Mike DeStefano Laughs at 'Drugs, Disease and Death'
Substance abuse and AIDs are hilarious, right? Well, no, not usually. But for the past decade, stand-up comedian Mike DeStefano has crafted a career telling jokes about these hardships, and the other painful and tragic parts of life that we're not supposed to laugh at. He's not trying to make life any easier -- just funnier.
DeStefano's new one-man show, Drugs, Disease, and Death: A Comedy debuts this week at The Producers' Club in New York City. It is an autobiographical story based on the comedian's life in the Bronx, battling heroin addiction, losing his wife to AIDS, and simply struggling to survive.
"What I’m going to be talking about in Drugs, Disease and Death," DeStefano reveals, "is death, disease, and drugs." You might call him an expert on the subject. (In one joke, DeStefano explains: "I'm a stand up comic. Before that, I was a drug counselor. Before that, I was a drug addict. Before that? I was 12.")
|Mike DeStefano - Put That on a Letterhead|
DeStefano grew up in the Bronx, where he now realizes he used comedy as a coping mechanism from an early age. "I was trying to make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hurt me," he says. "Instead they would like me, you know? I made all the gangsters laugh when I was a kid. They loved me because I was funny -- not because I was tough or crazy, just funny."
He began using heroin when he was 15. In his late 20s, his wife (also an addict) died of AIDS. By age 31, he was living in Florida and had been sober for about a year when he began working as a drug counselor. He discovered that audiences would laugh at him, even when he was talking about subjects that no one had any right to be laughing about.
"People would laugh when I would talk seriously about serious issues," DeStefano recalls. "Even when I was doing AIDs education, people were hysterical. It was just natural for me."
He used that response to his advantage, realizing that he suddenly had the unique ability to help people who were going through the same things he had. He soon began performing at open mics and rehab meetings, and moved back to New York City about 10 years ago to pursue comedy full-time.
"I wanted to be somebody who can talk about really terrible personal experiences," he says, "and make people laugh at it so that they feel better."
But more important than the healing power of laughter, he says, is "the healing power of the truth. You tell the truth and people will see that they’re not alone. Ultimately, I want to get to a point where everything is fair game. When I say everything, I mean about myself, the things in me that are wounded and fucked up. Not commenting necessarily on other people; that’s easy to do. What’s hard to do is to really be vulnerable as myself and make that funny. I want to take the darkest parts of my life and try to make people laugh with it.
"I always had a deep feeling in me that my life wasn’t just for me," DeStefano adds. "That if I had an experience and got through it, then I saw an obligation to share it with people. Because everybody is suffering, everybody is in the same boat."
In addition to regular gigs at comedy clubs in New York City, DeStefano has performed at recovery events around the world, and continues to visit rehab centers and drug and alcohol recovery meetings. He was part of the lineup for Comics Anonymous, a recent Comedy Central special starring comedians who have battled substance abuse and lived to laugh about it that also featured Jim Norton, Robert Kelly, and Rich Vos. DeStefano is also finishing the Last Comic Standing comedy tour, which has followed his fourth-place finish on the NBC reality competition.
"I feel like I’m an extraordinarily strong person, being honest with you," he says. "I’ve gotten through a life that I don’t think a lot of people could have really handled. If I had that strength in me, then I got to share it with other people and tell them, 'Hey, look what we’re capable of as human beings.' Not, 'Look at me, I’m wonderful.' If people leave [the theater] giving me their admiration and that’s it, then it’s a failure. But if people leave there feeling happiness and hope for themselves, then that’s a great thing."
-- Daniel Lehman