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Cinequest Review: Dying To Do Letterman

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2011

Dying To Do Letterman – directed by Biagio Messina & Joke Fincioen
Festival screening times – 3/4 @ 7pm, 3/6 @ 7pm, 3/8 @ 5pm

Steve Mazan has had one dream since he was a young lad of twelve, and surprisingly it had very little to do with masturbation. Little Steve, long considered the class clown, wanted to one day perform stand-up comedy on the David Letterman show. Why Letterman and not Carson? No clue but if one were to hazard a guess it would probably be because Letterman, unlike his white-haired mentor, was himself a truly edgy and goofy-looking comedian.

The dream sits in the back of Mazan’s head for years, but he continues to work the comedy clubs honing his craft, skipping out on bar tabs, and “disappearing” hecklers just waiting for the right people to notice him and invite him to the Show. (That’s a baseball term I learned from Bull Durham, but it seems more apt in this particular situation.) Not surprisingly, this plan of inaction gets him nowhere fast, which is when life decides to throw him an unexpected curve ball.

He’s diagnosed with liver cancer and given five years to live. Mazan’s life-long dream now has an expiration date.

Who knew a death sentence could be such a motivator?

Mazan gives himself one year to get booked on Letterman and sets out to increase the number of gigs he gets, gain wider exposure, and practice, practice, practice. He also solicits comics who have graced the Late Show stage for advice and words of wisdom. Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan, Arj Barker, and others tell him to keep performing and to focus on the comedy instead of what he thinks Letterman might like. It’s Kevin Nealon who has the wisest words of all though… “It’s never gonna happen.”

Dying To Do Letterman isn’t shy about its central theme. It does a solid job of weaving elements of Mazan’s personal life together with his quest, and it becomes a humorous and occasionally heartbreaking reminder that the journey is more important than the destination. Cliched? Sure, but it works as more than just a simple tale about trying to triumph over cancer. It’s inspirational entertainment. Or inspirtainment. That sounds like a flavor of gum so just forget I said that. Instead let’s focus on why it works as more than just a stereotypical story about someone struggling with cancer.

It works because Steve Mazon is actually pretty damn funny.

His stand-up routines are filled with humorous anecdotes and jokes that succeed as smart observational humor delivered pitch perfectly. Mazan is even more engaging and amusing offstage as he walks what to many would be a crumbling, dead end path through his tragicomic life. His Letterman goal is but one destination, and over the course of just a few years, through ups and downs that would make a carousel horse vomit, he stays focused on the important things in his life.

Directors Biagio Messina and Joke Fincioen trust Mazan to provide both the laughs and the heart and therefore rarely feel the need to edit their film in manipulative ways. They had the opportunity to capture something rare here, and they succeed in showing the audience just how important living really is… because cancer or not, we’re all dying. And even those dying to do Arsenio Hall have a dream worth fighting for. Well okay those folks are out of luck, but the point remains. Never give up. And never get up when Rosa Parks is around…

The Cinequest Film Festival runs from March 1st to the 13th in San Jose, CA. Check the Cinequest site for more information and complete schedules.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.