David Lee Nelson has to write every day to be funny. For him, there is a metabolic connection between putting pen to paper and getting a laugh. If he doesn’t, he’s not funny. For a guy aiming for a career in stand-up comedy, that’s not a good thing.
So every morning, this graduate of the College of Charleston’s theater program greets the sun at his desk where he writes about a dream, about an idea he had, or about the annoying mouth-breather sitting next to him on the New York subway. After a week, he goes back to his notes to find maybe three pages of good material that he further works over in a live setting — at a night club in front of real people waiting to laugh.
“If I can get three things, that’s a good week,” Nelson says by phone from New York, where he lives and works. “Other comics never pick up a pen, ever. They just come up with bankable material, and those are the guys I hate the most.”
One of those guys is Nelson’s good friend Nick Cobb.
“Nick is hilarious,” Nelson says. “And he never writes anything.”
They, along with Isaac Witty, present Skinny White Comics: Yes We Hope We Can, a series of classic stand-up shows as part of Piccolo’s Stelle di Domani Series. Cobb, who’s appeared on MTV and AMC, emcees. Witty has been on Late Show with David Letterman and Comedy Central. This is the third time Skinny White Comics has come to Charleston since 2006.
Nelson’s theater background partly accounts for his writing habit, but he’s been writing since high school. Over the years, he’s filled some 30 notebooks with his musings, he says. He’s spent a lot of time trying to find out what’s funny, and the strategy so far seems to be working.
“I actually make most of my income from stand-up now,” Nelson says. “I’ve been working almost every weekend out of town and on the road. Everyone wants to laugh more these days. The comedy clubs are packed. I guess when the economy goes south, everyone does what they can to laugh. Or else they kill themselves, I guess.”
Focusing on stand-up is a recent move. Nelson’s original one-man play, The Silence of Lucky, was warmly received at last year’s Piccolo. (Nelson has also hosted a City Paper blog under the same title.) He took the show back to New York and won a mention in The New York Times, the virtual stamp of approval by the Big Apple’s theater establishment. He also directed Lobby Hero for Piccolo last year and performed in Keeping Watch in 2007. Pursuing theater, though, proved distracting from his stand-up routine.
For Skinny White Comics, he had in mind a traditional show like those you find in any serious comedy club where there’s an emcee, a feature for 30 minutes, and a headlinder for 45. As for the name, Skinny White Comics, there wasn’t a standard for that.
“I’m white, I’m skinny, I’m a comic. So let’s call it Skinny White Comics,” he says. “Besides, there’s just something funny about the word ‘white.’ I had a friend join me one time for the show at another club. She’s my good friend, and she’s a 250-pound black woman.
“The name still worked.”