“What better way to get ready for Monday than to laugh and get drunk on Sunday?” says David Lee Nelson.
It’s clear the comic and playwright isn’t struggling to sell his newest Sunday communion in the Holy City. The DL (short for Down Low), Nelson’s recurring comedy show at O’Hara & Flynn, is a comic showcase that features three local stand-up acts, plus Nelson, who closes the evening.
The idea came to him when he was living in New York City. In 2011, Nelson set up The DL in an East Village basement bar that ran every other week for six months. Back then, the experience of putting on his own show allowed Nelson the freedom to explore topics and work on content for his 2012 solo play, The Elephant in My Closet. Nelson’s hoping for a similar effect with this Lowcountry iteration of The DL — he has another solo play in the works for spring 2016.
“My favorite feeling as a stand-up is when I say something that I think or feel or have experienced, and a room full of people realize that they have had that same thought but felt like they were the only one. That, to me, is the best feeling in the world,” says Nelson.
While Nelson hones his craft and nets new fans at the jewel box of a wine bar on Meeting Street, he’s also giving the stage to fellow comics who are beyond beginner open mic nights. “Charleston is a unique case because while we have a very active stand-up scene, we don’t have a club dedicated exclusively to stand-up, so we have to make shows ourselves,” he says. “But the comics I’ve chosen have risen to the occasion and crushed.”
A recent Sunday night at O’Hara & Flynn featured Sam Hendry, Andy Rider, and Joseph Coker — a trio of dudes who riffed on their sex lives (or lack thereof), jobs, millennial ephemera like snacks of the ’90s, and the mystifying suggestions of Pandora. In the small space, you can feel the big hits and almost-hits of successful quips and turns of phrase that get the audience giggling or guffawing, but you can also see quick wit in action when comics give commentary in real-time — for instance, their fellow comedian’s last set, the tourist outside the bar’s picture window, or the woman in the back row who’s knowingly laughed at every marriage joke.
A fifth person of note is the one behind the bar: Lauren Duffie runs the joint and “has single-handedly turned it into a phenomenal music venue,” says Nelson. Thursday through Saturday, the bar hosts acts like Bill Carson, Lindsay Holler, Ron Wiltrout, She Goes He Goes, and the Amazing Mittens. That was what gave Nelson the idea to try comedy on Sundays, the one night the bar is actually scheduled to be closed. “Lots of times rooms that are good for music are also good for comedy, so I thought let’s give it a shot. And so far it’s been great,” he says.
The typical crowd is made up of a few adventurous tourists who may have spotted the sign in the O’Hara & Flynn window, those who know Nelson or a performer, and a smattering of Charlestonians who’ve heard the gospel from former attendees.
Like O’Hara & Flynn’s live music nights, attending The DL is free. And like any night there, the service is spectacular. Forget the sloppy cocktails of your comedy show nightmares, this is the stuff of Charleston’s dreams — a charcuterie menu, cheeses, desserts, small plates, and a selection of wines make it easy (or necessary?) to end the weekend on a high note.
“In New York, some of the best shows in the city are these intimate bar shows,” says Nelson. “Unlike music, stand-up comedy is not an art form that works in the background. The problem with most stand-up shows at bars is that there are always people just there to get a drink and talk, and all of a sudden jokes are happening. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just a tough situation.”
The Sunday shows take advantage of the small and captive (if tipsy) audience who know what they’re in for — manchego, Kim Davis digs, and all. The intimacy may seem like ideal training wheels for those comics fresh off a few open-mic nights, but Nelson says that’s not necessarily the case, and in fact the caliber of comics is really anyone who catches his eye. “Jeremy McLellan and Mike Brocki do The DL all the time and they just destroyed Charleston Music Hall with Most Races Show on Earth,” he says. “Right now in Charleston it’s mostly guys doing stand-up, but I would love, love, love to see more women in Charleston doing it. Jessica Mickey is one of the funniest stand-ups we have.”
Meanwhile, the stand-up scene is blossoming in other ‘burbs and bars around Charleston. Open mics take place at the Sparrow on Mondays, Joe Pasta on Tuesdays, and Black Sheep on Wednesdays. “These are shows that anyone can sign up for. One of the things I love most about stand-up is if you really want to do it, there is nothing standing in your way,” says Nelson.
But Nelson also hopes that his expertise and enthusiasm are a model for budding showrunners who want to contribute their part to the scene. “I’m just trying to get funnier and write new jokes like everyone else,” says Nelson. “I would love for the stand-up scene to get bigger. I have been doing it a long time and have experience producing shows, so maybe if people see that I can do it, they’ll realize they can do it as well.”