Dying to Do Letterman: My Conversation With Steve Mazan

05/20/2015 04:45 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

In comedy, timing is everything, especially if you've been given only five years to live and you've made it your career goal to perform on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

The occasion of Letterman's final broadcast is an opportune time to recount one of the most triumphant moments during Dave's 33-year tenure, the "Late Show" debut of comedian Steve Mazan, who beat the professional (not to mention the health) odds to make come true his dream of performing on his hero's stage.

Mazan's five-year odyssey is chronicled in the documentary, "Dying to Do Letterman," which was also the name of his social media and grassroots campaign to bring himself to the attention of Letterman's staff. It is available for free on Hulu.

The 45 year-old comedian, spoke with me about life, Letterman, and not letting "someday" pass you by.

Mazan, a native of the west suburban Chicago city of Hanover Park, was 12 years-old when the original "Late Night with David Letterman" debuted on NBC following "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson. For three decades, the allotted six-minute slot on "The Tonight Show" was the one most desired and sought-after by comedians.

But Mazan felt more of a kinship with Letterman. "He was so different," he said. "He had a younger sensibility (than Carson). My parents hated him, and I think that made me like him even more. Any time I could, I stayed up late to watch him, and I continued all through college and in my time in the Navy. He was the guy who inspired me to get into comedy (professionally)."

Mazan began performing stand-up in 1999 in San Francisco. His early years were not about getting on "The Late Show." They were about getting good. Mazan's Midwestern work ethic told him that a Letterman appearance would surely follow,

"Work hard and good things will happen," he said. "That has always worked well for me. I just assumed that if I went out there and kept my nose to the grindstone, the Letterman people would hear about me and invite me to audition."

Every artist is a work in progress. "Dying to Do Letterman" captures Mazan's maturation as a performer, but also, hilariously, some of the hellish early gigs he did, such as between-inning sets during a minor league baseball game. "That was a promotional tie-in with a local comedy club," Mazan laughed. "The team thought it would be fun to try a comedy night. I've always been up for anything, but it was awful. The players were heckling me."

During these years, Mazan put his Letterman dream on the back burner as he worked to establish himself. That changed in 2005 following a set at the famed Improv comedy club. Driving home, Mazan experienced sharp pains in his side. By the time he got home, he could barely stand. His initial thought was, least case scenario, food poisoning, and worst case, appendicitis. Doctors delivered the devastating punchline: He had tumors all over his liver. There was no treatment or cure. They gave him five years to live.

Mazan always believed that he would get on "The Late Show" someday. Suddenly, his somedays were limited. "I now had to make someday happen and chase the dream rather than wait for it to come to me," he said.

While this sounds like something out of "King of Comedy," Mazan was not tempted to pull a Rupert Pupkin and kidnap Letterman. Instead, he sought out comedians who had done Letterman for advice, including Ray Romano, Kevin Nealon and Jim Gaffigan, who, in the documentary, tells Mazan, that there would come a time when he thought he'd be ready to be on 'The Late Show,' but it's not up to him. "When I thought I was ready," Gaffigan says, "it was still five years until they said I was ready."
Mazan might not have had five years. "It'll never happen," Nealon jokes(?) to the cameramen following Mazan's visit.

But it did. Here is the appearance:

Mazan's time with Letterman himself was short and sweet, he said. "After I told my last joke and he went to break, he said, 'Great job, really funny' and shook my hand. I asked for one of the cue cards (of my act) and he handed it to me."

Mazan is gratified that his "Late Show" routine is cancer-free. In his regular act, he said, material about his condition might comprise five minutes at the end of an hour-long set. "I never want the audience to feel sorry for me," he said. "I would be wondering if they were laughing because they thought I was funny or because they felt bad for me."

The "Late Show" staff vetted him as they would any comedian, Mazan said proudly. The documentary captures the setbacks along the way, such as an early assessment that he was not "Late Show"-good.

"It was hard to get that," Mazan said, "but at the same time, it reinvigorated me to prove to them that this wasn't a 'Make-a-Wish' thing, that I'm a good enough comic to be on their show."

Mazan reports that he currently feels great. It has been a decade since he first got the original five-year diagnosis. "The bad news is that there is no treatment or cure," he said. "The good news is that because of that, I don't have ongoing radiation or chemo, and the tumors have remained relatively small. I've been very lucky and feel as good as I ever have."

Nor has he rested on his "Late Show" laurel. He has written a book version of "Dying to Do Letterman" for the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" publishers. He was a writer on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

But after appearing on "The Late Show," and with Letterman retiring, what is his next big goal? How do you avoid a letdown? Being a part of the documentary, which has won awards at film festivals, he said, helped him avoid feeling a letdown, he said. "You do want to fill that void so you feel like you're chasing something bigger. I would love to do "Conan," (a kindred Letterman spirit). There's always another level you want to get to career-wise, a new door to break down, a new club to get into. There is always something."

A version of this story originally appeared on Millionaire