March 7, 2011. San Jose, CA.
Upon the world premiere of comedian, Steve Mazan’s film “Dying to do Letterman” at Cinequest 21, Helium Magazine’s Sophia M. Papadopoulos had the great privilege to speak with Steve at the HP VIP Lounge at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose, regarding his film, his career as a comedian and his life after Letterman.
Helium Magazine: Why did you decide to make a documentary about your dream to do stand-up comedy on The David Letterman Show?
Steve Mazan: My initial plan wasn’t to do a documentary. My initial plan was just to get on Letterman. My dream, as a comedian, was to get on Letterman. Then I got diagnosed with cancer and was told I might only have five years to live. So I told myself, “I have to make this dream happen within the next five years.” I started a website called “Dying to do Letterman,” and that was just about the project of getting on Letterman and making my dream come true. And then, to document my journey and put it on the website for the people who were helping me with the project, I would start shooting videos of myself and blogging about the experience and the progress. Then, a couple friends of mine who are filmmakers heard about it, and asked me about how things were going. I finally, at some point, got the guts to ask them, “Hey, I’ve been recording all this stuff. Would you guys record it? Maybe we can make a documentary?” They were interested right from the get-go and signed up. I gave myself a year to get on Letterman. I’m sure they thought they were signing up for a year of shooting a documentary–it’s six years later and we just finished the movie.
HM: Although the film has recently premiered, what has been some of the audiences’ reactions towards the film and towards you after watching it?
SM: It’s been amazing. Whatever expectations we had, they have been far exceeded. We had two small screenings before the world premiere here in San Jose at Cinequest–private screenings–where friends, family and crew who worked on it…we had a screening for them. They loved it. And then we did a screening for a cancer symposium that I’m involved with and showed it to them, and it’s in their wheel house as something they liked because it’s dealing a little bit with cancer—the movie is not about cancer; it’s about realizing your dreams. The cancer’s a little part of it. But of course they would like it too, so we had two great screenings before-hand. But later we thought, “Well, of course we are going to do well with those two groups.” We didn’t know until we got here for the world premiere–how is a paying audience, people who don’t know us and aren’t attached in some way to the film–how are they going to like it? We’ve done two screenings and we received two standing ovations, and people stick around for a half-an-hour plus doing Q & A afterward. If the theater didn’t kick us out, people would probably stay for an hour just asking questions. People really seem excited about it, so we are loving the attention that the film itself is getting.
HM: Your family, particularly your wife Denise, was a key element in your film, as she was by your side during your whole journey. How did she feel about being a part of your film and about allowing the public into your private lives?
SM: My wife, in the beginning, when our friends Joke and Biagio agreed to do the documentary, Joke and Biagio sat both me and my wife down and said “Hey, this isn’t Hollywood where there’s a trailer for you guys to go to when things are rough or when you need a break. The idea here is to capture everything you guys go through. You are our friends but we are going to have the camera on you during some tough times. Like when you are dealing with news about your health problem or about any bad news on the Letterman front, and everything else you go through during this time in your lives: money problems, everything. When you guys are at each other’s throats, we are going to have the cameras on you and that’s not going to be easy.” I will say, my wife, she knew how important my dream of getting on Letterman was, and being the great, supportive wife that she is, she jumped on board right away. Again, I’m sure she thought that “In a year this will be done. It’s a minor inconvenience.” And it went on for six times as long. Thank God she didn’t know what we were getting into when she signed up, but she was fantastic about it.
HM: What private thoughts and fears were generating in your mind while you were shooting the film?
SM: There were a lot of fears along the way. There were fears of my failure being caught on film. As a comedian, I’m in the entertainment business, and when I first got diagnosed with cancer, there were a lot of people that I met in Hollywood that said, “Don’t tell people you have cancer because people won’t give you work if they think you are a health risk.” So, all of a sudden, here we were thinking about doing a documentary, where, of course, word would get out that I’m having these health problems. There were fears about that—is this going to poorly affect my career if I never get on Letterman or if the feedback is terrible?–that’s going to be caught on film. So there was a lot of humility on my part. I told myself, “Okay, you better be ready to share this [possible failure].” But luckily my comedy is a little bit of that. It’s talking about the stumbling blocks we all hit in life and the times we feel like a fool. Those moments hurt, but eventually you look back and laugh at them. So luckily we were able to do that even with all those tough parts in the film. There was a lot of wondering, “This is a big goal, and if it doesn’t happen, am I willing to accept those failures and the little failures along the way? That all got caught on film.” To see the end product, it’s easy to look back and say it was worth every moment. But there were times along the way that it didn’t feel like that.
HM: Pursuing one’s dream without the extra challenge of having an illness is a struggle in itself. How did you keep a positive mindset throughout the shooting of your film while also dealing with your health concerns?
SM: I can speak to the difficulties of chasing your dream before having cancer because I was doing that. I will say though, that the minute I got diagnosed, I realized, “Wow. You don’t have all this time that you thought you had.” I think we all go through life waiting for things to come to us, and think there’s plenty of time to make things happen. We are all guilty of that. I too, on many levels, am still guilty of that. I haven’t changed every single thing in my life that needs to be changed. But it did make me prioritize and say, “Okay. These things [goals] are at the top of your list. You need to always be going towards them.” Our film’s tag line is, “It’s not how much time we have, it’s what we do with it.” If anything, it was a wake-up call for me to get the diagnosis. I’m hoping, for everyone else who doesn’t have that type of diagnosis, will, through my experience realize that, “I have to turn up the heat on everything I want to accomplish.”
HM: How do you think your comedy differs from that of other comics?
SM: I think comedy’s an art form. It’s the most personal art form and it’s immediate, because you’re putting yourself out there and you immediately get a response. You’re not hanging a painting privately in a studio, and you are not there when people see it. You are literally sharing your art with an audience and they are giving you the feedback immediately. But, like other arts, I would say I’m influenced by a lot of comedians who came before me and a lot of comedians I see now. I would never take anyone’s jokes but I may like their style. I’m an observational comic. I talk about what happens in my life and with my family and the funny things I see throughout the day. It’s different only in it’s my skewed perspective of everything. It’s like two artists painting fruit: they are both seeing the exact same thing but they are coming from two directions. Same with the comics. It’s not incredibly different than what anyone else is doing. I’m not a revolutionary or anything, but I think people seem to enjoy my skewed perspective of what I’m seeing. That’s the important part.
HM: Besides Letterman, who are some of your other favorite comedians?
SM: Yeah, Letterman is one of my favorites. Obviously his show was a big influence on me. Richard Pryor was the first stand-up comic that got me so jazzed about comedy. I’d seen comedians on TV just talking, but I had never seen a comedian like Richard Pryor. He would come out and talk to a crowd about the worst, most awful things in his life—about drugs, about despair—about the terrible things in one’s life. In my neighborhood, these are things you don’t talk about with other people, and here was this guy talking to strangers about it and making it funny and somehow making people feel like, in some way, we all share this crazy despair that’s part of life. A lot of guys featured in the movie are also some of my favorites: Brian Regan, Arj Barker, Jim Gaffigan, Ray Romano and Kevin Nealon. They are all amazing. Mitch Hedberg also, who’s no longer with us. He was an amazing comedian. My comedy isn’t really like theirs, but that doesn’t stop me from loving everything about them.
HM: How do you develop your material for your stand-up routines?
SM: Very early on, when I first started in comedy, I had no material. At that point there was a lot of writing and writing exercises that people who write novels do. You just do some free-writing and hopefully you start writing some funny stuff. I would sit down for a half-hour or an hour per day and just write, write, write, and then go back through it and pick out the material that seemed funny. Then I would take it to the stage and see if it got a laugh. And, if it did, I would edit it down and revise it. That was in the first few years until I had enough material to step on stage with every time. Early on I had ten minutes of material, then twenty minutes, and then I had a half-an-hour worth of material. Now I’ve got hours of stuff that I can go to since I’ve been doing this over a decade. A lot of it is old so now I’m doing much newer stuff. But now, instead of writing every day and coming up with new material, I’ve honed the skill of being able to write and revise. Now I can just notice things that make me laugh. And, at that point, I take pen to paper and write out what made me laugh about something and then write it and take it to the stage, versus forcing myself to sit down without an idea and write. Now, I wait for the inspiration and then put it to paper.
HM: How has performing on The David Letterman Show changed your life, both personally and professionally?
SM: Professionally, it has helped money-wise, because most of the clubs I’m working at, I’ve gotten up to another level with them where they pay me more money or they have moved me up a spot. It’s got me into a few clubs that I wasn’t able to perform at before. It’s gotten me a lot of work that I wouldn’t have gotten before. It’s a nice credit. It looks great on the resume. There are a select number of people who get to perform on that show. One of the comics I know from the Bay Area, Jim Short, he heard I was on [Letterman], and he’s been on, and he came up and shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the club.” And it was a feeling of “Wow. I’m in this. Not everyone gets to do this and I got to do it.” That’s all the great stuff professionally. Personally, it’s the zenith of my life. It’s what I wanted to do more than anything, and I got to accomplish it. The moment I got done with Letterman, someone asked me, “What are you going to do now?” I’m going to fill up my time with something, but I think sometimes we forget how much went into something. You have to enjoy that in order to make the journey worthwhile. When it does happen, you don’t just want to leave it behind and go on to the next thing. We all need to take time to, in a sense, stop and smell the flowers a little bit. I’m enjoying the accomplishment itself. And I’ll never forget being on that stage and shaking Dave’s hand. It was a big moment for me.
HM: You are an accomplished stand-up comedian who realized his dream of doing stand-up comedy on The David Letterman Show. Are there any other dreams or goals you would like to pursue or fulfill?
SM: My new goal is promoting the movie. Luckily the filmmakers, Joke and Biagio and I have the same goal—we are aiming for a billion people to see this movie. It’s nice that I have two more people to help me with this goal than I had on the last goal. Another goal is also to continue doing comedy and get as many people as possible to see my comedy. But the biggest goal right now is getting as many people as possible to see this movie. There have been some people who have come out after seeing this movie that said they are inspired to get back on a dream that they had let go. That’s where I was at at the beginning of the movie; it was a dream I was confident was going to happen but I wasn’t actively pursuing it anymore. I was waiting for it to happen rather than making it happen. The world’s a better place when people are pursuing their dreams.
HM: Who do you hope the film will influence and what do you hope comes from you exposing your journey, both health-related and professional, in this way?
SM: As a comedian I want my comedian friends and the comedy community to enjoy the film. But the filmmakers have made a movie that spans that. Even if you don’t like comedy, I think you’d still like the movie. That’s a testament to what great storytellers they are. Their story happens to be about a comedian, but it can be about anyone chasing their dream. It’s about the journey and the things that touch us all. A comedian who had seen the movie wrote to us and stated that, “I’m telling all my comic friends and all my non-comic friends about this movie. That’s how amazing it is.” I think it’s for everyone. I hope everyone gets to see it.
HM: Do have a personal motto that you live by, and if so, what is it?
SM: I have a bunch: “It’s not how much time you have, it’s what you do with it.” This was a realization I had after my cancer diagnosis. The other one is, “If you are not chasing your dream, you are already dead.” It’s all about living life.
HM: What words of wisdom would you give to fresh comics looking for their break into the industry?
SM: Embrace the rejection. Learn to laugh at it because there’s going to be a lot of it over and over and over again. I heard a story attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, but I don’t’ know if it’s true. Someone asked him, “I want to be a comedian. What do I do?” And the person said, “Don’t. You shouldn’t do it.” And it sounds like he was being harsh, but the point of the story was that, if that person who was asking for advice was willing to take that person saying no to them and walked away from trying, they weren’t going to make it in the business. Especially in the entertainment business. There is lots of rejection. But we all face it. There’s rejection everywhere. In life you are going to face rejection. But as I was saying, the immediacy of the art of comedy–you’re going to be on stage sometimes and its [material] not going to work for whatever reason. Sometimes it will be your fault, sometimes it might be the type of audience in front of you, sometimes it’s something you can’t control. Be ready for that and don’t be afraid. It’s going to be a long process, but it is well worth it in the long run.
HM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SM: Come see our movie and tell everyone you can about it. I really believe everyone will like this film. I have one quick story. Someone saw just the trailer for our movie, and the minute it got done the girl said, “That’s it. I’m getting a drum-set.” She always wanted to drum but didn’t pursue it. Just the trailer inspired her. In a nutshell, that’s what our movie is all about. Being inspired to go for your dreams whatever they may be.
For more information about Steve Mazan and about his film, “Dying to do Letterman,” please visit: