Not even cancer can stop comedian Steve Mazan from achieving his goal of appearing on the Late Show With David Letterman.
Where does time go is the one question that even Alex Trebek, sometimes more condescending know-it-all than Jeopardy! answer man, can’t explain. Not surprising, because we tend to forget that time flies…without layovers and, more important, without a flight plan.
Even those lucky humans with jet packs cannot outrace time. Anyway, comedian Steve Mazan teaches us that urgency, way more than rocket fuel, may be the greatest catalyst of all in the race against time, a lifelong competition that people consider more of a marathon than a sprint, until time catches up to them, typically with disbelief and, worse, without warning.
His inspiring lesson about the power of perseverance culminates in New York City on Sept. 4 with the airing of his appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. After more than four years of essentially auditioning for the show at comedy venues nationwide and overseas (he has performed for U.S. troops seven times in Iraq and Afghanistan) and through performances on the 20 DVDs he has sent to Letterman’s booker, Eddie Brill, over time, Mazan flew about five hours from California to New York on Aug. 30 to record one five-minute joke at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Aug. 31, fulfilling a dream that began in 2005 after his startling cancer diagnosis.
He missed his original deadline (by more than three years), “but obviously dreams you give extensions to, you make exceptions,” Mazan, a native Chicagoan, says from Los Angeles, his home base now.
Until February or March 2005 (unlike many other cancer patients and survivors, he does not recall his exact D-Day), Mazan, 37 and a comedian for 10 years now, had been climbing steadily toward Mt. Letterman, what he and multitudes of other contemporary comedians consider the summit of success. “I always thought it would happen,” he says confidently, not vainly, “but I wasn’t pursuing it. I was doing my sets, and getting noticed and figured at some point that I’d run into the right people. I wasn’t rushing it or anything.”
The process became a contest soon after the unexpected diagnosis. While heading home from performing one evening, he remembers telling fellow comedian Gary Cannon, “You’re going to have to drive.” That night Mazan went to bed in pain and awoke in agony. What he suspected to be appendicitis turned out to be a rare form of intestinal cancer that had spread to his liver.
“The doctors told us [Mazan and his wife, Denise], ‘Look, the tumors are slow-growing. If everything goes OK, you could still live 10 to 15 years with this.’ Worst-case scenario, of course we asked about that, and they said, ‘Five years.’ And I thought, Holy shit, five years! What if I die in five years, what do I want to accomplish?”
Suddenly, he had no time to saunter to the top of the profession, but comedy does not move at a panting pace. It takes years of writing and rewriting jokes and testing and retesting them in clubs and theaters for fun and maybe little profit to clamber even close to the pinnacle.
So after five months of recuperating from surgery and initial treatment, in an Internet instant, Mazan, who speaks hopefully and optimistically and works as if he were 100 percent healthy, created DyingToDoLetterman.com, a Web site that chronicled his circumstances and career and asked fans, friends, friends of fans, friends of friends and visitors to the site to petition Letterman to book him. At the beginning, he explains, he used the site as an accelerant “to get noticed by the Letterman people.”
But almost immediately, without being mean, he says that Brill basically told him that Letterman is not a fairy godfather. He does not grant wishes. “They actually sent me a cease-and-desist letter,” Mazan says, chuckling. “I was told I would have to earn my appearance.”
It took more than three years and hundreds of types of jokes to impress Brill. Mazan, who’s turning the quest into a documentary with the apt help of husband-and-wife filmmakers Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina of Joke Productions, finally did with a long gag about hotel access keys, the result of talent, commitment and that mandatory comic attribute: perfect timing.