Mike DeStefano

Mike DeStefano

Stand-up comedian Mike DeStefano died last night after suffering a heart attack, Punchline Magazine reports today. He was 44 years old.

The Bronx-born comic, who was HIV positive and began his comedy career about a decade ago after overcoming drug addiction and the death of his wife, had begun to gain national mainstream success after finishing fourth out of thousands in the most recent season of Last Comic Standing. He was also scheduled to perform his new one-man show A Cherry Tree in the Bronx this Wednesday at the Barrow Street Theater in NYC. News of DeStefano’s death was confirmed to Punchline by a friend of the family.

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of a dear friend, a true gentleman, a great comic, and a fierce warrior, Mike DeStefano,” DeStefano’s rep said in a statement to TMZ today. “Mike had a lot of wisdom to share with the world from his own life lessons and he always did it with laughter and a smile. It’s hard to think that there won’t be any more ‘hey sweetheart’ calls, because Mike always made my day with his mix of kindness and warmth AND profanity filled rants against the wrongs of the world. He was the genuine article. We love you and will miss you, Mike.”

DeStefano showcased his brutally honest approach to comedy earlier this year when he debuted his one-man show Drugs, Disease and Death: A Comedy at The Producers’ Club in New York. (A Cherry Tree in the Bronx was to be a further exploration of this similar work-in-progress.) He opened up about his Catholic upbringing in the Bronx, his heroin addiction that began at age 15, and how a career as a drug counselor eventually led to comedy when he discovered that audiences liked to laugh at him. DeStefano’s humor was inspired by his desire to share the truth of his experiences with others, in an effort to help those who might be struggling and who could relate, or just needed a laugh.

I spoke with Mike DeStefano before the premiere of Drugs, Disease and Death in February, and found myself in awe of the strength and vulnerability on display at the same time, in both his on-stage stories and the self-aware analyses of his own private thoughts and behaviors.

“I wanted to be somebody who can talk about really terrible personal experiences,” he told me last month, “and make people laugh at it so that they feel better… You tell the truth and people will see that they’re not alone. What’s hard to do is to really be vulnerable as myself and make that funny. I want to take the darkest parts of my life and try to make people laugh with it.

“I always had a deep feeling in me that my life wasn’t just for me,” he added. “That if I had an experience and got through it, then I saw an obligation to share it with people. Because everybody is suffering, everybody is in the same boat.”

mike destefano

Cris Italia of Cringe Humor, the producer of A Cherry Tree in the Bronx and Drugs, Disease and Death, wrote today on the Cringe Humor site:

“We are confirming that Mike DeStefano has passed. We are deeply saddened. This is a devastating day for the comedy world. Our deepest condolences go out to Mike’s family and loved ones. Mike had become a brother to us, the shock and the sadness that comes from this will be felt forever. Mike was the epitome of what Cringe Humor stands for. Always real. Always True. Always Funny. We’ll be updating the site with any information. Thank you all for your kind thoughts and support.”

Fellow comedians took to Twitter today to share their love and support. Jim Norton wrote: “In LA, just waking up to the sad news about Mike DeStefano. He helped so many people. I’m glad he was my friend.” New York City stand-ups including Judah Friedlander, Hannibal Buress, and Eugene Mirman have all tweeted their thoughts. (Even former The Hills star Heidi Montag tweeted: “Devastated to learn about the passing of Mike DeStefano. Hilarious comedian with a great heart. RIP Mike.”)

In addition to appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Howard Stern Show,” and “Comedy Central Presents,” DeStefano was a featured performer at HBO’s Aspen Comedy Festival and the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. But he found his largest audience on the NBC comedy competition show Last Comic Standing.

Audiences will no longer be able to see his stand-up or future solo shows like A Cherry Tree in the Bronx. You can hear more of Mike DeStefano’s incredible story, though; listen to this excellent and insightfully personal “WTF with Marc Maron” interview with DeStefano, recorded in a drug rehab facility in Florida in December 2010.

I consider myself lucky that I had the opportunity to meet, speak with, and learn from a truly unique voice among New York comics. DeStefano said that he had found peace and happinees for the first time in his life, following years of suicidal thoughts and depression stemming from his childhood, addiction, and HIV diagnosis. They say that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” DeStefano had already found hilarity in horror, but we wish he had had more time to enjoy it.

This story was posted online March 7, 2011 at Blog Stage.