David Lee Nelson had no idea that he would be returning to his alma mater as a "star of tomorrow" when he approached Todd McNerney, the chair of the theatre department at the College of Charleston, about performing in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
Nelson had kept in touch with McNerney, his former voice professor. So when the actor-turned-stand-up comic came through town last year from his home in New York City, he dropped off a short tape of his work behind the mic.
McNerney liked what he heard and decided it dovetailed perfectly with an idea he had been toying with since he was just a lowly professor: creating a showcase for the school's talent.
"Basically, I was borrowing the idea from the college's music department, which does a noonday recital and young artists series during the festival to showcase their students," says McNerney, who began working with the festival 12 years ago, even before taking a job teaching at the college.
Fittingly, he named the series Stelle di Domani (star of tomorrow) in honor of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival's Italian roots. In addition to hosting Nelson's three-comic show, which will welcome local comedians on certain nights throughout the festival, Stelle will also feature Wolfi, an original play about a 21-year-old Mozart written by CofC students Mary Ruth Baggott, Julie Fitzgerald, Samantha Garman, Will Acevedo, and theatre department prof Allen Lyndrup; and a performance of hot au courant playwright Steven Dietz's rock'n'roll play, Trust, starring two students.
"One thing that I think is true about our theatre program is that, even in our own community, we're not recognized for the quality of work," says McNerney. "We are one of the finest theatre programs in the state, in the Southeastern region, and that has manifested itself in a variety of ways."
One of those "ways" is Nelson, who graduated in 2000 after knocking 'em dead as the lead character, Prior, in the department's excellent production of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's award-winning play about the advent of AIDS in this country.
So how did Nelson make the trip from funny/odd and 145 Coming St. to funny/ha-ha and New York City? Apparently, with stopovers in Alabama and Los Angeles.
"After I finished working for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, having earned a master's in fine arts, I quickly found out that regional theatre and all of its travel was not my scene, so I headed out to L.A. to be with my wife, who was finishing grad school at U.C. Irvine, where she was earning an MFA in acting, too."
Apparently, funny/ha-ha is in the water at Irvine, as Jon Lovitz also graduated from that department. Soon, Nelson the trained Shakespearean actor found himself on stage as Nelson the untrained comic. And he found out immediately that he loved it.
"I'd rather do stand-up because it's me, for better or worse, and what I thought of something," says Nelson on an off day from stand-up and his job waiting tables. "The response is just so immediate; you immediately know whether what you are doing is working or not working. It's much, much more personal."
After he and his wife decided to make the move to New York, Nelson had the good fortune to fall into a slot at a comedy club that had just opened and was desperate for acts. As such, the talented Charleston native soon found himself performing six days a week, sometimes as many as four shows a night.
These days, Nelson is working better rooms. Specifically, the Gotham Comedy Club on West 23rd, which regularly welcomes some of the biggest names in comedy — Seinfeld, Larry David, Jackie Mason, and others — to its stage. He's even cracked the vaunted stage at Caroline's, albeit on a Tuesday night.
Nelson has reversed course even further from his rigid training, and is now taking fourth-level improv classes from instructor Kevin Mullaney at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, which, he says, has greatly expanded what he thinks "funny" can be.
Isaac Witty, Skinny White Comics headliner, is definitely funny. The child of touring Christian family comics, Witty has performed his absurd and totally clean humor in A-level comedy clubs around the country, as well as on A Prairie Home Companion and The Late Show with David Letterman.
Nelson can't wait to see how audiences laugh at Amy Schumer, the show's host and the niece of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "She's really a dear friend and very, very funny."
Nelson's also looking forward to reacquainting himself with his old perch at Clara's Coffee on King Street. "One of the saddest things about leaving Charleston was not getting to see Papa Ron every day," says Nelson, referring to the shop's owner, who prefers to keep his last name "a secret."
And for 17 days in May and June, Nelson will get a chance to see his old friends, and old friends will get a chance to see him. But this time, Nelson will be a "star," thanks to Todd McNerney.
SKINNY WHITE COMICS • Piccolo Spoleto's Stelle di Domani Series • $15, $12 seniors/students • May 27, 28, 30, June 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 at 8:30 p.m.; May 29, June 3, 6, 10 at 6:30 p.m. • 1 hour 15 min • Theatre 220, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • 554-6060