Since 2001 I've maintained a ritual: every time I go to New York I spend an evening at the Comedy Cellar. It's one of the country's great homes of stand up. Every night the talent is top notch—you don't even need to know who's playing. More often than not though, comedy's biggest names drop by to try out new material.
Mike DeStefano was a regular at the Cellar. I saw him there a number of times. His brash and brutal style seemed to embody the spirit of the city—the classic, hardened, get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way, old-school New York.
DeStefano died Sunday of a massive heart attack. He was 44.
In a way, the comedian was on borrowed time. As explored with unflinching honesty in his act, DeStefano spent years as heroin addict. At 21 he was diagnosed with HIV. At the time of his death, he'd been clean for 11 years.
While DeStefano's appeared full of loathing and brimstone, over the years it became clear that the aggressive posture and penchant for dark material served as protection for a soft, caring and reformed soul. In a wide-ranging and touching interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, DeStefano tells the story of meeting his wife in an HIV support group, and how taking care of her as she grew sicker became his salvation.
Making the finals of Last Comic Standing, 2010 was truly a breakout year for DeStefano. It was inspiring to see him open up to the wider American audience. In turn, DeStefano seemed truly surprised and grateful to be embraced the way he was.
In his short life, DeStefano saw an inordinate amount of tragedy, but found a way to learn, grow and share from it. One can only imagine where his act could've gone. He will be missed.