David Lee Nelson is a man with a lot on his mind.
The 36-year-old professor, actor, writer and comedian spends most of his time thinking up ways to make sense of the world's madness before squeezing his insights into a script, lecture or joke to present before a crowd that will more than likely love it, hate it or worse: completely ignore it.
It's fair to say that Nelson also has a lot of guts.
The Greenville native moved to Charleston in the late 1990s to attend the College of Charleston's theater program. After graduating in 2000, he ventured to Alabama to receive a master's with help from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, and then there were the inevitable moves to Los Angeles and New York City. All the while, though, Nelson returned annually to Charleston to perform one-man shows at Spoleto, and he eventually moved back for good after taking a teaching position in his alma mater's theater department.
Within all those transitions, he married and divorced, became a Democrat, started writing full-cast plays and began a more serious love affair with stand-up comedy. But as Nelson jokes, his propulsion has always been guided by a fairly simple thought.
“It's been an amazing ride, I've gotten to perform all over the world, in huge beautiful theaters and in tiny basements of bars,” he said. “What drives me is the fact that I know people have to get babysitters to come and see my shows, and that can be a hassle. I just want to make sure I'm worth the babysitter.”
Nelson and three revolving comics test that worth every Sunday night with a new stand-up series at O'Hara and Flynn Wine Bar on Meeting Street known as The DL, which Nelson organizes and hosts.
“The DL is not an open mic,” Nelson explains. “It's the continuation of a show I produced in New York City. I host, bring up three comics and then do about 30 minutes at the end. I'm just looking for comics who are smart and funny, who are going to make people want to come back and see the show again next week.”
Word about the new series has spread quickly, building a strong reputation among comics as a comic-friendly room and among audiences for having a consistently funny lineup. But Nelson attributes the success so far to both the venue and the type of typical attendee rather than his personal involvement. “(Lauren Duffie) runs O'Hara and Flynn and has turned it into one of the best spots for music in the city. Bill Carson, Lindsey Holler, The Amazing Mittens, She Goes He Goes, Gerald Gregory, Kevin Hamilton, Ron Wiltrout, Tyler Ross ... all these people play there regularly, and I wanted to be a part of that club, just with stand-up.
“(The venue) is very intimate, and there is something about a small, packed room that is great for laughter. But the reason the shows have been so great is because we have had great audiences. When crowds are there ready to laugh, ready to drink wine, comics feed off of that energy, and that's when we do our best work.”
When asked about the growth of Charleston's comedy scene, Nelson sees a bright future.
“Why is comedy so popular? I think there are more good comics than ever before, and more good comics not living in New York or L.A. or Chicago. Cincinnati has amazing comics. Minneapolis has amazing comics. ... But now you see smaller cities like Greenville and Charleston rising up, too,” he says. “Of course, there are advantages to living in those bigger markets, but the Internet allows a person to build an audience wherever they live. It's a very exciting time.”
Aside from The DL, Nelson will debut a new play directed by Sharon Graci, “A Sudden Spontaneous Event,” at Pure Theatre in March and a new solo show, “Me and Kobe Bryant,” next spring.
The DL begins at 8 p.m. Sundays at O'Hara and Flynn, 225 Meeting St. The show is free. Sunday's installment will feature performances by Michael Clayton, Lain Funke, Jeremy McLellan and Nelson.
For upcoming lineup announcements, search “The DL at O'Hara and Flynn” on Facebook for an event listing posted weekly.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Jeremy McLellan's name.