Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RIP Mikey D.

This past week the comedy community lost a true hero, Mr. Mike Destefano aka Mikey D. Who was Mikey D exactly? Well he was one hell of a funny comedian. He talked about what was real and close to his heart. So many comedians in this day and age care too much about making it and being liked. Okay, I am guilty but ninety eight percent of us are. Somehow, Mikey D was one of the few who wasn’t. Unlike most of the finalists on Last Comic Standing who have an act that please the housewives and their boring husbands, Mikey D didn’t have that. He talked frankly about being a heroin addict and being from the street as well as the things that pissed him off. If someone didn’t like it, oh well. He didn’t get his panties twisted about losing bookings and people he might offend. That’s what made him true and beautiful, and that’s why do many people loved him.
I myself only met Mikey D a few times and only spoke here and there because well, that's just the way it turned out. But he always holds a special place in my heart because he was in the first standup comedy show I ever saw in NYC. I remember it was a rainy night and I was considering leaving NYC. I hated school, my teachers, my classmates and of course it just wasn’t getting better. On a night that I forgot my umbrella and someone fliered me into a free comedy show for students at the Boston Comedy Club. I thought, “why not, I could dry off.” Well needless to say I saw some comedy. The host of the show was unremarkable. I kept telling myself I could do that. The first guy was okay. And then came Mikey D. He just took the stage with such energy and fearlessness. I remember suddenly it didn’t matter that I was cold and wet because I was laughing my ass off. Actually, this was harder than I had laughed in some time in my pathetic life. After he got off stage the next few guys were half decent, but not as good as he was. Something about the energy and spirit of that evening changed me, and that’s when I decided I was doing two things: staying in NYC and doing comedy.
However the thing that was truly captivating about Mike Destefano was his backstory. He was raised in a tough neighborhood in the South Bronx and had a less than spectacular home life. Not to mention he started drinking at thirteen and soon after met cocaine and heroin. He overdosed nearly dying at eighteen and finally got clean at twenty two after being diagnosed with HIV, something that was then only new to the straight world. Being an ex junkie and HIV positive he found himself isolated from his tough guy friends and the world itself. Of course in there he had his friends die from drugs and others from AIDS, including his beloved wife Franny whom he talked about from time to time during storytelling events. Then after her death he relapsed one more time before deciding enough was enough, did an open mic night, and did standup comedy and chased that like he used to chase his spike and junk.
Mike Destefano could have kept these things a secret but instead he chose to be open about being both a former addict and someone living with HIV as a comedian, activist, and educator. By no means am I putting a man on a soapbox but this was important. Why? Because when someone is trying to get clean from drugs and alcohol, they feel like the world is ending. Most of the time their life is a wreck. Each day is a challenge because in between wanting to crawl out of ones skin and explode it seems like just twenty four hours without it is an eternity. Even though people tell you getting clean and sober can be done it feels like it is an impossible task. Hercules moving the boulder would have been easier, or better yet cleaning out the stables , lets take that one. However, when someone in early recovery sees someone like a Mike Destefano doing well with their lives, making a career out of something they love, and being able to laugh, a light bulb goes off. “This recovery thing might be hard right now but it is possible. It can be done.”
Although I didn’t know Mikey D well in real time, I got to know him through his writing. I too have been involved in some grassroots HIV activism because I have had a few friends who were positive in my lifetime. Although HIV is not the killer it once was, the stigma still is alive and well. Mikey D made himself visible as someone living with the virus and used to write for Poz Magazine, a publication for HIV positive individuals. Through his writings he was funny, reflective, introspective and most importantly real. He talked about being an LTNP (Long Term Non-Progressor), someone living with the HIV virus who has not developed full blown AIDS let alone taken meds and talked about how lucky he was. He also spoke about coming to terms with his positive status, losing his wife, and getting himself on track. In addition he was also open about his love of motorcycles, something he never made a secret of.
When I heard about his death I thought the HIV took him after all this time. Then I thought it was an overdose. I have heard stories of people with extended recovery relapsing and dying. Or was it a bike accident? Then I heard it was a heart attack. He died in his sleep. Mikey D had just started taking off. The whole thing was very sad.
However, as the comedy community mourns his loss we must also remember to celebrate his life. When he was on Last Comic Standing, he was the a-typical contestant. Mikey D was fearless, but somehow we all loved him, and he got many people who would have not ordinarily cared about the show to watch. Not to mention he was on Conan, White Boyz in the Hood and Howard Stern and was a hit on each. His Comedy Central Special was awesome. The tragedy here is that the wheels were only getting started on the road to superstardom and this man had so much more to say.
On the other hand, he inspired a great many comedians to be themselves onstage without apologizing, whoever that person may be. In addition, he served as a positive power of example to many people in recovery from addiction and that were living with HIV. Mikey D showed many a recovering addict that not only was recovery possible, but there could also be fun and laughter after drugs and alcohol. He also touched the lives of many people who were HIV positive by being vocal and helping to remove the stigma the virus brings to the minds of people who are not educated about it. Since he died, the internet has been buzzing. Ordinarily I would be pissed because when someone dies so many people make it about themselves. However, Mikey D touched a lot of people’s lives. Punchline Magazine, cnn.com, TMZ and many others have made mention of his passing. In addition, In the Rooms, a site for recovering addicts that offers online meetings, made the mention.
While the NYC comedy community and recovering addicts of the world feel his loss from an unexpected heart attack, his spirit still lives on. When we think of Mikey D we will think of a guy from the South Bronx who had fallen into heroin and all the evils it brought but turned it around to be one of the greatest voices ever to come out of the New York Standup Comedy Scene. Thank you Mikey D. Thank you for showing us how it is done.

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