I was saddened to learn that stand-up comic, Mike DeStefano, a fellow Bronxite, died Sunday of an apparent heart attack.
He was 44.
Like most comics, DeStefano, a former heroin junkie, had his share of demons, demons he wrestled his entire life. Almost three years ago, I interviewed DeStefano for The Palm Beach Post when he was in West Palm Beach for a show.
My opening paragraph gave me the chills.
By Kevin D. Thompson
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Mike Destefano should be dead.
When you snort as much cocaine, shoot as much heroin and drink as much alcohol as Destefano did while growing up in The Bronx, you don't normally live to see your 25th birthday.
Destefano is 40.
And still alive.
"I guess," he says softly over the phone, "I'm lucky."
Not only lucky, but also quite successful as a stand-up comic who has turned a lifetime worth of drug addiction into a funny act.
Destefano is a regular at all the top New York comedy clubs. Soon he'll be going on tour with Denis Leary's Rescue Me stand-up show. He brings his fearless brand of humor to the Cuillo Centre for the Arts on Saturday night for a two-show set.
There wasn't much to laugh about when Destefano was a boy. His father was a reckless gambler with a violent temper. His brothers were in and out of prison. To cope, Destefano started drinking when he was 12. Two years later he graduated to the hard stuff: coke and heroin.
"My family life was bad," he says.
Destefano, however, doesn't blame his dysfunctional upbringing for the choices he made.
"I just liked getting high," he says. "I know tons of people who've been through a rough time and they don't do drugs and alcohol. Addiction is just pure self-indulgence."
Destefano went to rehab for the first time at age 18. He stayed clean for about two years, got a job as a drug counselor and went to college part time.
But the demons came back. They always did.
"I just couldn't handle it," he recalls. "I would stay clean for like a year or two and then relapse."
While back in rehab in 1985, Destefano met Fran, an HIV-positive woman who would become his wife seven years later. Slowly, Destefano's life began to change for the better. In 1990 he and Fran moved to West Palm Beach, where the weather was warm and the pace slower.
"It was such a nicer lifestyle there," he says.
But Fran died of AIDS in 1998 at Hospice of Palm Beach County. Destefano was devastated and, out of ignorance, a little embarrassed.
"I was ashamed to say my wife had AIDS," he says. "I would say she had cancer. I was ashamed people would think I was gay or bisexual."
Looking to fill a void in his life, Destefano decided to try stand-up. While working as a counselor in New York, Destefano didn't just lecture about the dangers of drugs, he told jokes.
When the now defunct Spanky's in downtown West Palm Beach was hosting an open-mic night, Destefano gave it a shot.
"I killed the first time onstage," he recalls. "People were hysterical. It was so fulfilling. For the first time in my life, I felt I found something I was meant to do and I found something better than drugs to express myself and get rid of all that pain."
To make ends meet between gigs, Destefano worked as a club promoter and a doorman on Clematis Street. "I had no plan B," he says. "I knew I was going to make it. I went to every comedy club and every time there were a group of people around, I would tell jokes."
Not everyone will get -- or appreciate -- Destefano's type of humor. His personal Web site, after all, is www.puppiesandheroin.com.
"Those are two of my favorite things in the world," he explains. "Heroin is not bad. It's just really bad to do it. And I love puppies."
Calling stand-up a "messy" art form, Destefano says talking about his troubled life has been therapeutic. "It's always good to come out and say what you feel," he says.
Destefano is also proud to say he's been clean for 10 years. Performing onstage and making people laugh is now his drug of choice. To prove he's no longer haunted by those old demons, Destefano moved back to the same Bronx neighborhood where he grew up. His mother lives right upstairs.
"I like it there," Destefano says.
He also likes turning pain into laughter. "I've had a lot of different experiences," Destefano says. "And I have a way of taking all that and making it funny."
Monday, March 7, 2011
Kevin D. Thompson writes news stories and features on Lake Worth and Greenacres for The Palm Beach Post. He has more than 30 years of newspaper and magazine experience as a writer, editor, reporter and blogger. Kevin joined the Post in January 1996 as an entertainment writer. He was the paper's television critic for 12 years (1996-2008) and theater critic for one (2008-2009). He also covered higher education and the Palm Beach County School District. Before joining The Palm Beach Post, Kevin covered entertainment extensively and wrote celebrity profiles for such newspapers and magazines as the New York Daily News, the New York Post and Essence while working as a freelance writer.