By Paul DiSclafani
The last time I saw comedian Bob Nelson perform, he was standing on the platform of the Massapequa Park LIRR station as a Westbound express train was approaching in the distance.
As a budding comedian, he looked down from the platform to the gathering crowd standing outside of what was then a place called “Solomon Grundy’s Frigate” (you may know it today as Johnny McGorey’s), trying to figure out how to do something funny for his newfound audience.
He pranced around the platform doing silly things, like putting his head in the garbage can or making believe he was stuck to one of the platform poles. When the approaching train got close enough, he stood still, hunched his shoulders and stuck out his thumb like a sad-sack hitchhiker as the train ignored him and blew right by, causing his long hair to fly away in the breeze.
Then, as the train continued by him at a high rate of speed, he broke into a perfect Jerry Lewis, Nutty Professor-type spastic gallop after it, as if he had any chance of catching up to it, while the appreciative crowd roared with laughter.
That was almost 40 years ago, and to this day, he is still making people laugh out loud.
I caught up with the Massapequa born and bred Nelson at Governor’s Comedy Club in Levittown last month to talk about his 40 plus years of, well, being funny.
“That’s who I am,” said the 59-year-old Massapequa Park native.
The Berner High School graduate (Class of 1976), has built quite a résumé during his career, performing on stage, television and film. He has appeared on Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Merv Griffin. He was Rodney Dangerfield’s opening act for eight years (and does a dead-on Rodney impression). He also appeared on two of Dangerfield’s “Young Comedian” specials with performers like Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr and Sam Kinison that led to his getting two more HBO specials of his own. Then there were appearances in movies, like Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Zucker brothers’ Brain Donors. Nelson even won an Emmy Award in 1983 for a children’s TV show that he wrote and starred in.
“I’ll do whatever they want me to do, as long as I can continue to make them laugh,” he said of his audience. “I don’t remember much about junior high school (he went to McKenna), except I thought I was Jerry Lewis.”
After completing his set on The Tonight Show, Carson said, “You won’t laugh any harder in five or six minutes than you laughed at that guy, Bob Nelson.”
Although Nelson’s audience insists that he pull out his beloved characters, like the nerd “Eppy Epperman” or the punchy boxer “Jiffy Jeff” during his set, his standup routine is as funny and topical as ever. The funny, physical comic, makes fun of his balding head and uses his remaining hair as one of the many props he has at his disposal. Nelson does it all without a single word of profanity, a lesson he learned from his idol, Red Skeleton.
“I wanted to get off the road and have my own show so people from all over the country would come to see me,” said Nelson. “But I’m a Northeast guy and they are very much, well, anti-Yankee.”
With the grind of touring taking its toll on him and his family, Nelson moved to Branson, MO, in 2006 with his wife, Trish, and son, Noah, to try and get a theater troupe going. In 2012, he tried again in Pigeon Forge Tennessee.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said, “but that didn’t work out like I wanted, either.”
So, he did what everyone does at some point; he came home to Long Island.
“I love personal appearances and that is probably what I’m going to do until the day I die,” said Nelson.
In the age of social media and people using the Internet to get their content, Nelson is looking to leverage those platforms in the very near future. He has been pitching a show revolving around his punchy boxer Jiffy Jeff and his desperate attempts to keep his money-strapped, old-style gym up and running, while trying to find the next World Champion from people who aren’t really boxers.
This February and throughout the summer, Nelson is touring with fellow comedian Gallagher on his “Joke’s on You Comedy Tour,” where they will be performing about three weeks out of every month.
Nelson attended the Berner 40th high school reunion this past summer and although most of his classmates still remember the funny, rubber faced kid that could make them laugh while reading the newspaper, they also knew how successful he had become.
“I think they were waiting for Alec Baldwin to show up,” he joked. “They were like, ‘Alec’s here! Oh no, it’s Bob…’”
I’m sure he made them laugh more than Alec Baldwin would have.
For more on Nelson, visit his website at www.bobnelson.com.