Miles Austrevich, who brought together comics while battling cancer, dies at age 20
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL firstname.lastname@example.org January 4, 2013 8:48PM
Miles Austrevich, who died of a brain tumor at age 20. Austrevich collected thousands of jokes from around the country from comedians and entertainers. | Austrevich Family Photo
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:41AM
Miles Austrevich probably would have loved “Moonrise Kingdom” — the sweetly quirky coming-of-age film by one of his favorite directors, Wes Anderson.
He didn’t get to see it. He wanted to beat cancer and take the place that Yale University was holding for him. He wanted to get to the Pitchfork music fest in July.
On Dec. 23, Miles Austrevich succumbed to a brain tumor at his home in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. He was 20 years old. For more than four years, he battled a central nervous system germ cell tumor. It came back five times.
Before he died, he brought together some of the world’s funniest people. They were touched by his desire for more life.
His father, Len, once owned the Funny Firm comedy club in River North and had been a writer/road manager for Richard Jeni, the late comic. He organized a campaign, Jokes4Miles, that used humor to help his son.
Top comics (and not so top) committed jokes to video, to help Miles laugh as he faced cancer treatment. At last count, more than 3,100 jokes came in. They appear on the website www.jokes4miles.com.
“It gives you power over your situation, and if you can laugh about it, then it’s not so hard to go through,” Miles said.
A Who’s Who of stand-up and improv contributed: Will Arnett, Dane Cook, Tina Fey, Gilbert Gottfried; Tim Kazurinsky, Jay Leno, Jack McBrayer, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Paul Rodriguez, Bob Saget and Fred Willard.
Jokes poured in from comics and “regular” people in Australia, Guatemala, Northern Ireland and South Africa. Some of the jokes were delivered by Miles Austrevich’s doctors and friends.
Video get-wells came from “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks and team owners Todd and Laura Ricketts; and from “The Wire” actors Chad Coleman, who played Dennis “Cutty” Wise; and Michael Kenneth Williams, who portrayed Omar Little.
Little kids sent in little-kid jokes, like: “What do elves learn in school?” ( “The ELF-abet.”)
Even Marie Osmond got in the act, posing the question, “Why was the sand wet?”
The answer? “Because the sea. . . .weed.”
Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco dropped in at his home to wish him well. They stayed for three hours and did a private concert. Kanye performed different versions of his new songs, asking Mr. Austrevich which ones he liked best.
Mr. Austrevich went through five rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and two bone marrow transplants. He lost his hair and appetite. A hip bone began to crumble because of strong steroids.
He listed the macabre math he’d endured on www.youtube.com/watch?v=xss8z55FXFg: six hospitals, nine chemo drugs, 12 caregivers and a list of 17 medications, ending in “morphine.”
“I’ve got some, if you need it,” he said, with a look that communicated: “I know — it’s ridiculous.”
And yet, “he was just the most considerate. . . .” said his dad, trailing off. “I don’t remember him complaining in the last four years and not just about the cancer — about anything.”
“I never heard him complain. It doesn’t matter if it was in my class or the morning he passed away,” said Jeff Solin, his computer science teacher at Northside College Prep. “All he did was thank me for coming by, and he still didn’t complain.”
During a break in his treatments, he visited the Grand Canyon.
“It certainly beats isolation at Children’s [Hospital Los Angeles],” he said.
When he turned 18, he tried to exert some control over his care, via tattoo. Despite a warning in his files, medical staffers sometimes forgot he had an allergy to a skin antiseptic. When they applied it, it caused a blistery rash. He got tattoos on his arms that said in block letters; “NO CHLORAPREP.”
Mr. Austrevich had a voracious curiosity. He read everything, all the time.
His grades and test scores gained him acceptance at top schools: Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth or Yale. He chose Yale but because of his illness, he never made it there.
He trained his intellect toward his cancer fight, studying different drugs and interventions. He could discuss pharmacological tongue-twisters so adroitly, “A nurse comes around the corner,” his dad said, “and she goes ‘What doctor is that?’ ’’
He was crazy about music. In addition to hip-hop, he liked Johnny Cash, and the jazzy dissonance of composer Lalo Schifrin, who scored “Mission: Impossible,” “Dirty Harry’’ and “Rush Hour.”
“Music really helped him,” his father said. “He had lost a lot of his hearing due to the chemo. It was kind of this cruel joke that he lost it. Even at the end, he would listen to music on his iPod. He had ringing in his ears and that helped him sleep.”
He loved anime, Pixar films, “Truman” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He appreciated old classics like “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind.”
He enjoyed vegetarian food at the Chicago Diner.
Once Jokes4Miles.com took off, he insisted it should start helping other youths, his father said. The website delivers humor and support to kids fighting cancer. It notes: “We ask for jokes, not donations.”
In addition to his father, his survivors include his mother, Adriene Booth; his stepfather, Rick Nelson; his little brother, Leland Nelson; his grandparents, Pat and Larry Booth, and seven aunts and uncles.
A memorial was scheduled to be held 4 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
A celebration of his life is planned at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 on the second floor of 3660 W. Irving Park Rd. A video montage will play scenes from his life, with a soundtrack including Johnny Cash’s “Streets of Laredo.”
“Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin;
Get six pretty maidens to sing me a song.
Put bunches of roses all over my coffin.
Roses to deaden the clods when they fall.”