Todd McNerney, chair of the College of Charleston theater department, likens him to Spalding Gray, famed autobiographical monologist. To others he's that guy in Piccolo favorite Skinny White Comics. And to a few optimistic CofC drama students, he's hope that an acting career outside of college exists. His name is David Lee Nelson, and as he'll explain, it's complicated.
Nelson, a five-year Spoleto veteran, graduated from the College of Charleston theater program in 2000, got his masters, married his college sweetheart, moved to L.A., then wound up in New York, where he's been working as a successful stand-up comedian ever since. Life was good, until last year. "My wife left me, and I started to update my Facebook status. A lot," says Nelson. Thus the impetus for his one-man Stelle Di Domani series Piccolo show, Status Update, all about the aftermath of his marriage and life as a comedian.
Festival regulars will remember Nelson from his original one-man show, Silence of Lucky, which debuted in 2008. A Sedaris-like anecdotal tale based on Nelson's youth, Lucky included stories about family life, including this little gem: "When I was a kid, I lived in Saudi Arabia, and all my neighbors were girls. So they dressed me as a little girl. I put on lipstick, eyeliner, panties. I got to a party that was at a mosque, and I walk in wearing full drag. I saw my dad's face, and he was so ashamed. I looked like a dirty little whore." Nelson brings humor to the awkward and painful moments in life, allowing everyone in the audience to commiserate.
In his production of Status Update, the theme is divorce, but Nelson manages to find comedy even in that. "I'm 31, and I feel like for a lot of people my age, the sheen of marriage has worn off, you're divorced or separated, or spend way too much time on Facebook," he says. "If you're one of those people, then you should come to my show."
The best news for potential audiences is that you can get a taste of the status update action, pre-Piccolo. "Monday through Friday I have a new status thing — go check those, follow those updates before the show," says Nelson. Friend him and get little festival previews such as:
"April 8, 10 a.m.: My dad called Barack Obama a thug. I guess we have much different definitions of thug. Mine is someone who wants to beat you up, his is someone who wants to expand health coverage to uninsured Americans."
"March 25, 2:05 p.m.: I like when a girl asks me what I want to do while we're having sex. Nothing is more sexy to me then talking about my eventual headlining of Carnegie Hall."
"May 1, 12:56 p.m.: I'm at my grandmother's 90th birthday party in Giddensville, N.C. We're gonna get fucking wasted!"
McNerney says Nelson is a talented young man and even credits him with helping the school's Stelle Di Domani series get off the ground. "In some ways he was the impetus behind the idea," says McNerney. "Shortly before I became our department chair, he left a demo tape of his stand-up in my mailbox, and I thought it was funny, but I didn't have a way to help him. But it stuck in my head."
When the professor took over the theater department, he wanted to make sure the college had a stronger presence at Piccolo, and that's when he recalled Nelson's tape. "I called him, and he brought a night of stand-up with Skinny White Comics." Nelson has continued to return to the festival every year since.
"He loves coming back here to the city and his alma mater," says McNerney. "He and a number of the other alumni have this wonderful opportunity to share and get a license to play in a space that would be way more difficult in New York."
Nelson agrees that both his love of Charleston and the opportunity to stretch his creative wings keeps him coming back year after year. "With stand-up, I try a bit out that night or the next day." But the focus isn't just on getting a laugh. "That frees me as a comic. It doesn't have to get a laugh," says Nelson.
It may not have to get a laugh, but judging by the material Nelson has to work with, it will.