“You know how it ends? We all die, that’s how it fucking ends, and you can’t bring your iPod. Sorry!” — Mike DeStefano.
2010 was a particularly strong year for comedy. Kyle Kinane, Hannibal Buress, Aziz Ansari, David Cross, and Brian Posehn all released albums that were great or better (and still worth tracking down). Podcasts exploded in popularity, led by Marc Maron’s astonishing WTF Podcast, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Death-Ray Radio, Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies, and the great Greg Fitzsimmons’ FitzDog Radio. On television, Louis CK blazed new ground with the heartfelt and boundary-busting Louie on FX, HBO’s Eastbound & Down continued to kill it, Parks & Recreation took off into the stratosphere with an all-star cast line-up that Questlove rightly called “the Wu-Tang of comedy”, and Community brought some much-needed heart and silliness to the world. Even Last Comic Standing returned with a brilliant trio of judges and some wonderful not-yet-famous competitors.
In all that embarrassment of riches, there was one comedian who stood out for me. His name is Mike DeStefano. If I had been able to narrow all of the above into a year-end top-ten list, OK Karma, the first comedy album from Mike DeStefano, would absolutely have had the top spot. It was one of my favorite acts of art of any kind from the entire year. I’m listening to OK Karma as I write this piece and it’s still a refreshing blast of noxious energy and battered truth.
Mike DeStefano was a known name in New York comedy, steadily gaining in widespread fame. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of him until Last Comic Standing, where he made the final five, and at first, I didn’t even like him that much. His voice was loud and abrasive and exactly like the Bronx crowds who spill peanuts and popcorn on you in the stands at a Yankees game. He definitely had a distinctive look, unconventional among many of today’s comedians, with his spiky gray hair and tattooed arms and a furrowed brow that looks not unlike the actor Brian Cox (who’s best remembered for his role as the original Hannibal Lecter). DeStefano’s manner was equally brash and confrontational – when he got voted off the show, he told America what they could do with their vote.
That’s the moment I became a fan. A little late to the party, sure, but I made up for lost time by enjoying the tons of clips of DeStefano’s comedy on YouTube and elsewhere. It helped that he was a Bronx guy – I grew up the next town over, admittedly in more comfortable circumstances, but believe me, I know a ton of guys like Mike DeStefano, so I know a little something about what he’s talking about. I’ve walked the same beat, though his stories are way better. If I say I know a ton of guys like him, I’ve rarely heard anyone express themselves as clearly, as simply, and as recognizably. He might sound a little angry, but that’s good, isn’t it? There’s a lot about this world that should make you angry. If you can live in contemporary American society around without getting angry, then I hope you like the taste of sand, because you’re an ostrich up to your neck in it.
DeStefano’s comedy was unapologetically angry, born of real hard living and pain. In the startling episode of WTF where he was interviewed (one of the very best episodes of an already stellar series), he laid out the wreckage of his past in raw detail. DeStefano used Maron’s show, one of the most thoughtful and probing venues anywhere in America, to talk about his HIV-positive status. It was just one more brave admission in a comedy career that was full of them. DeStefano’s rap wasn’t to get sympathy or accolades for himself – he talked about his substance abuse issues and his HIV diagnosis in order to show that anyone could overcome similar histories and still live a worthy life. He spoke about recovery and comedy with the zeal of a preacher, and it was both inspiring and hilarious. This was a guy who was on the front lines of truth-telling. He spoke to his own truth, and personally speaking, it was a truth that I can recognize and that I happen to believe. Every word I ever heard him say about religion, race, and sexuality was more accurate and concise than anybody I ever agreed with who wasn’t nearly as funny. Maybe that’s why I was initially, temporarily put off to his comedy: Because I knew it was true. This was a great comic who had important things to say.
Mike DeStefano died on Sunday March 6th, at the age of 44.
He had been touring a one-man show based on his life and experiences, to strong reviews. I never met this man, and the loss belongs to his family and friends alone, but I still can’t help feeling a great sadness. We really can’t afford to lose people like this one. There aren’t a lot of people in the public eye who are so fearless in speaking such brutal, twisted, and – yes – loving thoughts. Mike DeStefano was a truth-belching bulldog of zen and comedy, and we can only hope that he was able to inspire enough people and change enough minds in his brief career that losing him so soon makes any kind of cosmic sense.