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Steve Mazan

After being told he wouldn't survive his inoperable liver cancer, comedian Steve Mazan made it his goal to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman." He's pictured here outside the show's Broadway studio in New York. (Courtesy photo)

Dreaming the impossible dream might be easier if you're that Man from La Mancha charging at windmills.

But what if your dream is to do stand-up comedy with your hero David Letterman sitting off to the side?

Before the five years you've been given to live are up?

And what if your hopes are dashed by a response from your hero's production staff saying, and we quote, "it's IMPOSSIBLE that you'll be on this show."

For Steve Mazan, the impossible dreamer, that rejection simply made him more determined to keep charging -- if not at spinning windmills, then at that CBS studio on Broadway.

"They probably thought it was some Make-A-Wish kind of thing instead of a professional comedian asking to be allowed to perform on the show," reflects Mazan, now 41 and a full year past the date he was told his inoperable liver cancer would end his dreams.

But he wasn't making a wish; he was out to fulfill a sense of destiny he'd harbored most of his life.

And he would do it, he says, or "die trying."

His quest's offbeat results are the subject of the new documentary, "Dying to Do Letterman," receiving its downstate premiere tonight at Bloomington's Castle Theatre, with Mazan in attendance, introducing the film and talking about it with the audience afterward.

The evening itself is christened "Dying to Support Team Lucy," with the proceeds going to one of Mazan's fellow cancer travelers, 4-year-old Lucy Weber, a Bloomington toddler diagnosed with leukemia.

Mazan was taken with Lucy's story and wanted to be a part of her team, too.

He was just a kid himself when the late-night talker with the dry sense of humor first materialized on his horizon in suburban Chicago's Hanover Park.

"Dave had just gotten his first late-night show, which came on at 11:30, after Johnny Carson," Mazan recalls. "I was the kind of kid who was doing his homework at the last minute out in the kitchen."

Little Steve begin noticing the guy who came on after Carson -- younger, a little hipper. "I thought he was hilarious, but my mom didn't think he was funny."

Which, of course, validated him all the more to her son. "I loved Carson, and still do, but this guy was a little closer to my generation and my sense of humor."

It was a turning point for Mazan, abetted by exposure to an hour-long Richard Pryor special on cable around the same time.

"It was like, oh my god, you can make a living as a comedian -- I want to do that!," he recalls, never mind that his practical Midwestern roots and upbringing got in the way for the next decade or so of sensible living.

Eventually, Mazan moved to San Francisco, where the Bay City's thriving comedy club scene soon beckoned. Within four years, he was 32, and ready to quit his day job and go pro.

That dream of reaching the Letterman stage was still percolating in the back of his mind.

"OK, I'm working hard at this -- eventually he'll hear about me."

Then a bolt from out of the blue: Severe stomach pains led to the removal of his appendix and the discovery of tumors on his liver and in his intestines.

He was 35.

The intestinal tumors could be excised; the liver ones could not.

The two most-feared words in the medical world -- "inoperable," "terminal" -- were invoked.

His prognosis, at best: five years.

"At that point, I went through all the stages you go through. But when I got through them, I asked myself, 'OK, you only have five years: what do you want to do and what do you have to do to make sure they happen?'"

Guess.

It was the pre-Facebook era and YouTube was still finding its way, so all Mazan had to work with was a website he dubbed www.dyingtodo

The site was a location where people could view clips of his comedy routines and click a link allowing them to email the Letterman show in New York, encouraging them that this funny guy be booked for a performance.

The year was 2006, and before it was up, he heard from the show's staff: the email bearing that fateful aforementioned word meaning "don't even dream about it."

It was Mazan's wife, Denise, who suggested he gather all the clips and chronicle his Letterman quest in documentary terms.

A husband-wife filmmaking team, Joke (no joke) Fincioen and Biagio Messina, who'd helped produce a comedy video for Mazan, came on board.

The film took its title from the website.

At one point, the filmmakers suggested it might be easier to modify the dream, say into "Dying To Do Leno."

"No thanks," replied Mazan, who also made it clear that the documentary would be followed straight to the end, bitter or sweet, temporary or permanent.

"None of us wanted a stupid puffpiece or some sappy movie -- if I was having tough times, we'd keep the camera rolling," he added.

Solicited testimonials from fellow comedians who'd managed to get on Letterman were received from the likes of Ray Romano, Kevin Nealon and Brian Regan.

Along the four-year way, Mazan's health woes plunged him into debt and, worse, during an overseas stint performing for troops in Iraq, a mortar shell landed on an ammunition depot 300 feet from where he was.

"I realized that it may not be the cancer that would kill me," he says, "so I started working even harder."

Without spoiling the film's climax, let's just say that the neither the cancer nor anything else has kept Mazan from standing up for comedy.

Whether his impossible Letterman dream was realized remains for viewers of the film to find out for themselves.

"I have to admit that if somebody came up to me and said 'let's go see this documentary about a guy with cancer,' I'd probably say, 'sorry, I'm busy that night'," Mazan confesses.

"But really, this is a movie about chasing your dreams -- a lot more 'Rocky' than 'Philadelphia'."


They love Lucy

Tonight's Castle Theatre screening of the award-winning documentary, "Dying to Do Letterman," is a fund-raising event for 4-year-old Lucy Weber, the Bloomington toddler diagnosed with leukemia the day after Christmas last year. Following are the details for the evening, billed as "Dying to Support Team Lucy":

• Doors open at the theater, 209 E. Washington St., at 6 p.m., with events starting at 6:30 p.m.

• In attendance will be Emmy-winning comedian Steve Mazan, the star and subject of "Dying to Do Letterman," and the Mclean County MissFits roller derby team.

• Live musical entertainment will be provided by local rockers Farmageddon.

• There will be a silent auction and iPad raffle.

• The screening of "Dying to Do Letterman" will begin around 8 p.m.

• Admission is $25, via the Castle box office or at www.dyingtosupportteamlucy.evenbrite.com.

• All proceeds will go to Lucy Weber and her family, Team Lucy (including parents Zach and Shawna Weber). For those unable to attend, donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/Team-Lucy.


Red-Letterman dates

• 1982: 12-year-old Steve Mazan first dreams of performing stand-up comedy on David Letterman's late-night talk show.

• 2005: Mazan, now 35 and still not having realized his Letterman dream, is diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and given five years to live.

• 2006: Mazan begins his "do-or-die-trying" campaign to get a booking on "The Late Show with David Letterman" via website campaign; his wife, Denise, suggests chronicling the campaign in documentary terms.

• 2007: A husband/wife team who helped produce a comedy reel for Mazan agrees to direct the documentary.

• 2007-10: As he campaigns, Mazan incurs debt, is rejected by Letterman's producers and skirts death performing for troops in Iraq.

• 2011: "Dying to Do Letterman" premieres in March and wins several awards on the film festival circuit; a full year after his cancer was supposed to have claimed him, Mazan is alive and quipping.

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