Rod Meade Sperry takes a look at how the late comedian Mike DeStefano, whose posthumous LP, Puppies and Heroin was just released, found himself on the Buddhist path.
It was a chance meeting on an airplane that set the late Mike DeStefano on the Buddhist path. Bronx-bred and raised Catholic, the famously foul-mouthed comedian known as Mikey D had struggled with drugs, darkness, and loss for much of his life and was already sure that he was no good. Now his father had died, and he was a mess.
But then the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who just happened to be seated next to him started to talk about buddhanature. As DeStefano’s friend, the Buddhist scholar John Dunne, recalls: “He told Mike, ‘You have a lot of crazy ideas about yourself. Your nature is not evil. You are a good person by nature.’ Mike said that saved his life.”
Suicide was suddenly off the table, and DeStefano became interested in the dharma. Still, he felt he needed permission to call himself a Buddhist: he didn’t feel worthy of it. Eventually, Dunne explained to DeStefano that he could just go ahead, drop the self-doubt, and take the refuge vows that mark one’s commitment to Buddhist practice. “It’s not like anyone has to give you a little badge or sacrament,” Dunne told his friend. “Your nature may be perfect, but you don’t have to be a perfect person.”
So encouraged, DeStefano took the vows on his own and got a massive Buddha tattoo on his arm. His relief was noticeable, says Dunne. “It allowed him to create a different kind of identity. Buddhism’s roots were such that it was outside of the mainstream, as was he.” In 2010, DeStefano would go on to become a favorite on the TV stand-up competition Last Comic Standing, but one suspects that his tough-talking, no-bullshit persona was probably not “safe” enough for prime time.
DeStefano didn’t have the opportunity to connect more deeply with a Buddhist teacher but he studied and thought about the dharma devotedly. Wanting to bring what he was learning into the comedic realm, he was sketching out ideas for a graphic novel featuring a jokey but sincere Buddhist hero based on himself. Yet his graphic novel never materialized.
On March 6, 2011, a heart attack ended DeStefano’s life. He had by that time lost his wife, who had been suffering with AIDS, and had himself been diagnosed as HIV positive. But he’d also been clean for many years and was excited about his new one-man show, which was just days away from opening.
Noting that “hero” is one of the ways bodhisattva might be translated, Dunne suggests that DeStefano was onto something with his semiautobiographical graphic novel idea. “He was certainly imperfect, but he was a kind of fighter. He was fighting with himself but also all those parts of our society that he was embodying in his act: the judgmentalness, the lack of compassion, the stupidity, the mean-spirited aspects of our society. He had this tenacious, even pugnacious, urge to go out and help people.”
Of a Mikey D show at Greenwich Village’s famed Comedy Cellar, Dunne remembers: “He knew I was there, and he was trying out this Buddhist joke. It completely flopped.”
A couple of Buddhist one-liners would resurface now and then in his act, but they didn’t land with the oomph of so much of his other material. Talking about the institution of Buddhism was one thing. But suffering? That, Mike DeStefano knew, would always be good for a laugh.