Trying to place Mike DeStefano in the present day has become both a pastime and an obsession for his fans.
“Mike would’ve hated social media,” said friend and fellow standup Roy Wood Jr. “He wasn’t crazy about it back in the day, and if people were going to hassle him about something he said at a show, they were going to have to find him in New York City and say it to his face. And trust me, Mike was a big dude. No one was going to say anything to his face.”
That’s partly because the Bronx-born comic, known his for lively, harshly profane sets, thrived on confrontation. Like Anthony Jeselnik or David Cross, the glee he felt in “walking” an offended audience member during a joke about sex, cancer, drugs, or racism rivaled the same buzz he got from joyful laughter. Unlike those comics, he seemed ready to scrap at any moment.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m really succeeding. I’m getting somewhere,’” said Lois Tierney, DeStefano’s girlfriend. “That’s the reaction he wanted and he was delighted by it.”
That was no small thing for the HIV-positive ex-heroin addict, who died of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 44. Despite performing at rehab centers (his first gig), prisons, colleges, and comedy clubs, DeStefano was best known for his 2010 appearances on Season 7 of Last Comic Standing, where his thick Noo Yawk accent, even thicker forearms, and casually imperious stage presence endeared him to a new group of fans just as the second standup boom was echoing nationally.
“I don’t learn from industry people. I don’t learn from bookers. I don’t learn from agents. They don’t teach us anything about our craft,” DeStefano said in an exit interview from the show, where he placed fourth. “In fact, when certain people don’t like you, it’s a compliment.”
Thanks to the attention and confidence from “Last Comic,” DeStefano decided to record a new album’s worth of material at Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis, February 24-26, 2011. He had just finished a sold-out run of his one-man show “Drugs, Disease and Death: A Comedy” at the Producer’s Club Theater in New York City. And he was planning to perform a retooled version under the new name “A Cherry Tree in the Bronx” a few days after that.
Then he died.
DeStefano only released one album during his life, OK Karma, which Stand Up! Records founder Dan Schlissel recorded and released on his Minneapolis-based label in 2010.
“I was introduced to Mike after being told about him a few times by Christopher Ritter, owner of the former Lakeshore Theater in Chicago,” said Schlissel, who won a Grammy for producing Lewis Black’s The Carnegie Hall Performance in 2007. “Mike immediately felt comfortable to me, like someone I would have known had I continued to be raised out east. I was instantaneously hit by his overall street smarts and what he had to say. It all clicked for me on a very immediate level.”
Releasing Puppies & Heroin, the follow-up album that Schlissel and DeStefano’s girlfriend Tierney painstakingly assembled from DeStefano’s final recorded sets, would prove much harder.
“The main part of the assembly was massively delayed due to a lack of me being able to hear Mike’s voice,” Schlissel said of the album, which he released on Sept. 30 and previewed on SiriusXM’s Raw Dog Comedy channel, with interviews about DeStefano from Rich Vos, Eugene Mirman, Robert Kelly, Bonnie McFarlane, and others.
“It was just too much for me emotionally for quite a bit of time – about two years,” Schlissel said.
What’s worse, DeStefano left zero guidance outside of what Schlissel had recorded at Acme in February 2011. DeStefano was very much the smiling but obstinate guy he seemed on stage, according to friends. He hardly ever wrote jokes down or made strategic plans, even when they would have benefited him.
“He might put a new bit into his phone when he got done performing, but notepads didn’t exist for him,” Tierney said. “It was the undisciplined mind of a person with an addiction. It’s what made him so colorful and interesting, but the only time I saw him writing was during the [2007-2008] writer’s strike.”
DeStefano worked hard at comedy, but only after he began recovering from an even harder adolescence and young adulthood. He started using heroin at age 15 and by his late 20s, his addict wife Fran had died of AIDS – a topic that figured prominently into his one-man show. He got sober at 31 and began working as a drug counselor in Florida, where he quickly realized it was impossible for him not to be funny.
“People would laugh when I would talk seriously about serious issues,” DeStefano said in a Feb. 4, 2011 blog post. “Even when I was doing AIDS education, people were hysterical. It was just natural for me.”
“Mike wasn’t hard on himself in the usual way,” said Tierney, an Irish native who works as a nurse. “Like any comic there’s a dark side to him, but he was hard on himself because he wanted his peers to recognize him. And then when they did, all of a sudden it didn’t matter to him anymore. He was onto the next thing.”
If DeStefano’s admirers get their way, the mainstream renown and critical respect DeStefano tasted just before his death will find him many times over in the afterlife – the same way it has for Patrice O’Neal or Greg Giraldo, two of his friends.
“I think Mike would have been upset that the album took this long, first and foremost,” said Schlissel, whose respected indie label has released dozens of albums from artists like Maria Bamford, Marc Maron, Doug Stanhope, and Patton Oswalt. “I also think he would have been massively thrilled that his fans, family and friends get to hear this.”
Encouragingly, DeStefano was cranking out jaw-dropping bits right up until the end. In “Minnesota Nice,” the opening track of Puppies & Heroin, he greets the audience like a grumpy hurricane: “What’s up there, you fuckin’ guys? Fuckin’ nice fuckin’ people. You’re so nice here. Everybody’s nice. Fuckin’ suck my balls… you’re all full of shit. I know you’re evil fucks, hiding. I’m waiting.”
DeStefano plays to the crowd expertly, mocking Minneapolis public transit, the Mall of America and local weather, but then pivots and turns the knives on himself, slaloming between cruel insults and verbal seppuku. It was (and is) a dare to not only the people who decry political correctness but anyone who misses the point of provocative, jarringly honest comedy in general.
It’s also not lacking in classically constructed one-liners: “Whenever I kill a Chinese person, I always feel like I wanna kill more in like 20 minutes, you know?” he spouts on “Race Relations,” to uproarious laughter. “Black dudes love me so much, sometimes I feel like a fat white girl.” And on the sanctity of life he adds: “You’re a blowjob that got out of hand. How’s that for special?”
DeStefano’s “justified hypochondria,” which Tierney said was only exacerbated by her job as a nurse, is eerily predictive on Puppies & Heroin.
“I can feel my heart,” DeStefano says from the Acme stage. “It’s going to explode any fucking minute. And I quit smoking so I don’t get a heart attack, but I’m going to get a heart attack from being a fat fuck. What I’m saying is, life is just a bad deal… you’re gonna get born, suffer and fucking die. Who’s in?”
DeStefano’s biggest fear was returning to where he had been. Not in the sense of relapsing on heroin, although that remains a constant specter for recovering addicts, but declining in health to the point that he would suffer a slow, painful death, Tierney said.
“He had this plan and all these instructions lined up for dying,” Tierney remembered, laughing at the irony of a man who hardly ever wrote down anything. “He spent so much of his life fearing it because he had seen so many people suffering. And yet, he hardly suffered at all.”
On March 6, 2011, DeStefano was with his mother. He felt a wave of panic and assumed he was having an anxiety attack. His mother said he didn’t look well and called an ambulance. By the time a paramedic had arrived and diagnosed him as having a heart attack, it was too late.
“He bent over and died right there,” Tierney said. “And then in the hospital they tried to work on him, but he never came back.”
DeStefano was known as a long-term non-progressor, which allowed him to live for more than two decades following his HIV-positive diagnosis at age 22. He had been clean 11 years when he died. Date-wise, his death fell roughly between his similarly talented, troubled friends Greg Giraldo (Sept. 29, 2010) and Patrice O’Neal (Nov. 29, 2011).
“His death really took the spirit out of me, and made it hard for me to try to live up to what he might have wanted from a timing perspective, but also materially,” Schlissel said of DeStefano’s planned last album. “We hadn’t even begun to discuss what parts he wanted to throw away or keep when he passed.”
Posthumous releases are inherently dangerous. If well-received, they create the demand for more material, which can only have diminishing returns given that the release in question presumably contains the best of the leftovers. If panned and poor-selling, they can water down an artist’s reputation. Either way, they look like cash grabs and call into question the artist’s wishes and intentions.
They’re also inevitable if an artist had enough of a cult following, or any shred of commercial appeal. And in the case of DeStefano, his final recordings were so tantalizingly close to readiness, yet wrapped in layers of grief and uncertainty, that they presented a haunting, years-long taunt for DeStefano’s survivors.
“When I was working on it, knowing that he had passed, I decided to go in all the directions he was trying to hit,” Schlissel said. “My initial feeling was to release a multi-disc set that covered it all in three 45-minute sets. Really try to represent what his thoughts were just before his flame got put out. It turns out that maybe I was in love with that idea more than anyone else.”
Tierney was getting antsy, too.
“If you sit for five years with the album of a dead man and everyone wants to get it out, you’ll try anything,” she said. “I started feeling like wherever he is, he’s probably going like, ‘What the fuck is going on? Why aren’t they doing this yet?!’ And I started waking up every day and thinking, ‘I need to do this. Now.’”
After years of experimentation, sporadic planning, and dealing with the unrelated but distracting business of living, Tierney finally flew out to Minneapolis in August and spent an intensive week with Schlissel going through every second of DeStefano’s final recordings.
“We would talk tracks and names and sequences and album art,” Tierney said. “And after every day, Dan would stay up all night editing. So between me, Dan, Mike’s brother Joe, and his lawyer Josh, we did the best we could. I wanted to see Mike’s vision through because he was the man I loved. But I don’t really know if any of our opinions would have been Mike’s opinions. He was the kind of guy who would save it all up and tell you what he wants at the end.”
Director and producer Frank Mosca continues to work on a long-planned documentary about DeStefano’s life, hoping to release it sometime in the next year. And with the completion of Puppies & Heroin, a long-dangling fruit can now be enjoyed by DeStefano’s friends, family, and anyone else who happens to come across it.
Finishing the album, which stands on its own as a provocative, bitingly funny document of DeStefano’s humor, helps put a positive spin on a life cut short. Far lesser-known than DeStefano’s Comedy Central or late-night TV sets is the fact that he worked as a drug counselor and connected with countless recovering addicts, sharing his stories as a way of moving forward in his own life.
For Schlissel, it’s a difficult birth and long exhale after what should have been a glorious original release, just as DeStefano’s career was taking off nationally.
“Of all the things we could have done, we walked around the Mall of America talking shop, and Mike got himself a chair massage,” Schlissel wrote in a Stand Up! Records remembrance for DeStefano, recounting their time hanging out before his February 2011 Acme sets. “When he walked out of that place, he was radiating. Mike, happy in the moment, full of warmth, open to the world in all its darkness and light. That’s how we’ll remember him.”