Dying to Do Letterman, the documentary directed by married couple Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina, chronicles five tumultuous years in the life of Steve Mazan, an average-Joe comedian whose lifelong dream is to perform on Late Show with David Letterman. That goal was expedited once Mazan was diagnosed with liver cancer and told, in early 2005, that he may have just five years to live.
Mazan set up a web site, which shares the documentary’s punny title, imploring fans to support his cause. Between 2005 and September 2009, when Mazan finally completed his mission, Fincioen and Messina compiled 300 hours of footage of Mazan and his wife, Denise, waiting endlessly for results. They instructed the couple to shoot home videos of every pivotal breakthrough or heartbreak. Thus, the film includes all the familiar one-two punches of heart-pounding anticipation followed swiftly by low blows—opening an email from an NBC chief only to be told, vaguely, to be on the lookout for snail mail; finally receiving that letter and discovering that a Letterman booking is “impossible,” etc. Will Mazan give up, and focus exclusively on his health and his marriage, or will he stay the course?
Nondescript, with a flat, slightly squawky voice, Mazan comes off like a somewhat snarky but affable computer technician you might encounter on your coffee break. His stand-up routine is of the innocuously caustic variety (example: “I had a dream I met Anne Frank in Germany and she was pissed I’d read her diary”) and the jokes are more ingratiating than gut-bustingly funny.
Quite unnecessarily, the filmmakers have Mazan narrate his saga, often through cloyingly obvious techniques such as his reading his own Top Ten List into a stage microphone. Though Mazan is clearly a loving and beloved person, he often prioritizes the project ahead of his wife’s wishes, such as her yearning to start a family. It’s not impossible that some audience members will find the entire enterprise annoyingly self-centered, or at least balk at the way Mazan uses his illness, at first, to curry favor with the show’s bookers.
But as he hones his craft, sending updated DVDs of his material to the show, eager to improve, Mazan gradually evolves, before our eyes, from a self-pitying clown into a fully mature, three-dimensional individual. In turn, Fincioen and Messina generally refrain from lionizing Mazan’s predicament, a considerable achievement given that both are close friends with him. They are not afraid to show his stubborn and mopey side, or the effect that his single-mindedness has on Denise. But little by little, they also show his growing acceptance of, and measured reaction to, reality; when he doesn’t hear from the bookers for over a year, when he’s hit with a dearth of stand-up gigs and is forced to declare bankruptcy, the audience feels tremendous sympathy for him mainly because he doesn’t erupt. He considers alternatives to his dream, and at that point, it is, ironically, impossible not to root for him to achieve it. We stop caring that the dream is sort of silly, that the jokes aren’t that hilarious, that Letterman himself maybe isn’t the pillar of comic greatness Mazan sees him as, and get thoroughly caught up in his emotional journey.
Dying to do Letterman is filled with poignant scenes between the sweetly co-dependent central couple, particularly the one where Denise, stricken with the flu, is unable to attend Mazan’s debut. But the most engaging part of this tale is the inside look at how, exactly, a show like Letterman grants aspiring comics their wishes. When Mazan sends his first audition tape in, the response is that he must cut jokes with long stories or even “characters,” a telling example of how television is still devoted to the antiquated one-liner format. And weirdest of all, the bit that wins those hard-hearted NBC suits over is Mazan’s most harmless and possibly least funny: an in-depth analysis on the merits of hotel keys vs. swipe cards.
Dying to do Letterman was recently shown in New York as part of the DocuWeeks Festival.