Every morning, David Lee Nelson ’00 heads to a New York coffee shop and spends an hour writing jokes. Some are good, some are not so good, but it doesn’t really matter. The culling will come later, at the end of the week. Right now, it’s just important to get something down.

Nelson used to write at home, at his computer. Inevitably, he’d become distracted. Now the stand-up comedian makes sure to get out of the house, and only brings along pen and paper. He is a man on a mission: to make funny. A disciplined approach, he’s noticed, brings results.

He’s changed other habits, too, most notably quitting drugs and alcohol. The intoxicants were a lot of fun, Nelson says, until one day they weren’t. With a clear head, he began to analyze the impact of his hedonism on his career, and how it had dulled his ambition, sidetracked his plans and sapped his energy. Booze and pot, in other words, had become distractions. Nelson finally decided that if he was going to make it in the entertainment world, he’d need every advantage available.

“It’s a very competitive, challenging field,” says Nelson. “I felt like the way I was living, partying, was an extra hurdle, impediment, in my way.”

What’s more, rather than just jettison bad habits and memories off into the past, the theatre major has used some of the struggles in his life to comedic advantage, incorporating them into his stand-up routines. For example, Nelson’s award-winning one-man show, Status Update, which he’s performed across the country and recently in Scotland, details his teetotalling and divorce. Nelson is so candid about his life, in fact, that a reviewer in Texas described Status Update as “at times uncomfortable and occasionally heartbreaking, but frequently funny.”

Despite the sometimes dark and melancholy themes, Nelson’s performances are designed to produce laughter – something that always validates his years of hard work when he hears it.

“It’s an extremely gratifying feeling to connect with an audience,” says Nelson, who compares a successful show to riding the crest of a mighty wave on a surfboard and enjoying the momentum while staying in charge of what’s to come. (For fear of ruining the comparison, he asks that you ignore the fact he’s actually never been on a surfboard.) “You’re totally with the crowd, but you’re also in front of them. You’re excited for them because you’re about to hit them with something and you can do no wrong. You’re all relating to this thing you created. It’s a very powerful feeling.”

But like many artists, the thrill of success doesn’t last for long. He’s fallen victim to continually raising his career expectations and becoming frustrated when things don’t go as planned. Misery would set in until Nelson reminded himself that if it were easy to be a stand-up comic, everyone would be doing it. These days, he takes time to acknowledge his accomplishments and savor his successes. He draws inspiration, too, from Nido Qubein’s maxim that winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people.

“I’m pretty much doing the things I set out to do when I left Charleston,” says Nelson.

That’s not to say he wouldn’t mind going on tour and attracting hundreds of people to each show. Or that he wouldn’t jump at an invitation to perform on a late-night comedy show. It’s just that he’s made peace with the fact that such opportunities might not come tomorrow – and that slow and steady often wins the race.

“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” says Nelson, who this May will premier a new show at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto festival, where he’s been performing since 2006. “I really have no timeline for this.”

– Jason Ryan
Photos by Leslie McKellar