Sick comedian's goal: Do Letterman show or die trying

Hanover Park cancer patient in documentary

 
 
Updated 6/16/2011 5:43 AM
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  • Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan's goal to be on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after his cancer diagnosis fuels a documentary airing Friday in the Just for Laughs festival.

    Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan's goal to be on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after his cancer diagnosis fuels a documentary airing Friday in the Just for Laughs festival.

  • Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan's goal to be on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after his diagnosis with incurable liver cancer fuels a documentary airing Friday as part of the Just for Laughs festival.

    Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan's goal to be on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after his diagnosis with incurable liver cancer fuels a documentary airing Friday as part of the Just for Laughs festival.

  • Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan and his wife, Denise, hand out fliers promoting a documentary about Steve's effort to fulfill his dream of performing on David Letterman's show after being diagnosed with incurable liver cancer nearly seven years ago.

      Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan and his wife, Denise, hand out fliers promoting a documentary about Steve's effort to fulfill his dream of performing on David Letterman's show after being diagnosed with incurable liver cancer nearly seven years ago. JAKE GRIFFIN | Staff Photographer

  • Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan hands out fliers to promote the documentary being shown at the Gene Siskel theater in Chicago about his efforts to perform on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after being diagnosed with incurable liver cancer.

      Comedian and Hanover Park native Steve Mazan hands out fliers to promote the documentary being shown at the Gene Siskel theater in Chicago about his efforts to perform on "The Late Show with David Letterman" after being diagnosed with incurable liver cancer. JAKE GRIFFIN | Staff Photographer

There's nothing like a little incurable cancer to kick-start someone's attempt to fulfill a lifelong dream.

That's how comedian and Hanover Park native son Steve Mazan's award-winning documentary "Dying to do Letterman" begins.

What follows is the 41-year-old's journey to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" while coping with a diagnosis of inoperable liver cancer that could claim his life in as little as five years.

"The cancer diagnosis is what made me push for the things I wanted," he said inside the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, where the movie will be screened Friday as part of TBS' Just for Laughs festival. "I learned that someday is not going to come, you gotta go get it."

The documentary sprang from a series of vignettes that appeared on his website to update fans about his effort to perform on Letterman's show beginning in 2006. A friend who helped produce Mazan's first comedy DVD suggested making the documentary a year later.

"He made us promise that even if he died we'd make the movie and make the ending funny," said Biagio Messina, who directed the film with his aptly named wife, Joke Fincioen -- she's Scandinavian.

"The problem for us was how do we make cancer entertaining," Messina said.

The solution was not to dwell on it. Mazan didn't, so the filmmakers didn't, either.

"We didn't want to make a sad, sappy cancer film," Mazan said. "I don't really do much about cancer in my sets. Sometimes I'll throw in a little in the end, but I always felt that if I made much of it then it would change the whole dynamic of the show."

Little is shown of his regular visits to doctors and health centers for checkups. Nor is the financial toll it took on him to deal with the modern American health care system.

"I had insurance," Mazan said. "I even had a policy that specifically spelled out a $10,000 payout in the event I get cancer. After the first year with this I was $50,000 in debt."

His eventual personal bankruptcy is glossed over in favor of a focus on the laughs.

Throughout the documentary the observational comic riffs on topics like the ironic spelling of "lisp," offending Anne Frank in a dream, the bothersome nature of standing ovations and a fortuitous bit about hotel keys.

Mazan first gave himself a year to get on Letterman's show, but when interviewing other comedians who had appeared on Letterman's program for advice, he soon found the goal unlikely. The documentary includes snippets from those interviews with the likes of Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Nealon, Arj Barker and Brian Regan. Mazan is unfazed when Romano tells him it took 11 years for him to take Letterman's stage after his first audition for the starmaker.

"Looking back, it seems silly, knowing what I know now," Mazan said.

Along for the ride is Mazan's wife, Denise, the quintessential California girl whom he had been dating for just six months when he was diagnosed with cancer. Mazan tried to break up with her. Denise instead suggested getting married.

"I still loved him," she said. "That didn't stop because he had cancer. I knew we were going to get married even before. But there were times when I thought, 'This is not what I signed up for.'"

Undaunted by an initial rejection letter from one of Letterman's executive producers, Mazan hones his act over the next four years at comedy clubs with cringe-inducing names like Rooster T. Feathers and trips to Iraq to perform for the troops. During one visit, Mazan's camera captures enemy mortar fire striking an ammunition depot about 300 yards from the stage.

"I realized it may not be the cancer that kills me, so I started working harder," he said.

The film also captures Mazan moments after the bombing watching Letterman on a television in the basement of one of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein's palaces. Letterman's guest that night was one-time boy-bander Nick Lachey.

"Yeah, that gets a lot of laughs from my comedian friends," Mazan said. "They always say how great it is that I'm stuck in Iraq getting bombed and Nick Lachey is living my dream."

Without giving away too much about the ending, Mazan said the plan was always for the movie to end one of two ways.

"To do the show or die trying," the very alive Mazan said.