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In Their Own Words: ‘Dying To Do Letterman’ Directors Attempt to Mine Laughs Out of Cancer in Tricky Scene

In Their Own Words: 'Dying To Do Letterman' Directors Attempt to Mine Laughs Out of Cancer in Tricky Scene

In the documentary “Dying To Do Letterman,” filmmakers Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina follow comedian Steve Mazan on his journey to fulfill his dream of performing stand-up comedy on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” after hearing the news that he is dying of cancer. Below the pair share an exclusive scene from their film, which is currently available to view on VOD via Oscilloscope Laboratories.


Is it okay to laugh at a movie about a guy with cancer?

Comedian Steve Mazan, the subject of our documentary “Dying To Do Letterman” sure thought so.  When he learned he might only have five years to live, Steve set out to chase his life long dream: performing stand-up comedy on David Letterman’s show.

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And he asked us to make a documentary about it.

His only request was that we make it funny, regardless of how his journey ended.  As filmmakers it was a tall order.  Tonally, how do you walk that line between cancer and comedy?  How do you give an audience permission to laugh at a movie with something so awful at its center?

Which brings us to this scene from “Dying To Do Letterman.”  It happens right at the ten minute mark. The previous nine minutes are a juggling act. They need to set up a light, fun POV for the movie while also dealing with the life-changing diagnosis. Steve’s established as a working comedian, a legitimately funny guy with a big dream.  Then, while actively pursuing his David Letterman goal, he gets the news…the dreaded “C” word.  Maybe only five years to live.

That’s heavy.  No getting around it. The movie is going to feel dark for a couple of minutes.  Audiences will wonder what direction the movie’s headed.  Will it be a depressing cancer movie?  Or will the movie continue with a light tone? If so, is it okay to laugh out loud in a movie theater in front of a hundred other people? 

To us, at this point the entire film hung in the balance.  How were we going to handle that transition to the rest of the Steve’s story?

In the meantime, we’d asked Steve to brainstorm some interesting ways to narrate the five-year journey we had filmed.  He thought it might be funny to do his own Top Ten list somewhere in the movie, and came up with “The Top 10 Benefits of Catching Cancer.”

That was the moment the tone of the film crystallized for us.  While the bit sounded risky, it was being delivered by Steve, a cancer patient himself.  If anyone could joke about being sick, it was him.  Plus, if the moment worked, we knew every member of the audience would feel they had permission to laugh during the rest of the film.

Putting this scene together was a blast.  Steve wrote about 30 jokes for the list, and together we whittled them down to the ten we all liked best.  It was also a lot of fun to put together the Top 10 graphic.  We made it ourselves in a 3d program called Cinema 4d that has a really small learning curve, setting the countdown in a hospital hallway, flying past wheel chairs, floating syringes, and mutated DNA.  In the tiny bubble that was our editing bay, we loved it. We had no idea what the rest of the world would think.

Then came one of our first test screenings. It was for a room full of cancer patients, and the nerves set in. How would they react? Would we offend people?  As the movie started we waited to see if we’d made a terrible mistake.  Ten minutes into the movie, the scene rolled.

The laughs couldn’t have been bigger.  There was cheering and clapping, and the laughter continued over the rest of the film. A lot of people came up to us after the screening and specifically pointed out this scene as one of their favorites in the movie.  One young lady quoted Steve’s microwave joke and said, “Laughing about it makes me feel like a person, not a patient.”

From that moment on, this has been our favorite scene in “Dying To Do Letterman.”

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