by Andrew Wantuck
This is one of my favorite interviews that I have ever participated in. Steve Mazan, a stand up comedian, had a dream as a kid to be on The Late Show with David Letterman. He was working hard in the clubs and hoping that one day his big break would come along. However, fate threw him a curve ball when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. This is his story that is currently being made into a documentary called Dying to do Letterman. Here is the trailer.
In this interview we discussed his emotions of fulfilling his dream, being on the ground in Iraq, how a comedian goes from good to great.
Andrew: Can you tell me what it’s like four days after doing David Letterman for the first time?
Steve: I had instead of just a one day Letterman experience like most comics end up having, I’ve had a nine day experience and it’s probably going to go on for a few more days because of the circumstances surrounding it. It became an internet sensation after it happened so I have had an extra four days after it aired to enjoy it because so many people are finding it online, calling me, sending me emails, its been a whirlwind. Like I said rather than having just that night when I taped it go well I had the next four days to know it was gonna happen and plan a little viewing party with a bunch of my friends and other comedians to come and watch it. If you had given me your number I might have called you. Every time I click on my email box its full of people who have seen me online for the first time. There’s some weird stuff ended up happening that you could never foresee. Like somehow Paris Hilton heard about the story and before Letterman came on that night we did for people to watch it. That somehow led the next day to the story of me trying to get on and that happening to that being posted on yahoo for thirty-six hours, it was one of their lead stories on their home page. Like i said I’ve had an extra special time enjoying it because its been more than just the one day we taped it. It’s been an incredible week and a half of excitement and just relishing in it.
Andrew: I think we have to back up just a little bit. Tell me a little bit about how that Letterman spot came about and leading into if the documentary crew was with you behind the scenes as well.
Steve: So let’s go back.. Probably the best way to start this is by saying I was a small boy, I grew up in a log cabin...
Steve: The quick version, I’ve been doing comedy ten years and five years into me doing comedy and making a living at it, my dream even before I was even a comedian was to be on Letterman. Growing up he was my favorite, he was my Johnny Carson to the generation before it. When I started doing comedy it was always my dream to be on his show. So I always thought it would happen someday. The way I was approaching comedy and that dream was that it would happen. I had had enough happen from just doing comedy. Usually someone sees me somewhere and would say, ‘Oh I’m going to tell this person at this club about you’, then they call you. I figured that the Letterman thing would kind of happen that way eventually. People would hear about me and what I’m doing and I’d get a call someday to audition for it. Then maybe I would do a few of those but it would eventually happen. But I was waiting for that dream to come to me. Four and a half years ago I was doing comedy clubs about six years, at that time I got diagnosed with cancer. I was laid up in the hospital and they were trying to track where it coming from, it was a crazy few months. I still have cancer in my liver today but it was intestinal cancer. I still have it in my liver, eleven tumors. There’s no cure for what I have, but they are very slow growing and they aren’t attacking my liver. Ever since that initial craziness with my intestines I’ve lived a pretty normal life. They gave me an outlook of ‘look you can live ten to fifteen years with this.’ That was the best case scenario, excluding that they do find a cure or treatment. The worst case scenario is five years if things went bad. So I just told myself, ‘You can’t wait around for people to hear about you anymore or for your dream to come to you, you have to chase it.’ I started a project. I was like well, if I believe I’m ready for Letterman why not just put it out there right away? So I started a project called Dying to do Letterman. I put up a website and kind of a grassroots thing about any one who saw me at a show or saw my videos online if they thought I was ready to Letterman I asked that they email the Late Show with David Letterman website and let them know that they thought I was ready. So I put that out there and they heard about it relatively quickly and got back to me and their booker started dealing with me and was like ‘I dunno, I like a few of your jokes but you need to have more of this and less of this.’ So it kind of went back and forth and there were ups and down and things that made me think I was getting closer at times, and then I’d realize I was further away than when I started at other times. Luckily after four years, a week ago monday I got the call from him. I thought he was just calling top tell me he had got my most recent dvd with stuff I had sent him to look at. He was calling to say that I was going to be on the show and that they already had it scheduled and I had six days to get ready for it. That’s the story and thats kind of what many people have found inspirational about it and what kind of set it off on yahoo and getting Paris Hilton interested in it. Like I said it’s been so great for me getting to relish it for more than just the night it aired.
Andrew: Is there any sort of chemotherapy you had to go through when you went through the intestinal part of the cancer?
Steve: They ended up cutting out a foot of my intestine. That was the source of the original cancer and it spread to my liver. That area the tumors are of a certain size and a certain type that they can’t do anything for those. The source of it in the intestine they pulled out. That was the three or four months where I really was going through that when they were trying to figure where it was coming from where I really felt the whole cancer patient diagnosis of it. I have to go to check ups every three months and scans and all that but I feel like someone who is dealing with it but not to the point when I go to my oncologist and see people that are dealing with chemo and radiation and the terrible things that are happening to their bodies. My life, except for every three months , has been pretty good for someone that has cancer.
Andrew: What year was the surgery?
Steve: That would have been 96 I believe. Its one of those crazy things. I talk to all these cancer patients and there are so many that everyone knows someone. There’s people that know the date they got diagnosed or had the surgery. My wife and I were talking about it the other day. We don’t remember the exact day. We remember it was February. So it must have been 1995. We never focused on any of the dates or anything, I guess it would have given it too much power. I’ll never forget the date I was on Letterman. Not gonna remember the date I went through the surgery, I would rather focus on the good stuff.
Andrew: Tell me a little bit about the documentary itself. Were they with you backstage and through the performance and did they get special access to the show?
Steve: Not at all. In fact when the booker, Eddie Brill is the booker of Letterman, when he called me up he said I have great news you’re going to be on Letterman. When he first heard about the project he said I’m not going to put you on just because you have cancer. You’re not going to get in on this make a wish thing. Of course that's not what I wanted anyway. I wanted them to notice me because I felt a time constraint. But I didn't want to get on because of that. He’s been phenomenal. I mean of course there were times I would have done anything to get on. I would have found a dog to teach him stupid pet tricks to get on the show just so I could complete this dream. The first thing he said over the years is we have to find the right set. When he called he said. ‘Listen, you’re getting this because you’ve put the work in and you have the jokes that are ready to be on the show. That’s why you’re getting this. Because of that, I don’t want, I know you’re doing a documentary about the process, but I don’t want any of that near the theater. You can have guests and they can come and see the show and you can have a couple of people in the green room, your wife and that kind of thing. Nothing with the documentary crew, we don’t want people shooting or anything like that.’ The couple that helped me with the documentary are friends that happen to be filmmakers. They actually did come out and we shot some stuff at the hotel and being in New York and some diary cams about me getting ready before it or after it. The whole day at the show he made it clear he didn’t want any of that because he didn’t want anyone to think that’s why I was getting it. It made it a bit more special for me as well. They ended up coming to the show so they ended up not shooting anything but | think they enjoyed it as friends.
Andrew: Now that you’ve had the dream come true, does that complete the documentary or is there some sort of epilogue?
Steve: There’s definitely been this excitement afterwards of it. I’ve created little videos before that I’ve hoped would take off virally. You can’t get more than seven views, and you can’t even get your friends to watch them. Then something like this takes off on its own because of something that inspired them. So that has been a neat little epilogue. I’m leaving all the filmmaking parts to that couple. I know they are very excited because there will be a happy ending to the movie. I’m not sure what note it will actually end on.
Andrew: Just you and your wife sitting on the couch saying, ‘Well, so that happened.’
Steve: Yeah, then one day, ‘Hey, remember?’
Steve: I actually have a really funny story. I think you were there the night we talked about the interview. Richard (Booking Manager for the club) was there in the green room, Nick Griffin, and Jim McDonald , two guys who have been on Letterman. We were all joking and they said good luck the night before I was going to fly out for New York. They said hey, we haven’t asked you but how’s your health doing? I said its going great I have some check ups I have next month. But ever since I have started this thing the tumors haven’t grown at all. And I said but I don’t know if I believe this but, I like to believe that because I have been chasing this dream the cancer hasn’t grown any more, this has kept it from growing. Richard and all those guys were like ‘Yeah, yeah that’s great!’ Then just like comics, as sick as we all are, put two and two together. They’re like ‘You’re probably going to die next week the minute the show airs.’ Richard says ‘How great would it be if you died on stage? That would be fantastic!’, and we’re all cracking up, it was so funny to all of us. I tried to share the humor with my wife when I got home and she didn’t think it was funny at all.
Andrew: Sure. [laughs]
Steve: God, we really enjoyed it.
Andrew: Those were my questions on the documentary. I watched the trailer of the documentary and I was fascinated. Some of the stuff I was most interested in was the amazing footage of, I don’t know if it was Iraq or Afghanistan.
Steve: Yeah, yeah it was Iraq.
Andrew: It was just incredible footage.
Steve: It was amazing. You know who shot it since the documentary crew couldn’t go overseas? Drake Witham. Drake is the cameraman when the explosion is going on. It says something for his professionalism that he kept the camera rolling when things were blowing up around us.
Andrew: I just can’t wait. This documentary, on so many different levels, what a comic goes through, what a cancer patient goes through, what soldier goes through. I’m really excited for this documentary on its own.
Steve: It seems to have touched a nerve with the people that have heard about it. Obviously the talent of the couple putting the film together shows on that trailer.
Andrew: Back down to a normal comic interview. A couple of other questions I’d like to touch on. About your writing style in particular are you a guy that takes a premise and finds your punch-lines on stage or are you a pen and paper ahead of time and go ahead and tell the jokes?
Steve: I kind of switch back and forth. When I started I was a pen and paper guy. I think most people are at that time because you don’t have the stage time to get up there and play around like you do when you’re making a living doing comedy when you have half an hour at a time or forty five minutes and you can talk a joke out. At the beginning I was very much pen and paper because you have to get up there with some jokes and make some good impressions versus getting up there and talking through something. At some point I had enough material that I would have a premise I’d just think about what was funny about it and talk it out onstage. That was maybe the past three or four years that I was doing that. Then recently though I started writing more because of the Letterman thing everything has to be so tight for TV. So working with Eddie Brill, the booker for Letterman, it’s kind of reignited the pen and paper side of it because it has to be much more tight. In the clubs it’s better to be a bit more loose and more conversational. You can definitely see a guy who is practicing for TV in the clubs. Everyone goes up and they look a certain way, talk a certain way to the club crowd. Then the guy who goes up there practicing for the TV set is up there almost not even acknowledging the crowd except for their laughter. There is no ‘Hey give it up for the last guy’, or ‘Hows everyone doing tonight?’ It’s just joke, joke, joke, and they’re as tight as possible. I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately. I’ve bridged the gap of liking to do both. I think the jokes that are lasting the longest and the joke that I did on Letterman that started that way was where you go up there with a premise and talk to the audience about it and see the laugh lines, what parts are they sharing with you that they think are funny? Then you try and replicate those points each time. Maybe build on it each time. Like tell a little more about what you think is funny cause they laugh and you tighten it up a little bit more. They definitely tell you where to go with it.
Andrew: In your opinion what takes a good comedian from good to great?
Steve: I don’t know, I’ll tell you when I get there.
Steve: I don’t know what it is but when you see it you definitely know it. There’s so many guys trying to be Louis C.K. I think that there is only one. There’s people that tell jokes like him , there people l that maybe look like him or deliver like him when he does it everything is there together. I don’t that I know the answer to that because I’d study it more. I think there is a lot of luck involved. I was talking to another comic about this the other day, there is so much you can’t control about yourself. You can change your voice a little but you’re going up there with your voice. You can have plastic surgery to change your face or something but you have to go up there with who you are. There is a first impression people see when they walk onstage by the way you stand or carry yourself, move your arms about, or all that. All that is out of your control. You’ve lived your life being that person, I think there’s a lot of luck involved. If Steve Martin didn’t look like Steve Martin in the first place I don’t know if he would be as funny. There is a lot of luck just involved in just being that person. People react to that person in a certain way. I think thats why some people are incredible writers, but never transforms to stage the same way because when people look at them or respond to them their response to them as a live person is different than when they are reading how brilliant a joke they can write is. I think there is a lot of luck in being the person that the audiences gravitate to more than others.
Andrew: The road: love it or hate it?
Steve: Love it! Love it!
Steve: I think any comic who says they hate the road is obviously some actor who is trying to do stand up comedy to stay in Los Angeles and get an acting gig. The only reason I would want to be on a sitcom or know or famous or anything in that vein would be so that when I go out to the clubs people are coming are to see me versus just comedy, that I’m a draw. That’s the only use I have for that is to make the comedy better. It seems there are lot of comics that go the other way with it. They want to do comedy so they can get the sitcom. I love it, thats the greatest thing about it. There is no other feeling like it, I’m hooked for the rest of my life.
Andrew: Good or bad, can you tell me about The Comedy & Magic Club versus other clubs in the country?
Steve: This is like a softball question. Easily, no doubt, not kissing ass because you are involved with it, easily the best club because once you go there, I’m not even talking about working there, I’m talking about just going up and walking in that door and saying I’m a comedian. The way you are treated at that club is how you imagined it before you were a comedian. You imagine someone who works there would say come on in, watch the show, can we get you a drink, have dinner, can we feed you, if we have a seat you’re welcome to watch the show, come to the green room and meet everyone. its really what you imagine what comedy would be like before you start doing comedy. When you start doing comedy and visit, I can’t say every other club, but I would say a high percentage, maybe seventy to eighty percent of every other club in the country is not like that. You walk in and for them its completely the business side of it. Half the time no one on the staff cares about the comedians, they have a list of rules of what the comics are supposed to do or not do, and they won’t get asked back if they break any of them. It really takes all the fun out of doing comedy. The Comedy & Magic Club is the opposite. I remember there was a long tim where I knew Richard but I wasn’t working there. I would still go down and visit and he was nice to me as anyone who was working there that week. That goes so, so far in a comics mind of being treated like you’re in a great business here versus you’re a leper or the only reason they are treating you nice is because you are their guy that week and a week later they wouldn’t even return your call. I’ve never gotten that feeling in Hermosa. The time I was trying to get work there it was always the nicest "no" I have ever gotten.
Steve Mazan will be a part of the 10 Comics for $10 dollars this Friday, September 18th & Saturday, September 19th 2009. Reservations Required (310) 372-1193 or comedyandmagicclub.com.