By Melissa Arnold
Entertainer and comedian Bob Nelson has spent more than four decades doing what he loves most — making people laugh by taking them out of their problems and into his world.
“The greatest blessing for me is when people — families — have come up to me at a show and said they’ve been doing my routines together at the dinner table for years, that it’s gotten them through hard times, that it brings back memories of people they’ve lost — there’s no better feeling,” said Nelson in a recent phone interview.
The Massapequa native’s career has taken him from coast to coast, performing with greats including Eddie Murphy, Rosie O’Donnell and Rodney Dangerfield. And while he doesn’t travel as much these days, he’s begun treating Long Islanders to a hilarious, fast-paced monthly show at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.
Nelson said he’s thrilled to be returning to his comedic roots for this residency, blending observational sketches with his unique portrayal of multiple characters at once. Characters such as the lovable nerd Eppy Epperman, punchy boxer Jiffy Jeff and chicken rancher Wilby Stuckinson aren’t the most politically correct, but they are one of a kind, memorable and hysterically funny.
“My earliest shows involved using three doors on the stage as well as the two wings to create dialogue between different characters,” Nelson explained. “I’ll say something as one character, exit through one of the doors, and then re-enter and respond as someone different. It’s a very physical show, but I love doing a kind of comedy you don’t see every day.”
The development of Nelson’s career was far from linear. In fact, he landed his first comedy gig on a fluke. In his late teens, one of his job responsibilities was fact-checking advertisements in phone books by making cold calls. Nelson sometimes did impressions on the phone to make his co-workers laugh, and during one such call, he impressed a man who was working on opening a new comedy club.
That club, the White House Inn in Massapequa, became Nelson’s first stage.
“The first night I went, I just got the bug for comedy and kept going back,” he said.
Not long after, Nelson changed his major at Nassau Community College from communications to theater, declaring to his family that he planned to make a life of entertaining.
“My dad wasn’t thrilled about that decision. He said, ‘You’re never going to make anything of yourself,’ and told me to move out,” Nelson recalled. “So that’s what I did. I was 20. In the end, I made it work, and my dad is now my biggest fan. We have a great relationship.”
Nelson did more than just make it work — his career has led him to clubs all over the country, he’s acted on stage and in film, and starred in multiple comedy specials on HBO. His most popular special, “Nelson Schmelson,” can be found on YouTube.
Reflecting on his career, Nelson prides himself on delivering clean comedy routines that are appropriate for all ages.
“When I think of the people that have inspired me — Ernie Kovacs, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis — those guys were truly talented, and truly funny. They didn’t need to resort to cursing, dirty jokes or mocking people to make people laugh like so many entertainers do today. That’s just not funny to me,” he said. “I want everyone to be able to come to the show and get away from their troubles for a while.”
Douglas Quattrock, special events coordinator for Theatre Three, remembers first seeing Bob Nelson perform while watching “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” when he was growing up. He immediately memorized every word of the skit.
“I always thought he was the most fascinating comic I’ve ever seen,” Quattrock said. “You never know what you’re going to get from him. He’s just pure comic genius.”
With the help of Paul Anthony from the Long Island Comedy Festival, the theater was able to contact Nelson about a performance. That show sold out and feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly positive, leading the theater to invite Nelson for a residency.
“He’s been so receptive and we’re all thrilled to have him call Theatre Three his new home,” said Quattrock. “You’ll get to see your favorite skits and characters from Bob, but what makes this show special is that he also takes audience requests. He’s hoping to develop new characters during his time here as well, which would be historic for us to be a part of.”
Bob Nelson performs monthly, 90-minute shows at the Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the second stage of Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. Tickets are $39. The next two performances are Nov. 15 and Dec. 6. The bar is open for refreshments during the show. For information on upcoming performances and to purchase tickets, visit www.theatrethree.com or call 631-928-9100.