Nick DeNinno spoke to Steve Mazan of DYING TO DO LETTERMAN, a new documentary now on demand.
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When 35 year old stand-up comedian Steve Mazan learned he had cancer, and might only have five years to live, he dedicated his life living his dream: performing comedy on The Late Show with David Letterman. This documentary chronicles his five-year journey, as he races his own ticking clock to achieve a nearly impossible goal. Hilarious, heart-breaking, and ultimately inspirational, Steve’s journey brings a brand-new perspective to living with cancer. This is a story that proves it’s not how much time you have, it’s what you do with it. As Steve says, If you stop chasing your dreams, you’re already dead.
Nicholas DeNinno: I'm really excited to talk to you. I really love this film.
Steve Mazan: Oh, great. I'm glad you liked it. I was worried if people weren't going to like it, but we've had such a great response. We haven't had too many bad reviews. Everyone's had a great response to it, but I still get nervous when we show it to people.
Nicholas: Can you tell me a little bit about DYING TO DO LETTERMANand when you decided that this was a film?
Steve: It's funny, because the film seems, for me, sometimes I'll be at a screening or something. I'll be watching it, and I'll get caught up in it, the filmmaking team, Joke and Biagio, the editors and the filmmakers of it, they've done such a good job, I think, of telling the story.
I always say you can have a good story, but then you've got to have good storytellers as well. We've all read a book or something and said, “Wow, this is my favorite book,” and then they go to make it into a movie and it just doesn't translate, come out the right way. I think they've done such a good job of telling the story, of finding the right story to tell out of everything.
Like I said, I'll peek in when we're at screening and stuff, and I get caught up in it. Originally, it was just a project. This was 2005, when I started this, and it was just a website that I had, called Dying to Do Letterman. You see in the movie, I have my stand up on there, and people can watch my stand up. If they think I'm funny enough, they can send an email.
I wouldn't say it went viral, but it started spreading, people started hearing about it and sending Dave emails saying, “Hey, this guy is really good, you should book him,” stuff like that. Then people would get back to me a week later and be like, “Have you heard anything?”
Obviously even my family and friends knew about it early, and the filmmakers, Joke and Biagio, were friends of mine from a couple years before that. When I first moved to L.A., they were young filmmakers, just out of UCLA. They had met at UCLA and got married and they were trying to break into the business. They actually edited some of my comedy tapes.
I actually just basically transferred my comedy – at that time it was all on VHS, and they transferred it to DVDs, so I could send DVDs out to bookers. That's how I met them. We were friends. We weren't incredibly close friends, but acquaintances and worked out, like I said, some of that stuff, just transferring my comedy stuff over.
Well, they heard about my project and they reached out to me and said, “Hey, we're sorry to hear about your diagnosis. We've already sent emails to Dave, telling him he should book you,” and then they said, “We actually have some friends at NBC.”
They knew Warren Littlefield, through a project they had worked on, in the couple of years since I had worked with them. They said, “We could probably get your comedy in front of the people at the Tonight Show, if you're interested, at Jay Leno.” I was like, “Eh, no thanks,” not that I'm not a fan of Jay Leno, it was just that Letterman was my guy. He was the guy I wanted, to be on his show.
I said no thanks to that, but I said that people have been writing me back and asking me for updates, so I've been putting video updates on my website, just on the DYING TO DO LETTERMANwebsite, here's where we're at. I haven't heard yet, thanks everyone for doing this. My wife suggested we keep all of the videos I put up, and maybe at the end we'd have a documentary.
I know I'm not a filmmaker, so at that point, when they reached out to me, I said, “Hey, would you guys be interested in being a part of this?” They said they would definitely like to be a part of it, let's get together and talk about it.
Their concern, the reason they wanted to talk about it was that we did know each other prior to this, and they didn't want to make some fluffy, Hallmark channel movie, that just painted the nice side of everything and none of the ups and downs and the reality of everything.
Being friends, when we sat down to dinner with me, my girlfriend at the time, Denise, and Joke and Biagio, they said, “Look, if we start filming you and you're getting rejections and you're going to the doctor and all that stuff, and you get bad news, we're not going to be able to put the cameras down and give you a hug, like we would as your friends. We're going to have to keep filming. Are you okay with that?”
I made a joke, I said, “Oh, you saying that makes my tumors hurt,” and we all laughed about it, but that set the tone for all the shooting of the footage and everything. It was understood, yes, that if they were going to shoot that stuff, that they were going to do a real portrayal of it and not try to just show the nice side or the brave face of everything. That's how it got started, the movie versus what I had originally planned, with basically just a website, for the project itself.
Nicholas: You mentioned your girlfriend at the time. She obviously plays a very prominent role in your story.
Steve: Yes. I mean, she's obviously amazing. I really think she's the heart of the film. We had been dating a little over six months at the time, when I got diagnosed with cancer, and we were both in our early thirties. You can see it in the film, for her to stick with me or decide to continue a life with me, at that point, I think it's pretty amazing.
I don't know if the shoe was on the other foot, if I would have been able to do that. That's a very, very big thing, especially for a woman in her early thirties. At that point, as a woman, you're thinking about, “Okay, what's my future? What time am I going to set up a family?” and all this stuff.
Now, you consider doing that with someone you've known for six months, whether she loved me or not at that point, deciding to commit to staying with me, when I might not be around in five years. She might just be wasting her time, but luckily, she's an incredible person and she did stick with me.
But even then, I think the nice thing that the movie shows is again, not just the strong face, like, “Oh, I made this choice and it was a good choice.” I think it shows that it was something she struggled with as well, that she was thinking about that none of these things were easy choices, but they were things that even after looking back on them, these are tough things to think about and consider.
Again, I think it shows in the movie, just what a great person she is, what a great support system and how lucky I was to have met her. Obviously, I can in one way look back on that year of my life, of being diagnosed with cancer and being in surgery and being told I only have five years to live, as the worst year of my life, but it's also the year I met her. I can't imagine having gone through these past now almost seven years, without her. Obviously you've seen in the film what a great support system I have, because of her.
Nicholas: You went out and talked to some of the comics, and tried to get their advice. Who did you talk to?
Steve: It's funny, I only really knew one of the comics that I interviewed in the movie. I actually had met Brian Regan before, who is my favorite comedian. I'd seen him when I was starting, and he became my favorite comedian – and Arj Barker, who is in the movie, who people know from Flight of the Conchords, it made him pretty popular.
The other comics, I didn't really know them well. I just knew them from comedy. You just run into people and meet them, but I was never really good friends with anyone that I interviewed in the movie. I basically thought at that point, “Look, I'm trying to get on Letterman,” and when I was getting turned away at different points, my idea was to keep moving forward somehow.
You come to a stop, instead of being held there. Alright, turn left and trying to move forward again. One of my things was to search out advice from people who had been on Letterman. I basically had my friend, another comic, make me a list of all the comedians who had ever been on Letterman, going back even to his earlier show, his NBC show that followed Johnny Carson.
I basically researched all of those comedians and found either their contact information or their agent's contact information and reached out to them and said, “Hey, I would love your advice on what you, as a comic, did to get on the show, what you think I should do, all that type of stuff. I would love to interview you about it.”
I sent out probably between emails and then just literally – as this is 2005, so there's no Facebook or Twitter or these other ways that I might get ahold of these people another way, I sent out even just letters and packets to their agents, to all these comics. The ones you see in the movie are all the ones I interviewed except two.
There's two people that didn't make the cut, just because of the footage and the sound didn't come out well enough to put in the movie. One of those is a guy named Nick Griffin, who's a very comic out in New York, and the other one is Daniel Tosh. This was Daniel Tosh, before he had Tosh.0, but be had done Letterman.
It was one of those guys I knew who was obviously going to be pretty famous at some point. He was very gracious and I interviewed him at a comedy club, but the sound was bad, so we weren't able to include it in the movie. All the other comics, those were the ones that reached out back to me and said, “Yes, I would love to talk to you about this.”
There's a lot of comedians - I don't want to name out too many, like I'm trashing them, but there are a lot of comedians that didn't respond or didn't write back, but those comedians you see in the movie, Jim Gaffigan, Ray Romano, Kevin Nealon, Bryan Regan, Wilbur, those guys are notoriously nice guys in the business, and I think it shows, because those are the ones that either themselves or through their managers got back to me and said, “Yes, I would love to talk to you about this. Let's set it up.”
Basically everyone that did get back to me is in the movie, but yes, there's some big names that I never heard anything from. I think, as it happens, the right ones are the ones that you do get. It works itself out.
Nicholas: In your own words, why do you think people should see the film?
Steve: When I started the movie, it was, in some ways, a selfish dream I had. I was willing to do, at that point – and I think you see in the movie – other people might be worried about their escalating bills and not having insurance, all these things. I decided, if I only had five years, I was going to spend that time chasing this dream.
It's a little selfish. I was just thinking about how I wanted to spend my time, no matter the effect of that on my family, my friends, Denise, who became my wife in that time. There's a little selfishness to it in the beginning, but the great thing is even way, way before anything really happens in the movie, just from putting up that website, I started hearing from other people who said, “Hey, I sent an email to Dave,” or, “Hey, I heard about this project from a friend. You've inspired me to pick up a dream that I've left behind, or realized that I've been saying someday to something I want to do. Now, instead of waiting for it, I'm going to do it.”
That was happening almost right away, before we even had the idea of making a film and that type of stuff. It's pretty inspiring, back to me, that now all of a sudden I felt a little ways back, like, “Oh my god, now I really want to reach this goal, not just for myself, but for these other people.” Now that the movie's come out, and then we've had a book as well come out – the movie was really popular in the film festival circuit.
So many people reach out. Every day I get emails or Twitter or Facebook stuff from people saying, “Hey, I saw your movie, or I just even heard about it, and what an amazing thing. You've inspired me to pick up something I've always wanted to do, and now I'm going to chase it.”
People write me and they're like, “Hey, I met you at a film festival and I told you I was going to go to Africa or I was going to write a book or I was going to run a marathon,” and then they send me a picture and they've done it. That's really, even more than getting on Letterman, for me, it's been this incredible, crazy thing, I could never have planned.
That's my favorite part of it. That's, of course, one of the reasons I want a billion people to see it, because I think then maybe a billion people will be chasing something they've just been waiting on or saying, “Someday I'll do this.” I think the world's a better place, when people are in that mode of chasing down thins that they really want out of life. That's why I think anyone should see it.
Nicholas: How do you think the film's going to do On Demand?
Steve: We're really excited. So far, all we've done, again, we basically showed the movie at film festivals last year. We won awards – I think we went to twelve film festivals and won twelve awards. We had an incredible run, but just from film festivals, any time we would create this buzz, people would hear about it.
Unless you were at that film festival or lived near there, you couldn't see the movie, so we eventually got, like I said, a book deal from the people who did the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. They asked us to do a book version, so we've had all this great reaction from it, and only probably from the film festivals, I would guess, from that many film festivals, maybe 2,000, 3,000 people have seen the movie.
Now, when people hear about it,
immediately they can go see it On Demand.
We're expecting big things.
Nicholas: You said that you were confident that you had the right stuff for Letterman and that your diagnosis was a wake-up call.
Steve: Yes. Listen, it was a huge wakeup call, to all of the sudden start looking at life like, “Wow, you don't have as much time as you think you have.” None of us do, is the truth. My diagnosis, I have friends who didn't have a cancer diagnosis that died in those five years that I had, that were the same age as me, from car accidents or other things.
You never know. I think we all think we've got plenty of time to make things happen. It's definitely changed my perspective of things. Listen, now I've passed my worst case scenario, I'm at seven years, when the worst case scenario diagnosis was five years.
Now, in the back of my head, I'm thinking, “Okay, now I'm getting close to the best case scenario they gave me.” It's definitely always with me. I've been very lucky that, after that first year, when I had surgery and was in the hospital, I've pretty much been able to live a pretty normal life, one of the bittersweetness of it all.
There's no treatment or cure for the tumors I have on my liver, but because there's no treatment or cure, I haven't had to go through the things that a normal cancer patient would have to go through. I don't have to go through chemo or radiation.
That wouldn't do anything for the type of tumors I have, so it's bad that there's no cure, but it's good that, after that first year, I've been able to live a pretty normal life, except for when I have to go in for the scans and that type of stuff, and the checkups.
Yes, I've remained healthy for the past seven years, and I'm hoping that continues, but yes, it's definitely in the back of my mind, ever since the diagnosis. You never know. It might not be cancer that's going to kill me, so you've got to be on top of what you want and what you want to create in this life, because really, at any time, our plan or not, things happen. You've got to make sure that whatever it is you want out of life, you're chasing it, rather than waiting for it.
Nicholas: Is Leno back on deck?
Steve: Yes, definitely! Again, he'll still be on deck, even though I was chasing Letterman, if he called. I just didn't want to switch gears for that. If Leno calls, I'll be picking up the phone quickly.
- Nick DeNinno
Nick DeNinno Nick DeNinno is a producer based in Carlsbad, CA with practical experience in all phases of new media, content development, video production, television, and film. DeNinno is also an adviser and a programming resource to many universities who operate student-run television stations. DeNinno has launched several emerging and web television channels including National Lampoon's College Channel, Burly TV on TBS and Toga!. He is a member of the Producers Guild. @nickdeninno | @nickodw.
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