bar for some pizza in downtown Mobile, AL. Same as any other night we were discussing plans for our career after the tour.
Mike talked about finally being able to start on his one-man show. The 20-minutes he was given on the tour wasn’t enough time to adequately prepare his show the way he wanted to. He was working with this dude Patrick Milligan w/ Cringe Humor. http://www.cringehumor.net/ . I don’t know alot about Mikes relationships w/ people in New York but he seemed stoked that someone wanted to work with him on getting the hour done. Eugene Mirman was another name that came up often as well. We were all relieved to be done w/ 60 cities but no one more so than Mike I think.
There were no long hugs. No long goodbyes. Just a simple handshake and a “see ya around”.
The same as any other night. There were enough genuine moments between the two of us that I didn’t feel the need for a sappy elongated goodbye that night.
I wish I’d stayed. I wish I’d taken that proverbial “motorcycle ride” and just enjoyed the moment instead of rushing to the next fucking gig.
My friend Mike DeStefano died of a heart attack not too long after this photo was taken.
The man had overcome so much in his life and had even quit cigarettes by the end of the tour.
His only known addictions when I last saw him were Coffee, Comedy, and the word “Cunt”.
I knew him less than a year but learned more from him than any other comic I’ve ever come in contact with.
So much through observation on how to not only approach comedy…but how to approach life. How to be honest with people. But more importantly, how to be honest with yourself.
You were right Mike. It’s much harder to say goodbye to someone when you consider them your friend.
See ya round