A Dream Comes True

Editor’s Note: “Mean Mike” Veron was a true character of the Central Coast, the first non-Cal Poly friend I made after arriving in San Luis Obispo in 1987. Mike was a psych tech at Atascadero State Hospital and fledging standup comedian. From 1982 until his death from cancer in 1998, Mike tried just about anything and everything in order to catch fame. He would dress up as a Mafioso and deliver a dead fish to someone for $50. Mike was a regular at The Dark Room and Bob Zany’s, but honestly, Mike had more ambition than talent and his jokes (“I hit a dip in the road the other day. It was guacamole”) tended to fall flat. His big goal was to get on “The Gong Show” and he tried repeatedly without success. So when he died, I decided to do something different in tribute. I gave “Mean Mike” his dream…

Mike Veron, Atascadero comedian, died last Saturday. He was 52. This newspaper carried his obituary on Tuesday, but even with all that small type, there was only room for a tiny snapshot of his comedy career. Having written about Mike for a few years, I’d like to offer a larger portrait.

Perhaps you knew him better as “Mean Mike,” the on-stage blue-collar persona that he so successfully created. Mike launched his comedy career from Atascadero around 1980, telling jokes from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Wherever there was an audience, Mike was there, his trademark bullwhip in hand, cracking jokes. The guy was a natural.

Mike’s big break finally came in February 1983. He was appearing at the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena, opening for Rodney Dangerfield. A talent booker for “The Tonight Show” happened to be in the audience and afterwards, Mike was invited to audition for the Carson show.

Mike Veron made his comic debut on “The Tonight Show” on March 5, 1983, squeezed in between Angie Dickinson and the musical group Air Supply.  By all accounts, Mike was a smash from his opening joke. The studio audience interrupted his monologue repeatedly with applause. Johnny Carson hailed Mike as “a fresh comic voice, destined for the big time.”

In all, Mike made 23 guest appearances on “The Tonight Show.” The night he staged an impromptu water fight with Carson and actor Burt Reynolds produced one of the single highest ratings in the program’s history.  In an interview published shortly before his retirement, Carson told TV Guide that Mike Veron was one of his favorite all-time guests.

“Some people never understood that Mean Mike character,” Carson said.  “Pure genius. Right up there with Chaplain’s Tramp. Seriously.”

All this TV exposure resulted in NBC offering Mike a comedy series, “The Nut House,” based on his experiences as a psychiatric technician at Atascadero State Hospital. The NBC sitcom ran on Saturday nights from 1985-92. Though never a favorite of the critics, “The Nut House” was a consistent ratings winner and Mike was twice nominated for an Emmy as Best Actor in a Comedy Series.

He left the show to focus on other creative projects, including his bestselling book “Tales from the Nut House,” and the equally-popular sequel, “Am I Still Nuts, or What?”

Besides appearing regularly in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Mike also managed to pursue several Hollywood movie roles. His screen credits included “Cannonball Run II,” “Caddyshack III,” the entire “Police Academy” series and the original “Home Alone.” Mike was especially proud of his small, but pivotal dramatic role as the sympathetic bodyguard in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.”

Knowing the his cancer was spreading, Mike turned down an offer from CBS in 1996 to develop a new sitcom with boxer George Foreman. But Mike was in good spirits last spring when he was given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His final public appearance came last October when Mike was named Comic of the Decade by Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas.

Expressions of condolence have poured in from around the comedy world. Rosie O’Donnell paid a special farewell tribute to Mike on her TV show. Jay Leno hailed Mike as “the true King of Comedy, one of the nicest, funniest performers I ever had the honor to work with.”

Televison. Movies. Comedy clubs. Mike Veron’s dreams always carried through the drudgery of his nightly routine at the state hospital. He wanted to do it all. Those dreams never came true, though Mike always had a unique gift to make people laugh. There was nothing I could ever do about Mike’s cancer. But for today, this moment, as I mourn my dear friend, What-Might-Have-Been replaces What-Was. 

You made it, Mike. Top of the world, pal, top of the world.

San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (January 1998)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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