Mike DeStefano's most famous joke went something like this. "My names Mike. I'm a stand-up comedian, before that I was a drug councillor, before that I was a drug addict and before that I was 12".
DeStefano, who died two years ago this week from a heart attack, was not your average comedian. Discussing topics like death, disease and drug addiction with such brutal and unwavering honesty, his material constantly walked the line between traditional stand-up and teary, AA meeting confessional. It makes sense then that the first time he ever performed in front of a crowd was at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre; he got some big laughs from the addicts and from that point on he was sold.
Born and raised on the rough streets of Throgs Neck, a notorious section of New York's already notorious Bronx district, DeStefano began making people laugh, like most comedians, to stop himself getting beaten up by the gang members that populated his neighbourhood. He was beaten by his father and in order to escape his circumstances developed a full blown heroin addiction by the age of fifteen. At eighteen his parents discovered him lying half dead in the family home having overdosed. After a period in rehab he went to a Detox facility, where he met his future wife Fran, an ex-prostitute and heroin user who'd been diagnosed as HIV positive. DeStefano fell in love and they married.
In 2010 he appeared on the popular American show Last Comic Standing, a knockout competition involving comedians from all over the Country; he eventually finished fifth. He was never going to win, given that his confrontational style at odds with the rest of the acts featured. Completely fearless and uncompromising, DeStefano mined his troubled life for material, entertaining and tormenting audiences in equal measure.
DeStefano was just beginning to enjoy some mainstream success at the time of his death. His performances on Last Comic Standing had exposed him to a larger audience than ever before and his new stand up show A Cherry Tree in The Bronx was being talked about as a potential TONY award winner. But success and its trappings held little interest. Having met, married and lost his wife and beaten a drug addiction all by the age of twenty five DeStefano had seen the worst life had to offer, and wasn't fooled by it at its best.
Before his death in 2011 DeStefano featured on Marc Maron's W.T.F. podcast. Having himself been diagnosed as HIV positive years before he had recently been told by his doctors that his body wasn't responding in the usual way to the disease. This seems in keeping with a man who was a walking contradiction. A tattooed tough guy exterior, offset by an almost unparalleled ability to be vulnerable and honest in his work.
It's perhaps amazing that after suffering an existence of such hardship Mike lasted as long as he did. He contemplated suicide on a number of occasions, but the world had a way of keeping him around. Growing up a Catholic, he hated most organised religion and what it represented. After deciding he needed something to help him through his struggles, however, he attended a Buddhist monastery in California. appreciating the fact that they just seemed to sit around and be quiet. He was introduced to the Llama, who nicknamed him Long Beach; they prayed together before he left. Soon after his wife finally succumbed to her illness, this tragedy was quickly followed by another as his father passed away. On the flight back to New York for his dad's funeral DeStefano vowed to kill himself as soon as he returned to L.A; he'd finally had enough. Happy with his decision, he felt at peace. Getting up to use the bathroom Mike walked to the back of the plane. Sat there was Llama Chumed; the Monk greeted him with the words "Long Beach" and they prayed together once more. Just as he was about to give up the universe gave him a reason to carry on, whether he wanted to or not.
Most would say he was gone to soon, taken just as his career was about to reach new heights, but DeStefano himself would probably tell you he got longer than he ever expected.