I had the chance to chat with Mike DeStefano recently and was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his sudden death. He was very driven and talented and though his humor was rather dark, he was always warm. This particular interview took place on the stoop of the Comedy Cellar. DeStefano was chain-smoking and downing espresso shots, throughout. His sobriety inspired and helped many of his beloved fans and other fellow comics.
Tell me about your earliest memories of doing stand-up.
I began doing standup in ‘98 in Florida at The Comedy Corner. I happened to be living in Florida at the time, but I grew up in New York. I used to sit in coffee shops and be that guy with a notebook, jotting down notes and jokes. I went to a lot of open mics. It was all that mattered to me. I didn’t make friends with anybody. I didn’t give a fuck about bookers. I didn’t care about marketers. None of that.
When I met comics that were ahead of the game, I would ask them about writing material, their techniques, instead of asking for a spot. I wrote notes and then would go up onstage and try it. I rarely ran it by anybody.
Do you feel like you have arrived yet as a comic?
People will come up to me and say things like, “You should keep doing it!” as if I’m going to become a podiatrist or something. But hey, this is me. I am not in the same world as these other people. I made it to the top five at Last Comic Standing. It got me a little bit of a money. I got to finance another year of not having a day job. In the past I always liked my jobs for 3-6 months and then I just hated them. Working at a deli, driving a truck, drug counseling — it was so not freeing. Comedy is just freedom, pure freedom. The only censoring is within myself. Even when they [bookers] tell you that you can’t do certain material you still can — like in Last Comic Standing, they didnt approve a few things but they still aired them. I was told always told that I was too dark. And that was fine, I got that.
Do you think a comedian has to have had experienced pain in order to be respected among other comics?
I think great art comes from great suffering — I know it sounds fucking cliche but it’s true, for me. I never feel funny. No. I believe that people like my material but I don’t feel funny when I go through my material. There are plenty of peple who do not have a dark story and they are doing well. I personally find fucked up people funny. People who come from a dark place. Dave Attell is my favorite. He writes so much amazing stuff because it is equal to how much he hates himself. It proves how great he is. We all benefit from that.
Are you an emotional person?
Comedy is always emotional. I’m a very emotional guy. My stuff is emotional, viseral. Comedy for me is a process of expressing — and really healing myself.
Is it therepeutic for you?
Yes, but at the same time I always feel like there is no point of it, I don’t feel I have a point…
Do you think a joke ever expires?
Now that I am getting on TV more I have to be aware about writing new material. It’s good to have one joke that’s remembered because it gives you continunity. A lot of comics have brand new stuff — every single time. I purposely add repeated jokes.
Is there a subject matter you’d consider off-limits?
I don’t find bodily functions funny. Tonight I did a bit about fingering a girl and I felt uncomfortable — I was with a girl one time and she was kind of a big girl…she had a big vagina and I looked down and it was like I was feeding a whalrus. It’s kind of disgusting as I am repeating it.
You seem to like swearing a lot.
I don’t use foul language offstage. I’m polite in that way but onstage I let all out the darkness and anger and hatred and all that. I have a lot of hatred, but it’s not real. It’s always like, surface hatred, not deep hatred, but it’s hatred nonetheless.
So much hatred — but you only have eight minutes stagetime — that’s challenging!
Yes. Eventually I am going to talk about my past and things that happened as a kid but in a one man show. It’s emotionally draining — even to think about. I have good luck with material, so I just need to be patient with it…
Photo by Lera Loeb.
Jessica Pilot is a freelance writer based in NYC. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, and Penthouse, among others.