Bob Nelson is not a stand-up comedian. For most of his career, he has been uncomfortable with the term. He prefers to be called a clown, like his idol, Red Skelton.
When you see his show -- he's at Funny Bone Tuesday -- you won't hear about what Nelson finds funny -- you'll see it. Like Jonathan Winters -- another idol -- he does characters. Becomes them, actually. So much so that when you call Nelson's house, you won't hear his voice on the answering machine. The voice you'll hear belongs to Jiffy Jeff, his punch-drunk fighter character.
On stage, you'll see Jeff, Eppy Epperman the football player, and all the characters that Nelson has brought to his work in movies like "Brain Donors," with John Turturro, and television shows like "Double Muppets Hold the Onions." He won an Emmy as host of that show.
Q: You got into this business in a strange sort of way. Can you tell me about the phone pranks that led to your first job as a stand-up?
A: Sure. What happened was, when I worked for a company called Volt Information Sciences, we used to do telephone book ads for the South. It would be a tractor company and they'd have to talk to the owner of the tractor company and find out if they're open 24 hours or 8 to 8. Instead of letting the secretaries call, I would call in one of my characters.
I'd call down as, you know, a guy from New York named Tony Cappuccino (affects a Brooklyn accent): "Hey, dis is Tony Cappuccino, your ad's really stupid." And the guy'd be going, "I'm sorry, what'd you say?" And I'd say, "I said your ad's really stupid. You're not stupid, your ad is stupid." The secretaries and everybody in the office would be listening on the speakerphone in the other room. And I'd be messing with the client.
Apparently what happened was, one day, the secretaries had forgotten to dial the area code, so we'd gotten a local business on Long Island where I live. It turns out that they had called Richard M. Dixon. He happened to be opening a club on Long Island.
Here I am thinking I'm talking to someone down in Texas or something, and I got this guy who doesn't know what I'm talking about. And I thought my office had set me up with someone else in another room. It was like a sting, you know. So what I did was I poured it on, I really was making fun of this guy. And he was laughing on the other end. And he didn't know who I was, and he kept telling me he's opening up a club in Massapequa. I said, "Well I'm from Massapequa and there's no club there like that name so now I know you're lying." He said, "No, no. This place used to be called the Hideaway. It's not the Hideaway anymore, it's the White House Inn."
And after a while I started to realize, oh yeah, I remember that place. And it turned out to be legit, this guy was legit. He invited me to come down to do his open mike night the following Wednesday. So that's how I got started.
Q: That eventually led you to Dangerfield's.
A: Pretty early in my career -- I guess I was doing comedy about eight months -- I started traveling, doing different clubs. I was doing "The Merv Griffin Show" very early. And I was down in Florida and Rodney (Dangerfield) had seen me down in the Fort Lauderdale Comic Strip. He said I should work his club in the city. I started working his club in the city, and he knew of me, he had seen my act, and he just felt that what I did was really different from what he did, and it would be really good for me to open for him. So I traveled and opened for him for like, six or seven years.
Q: You've said that you never felt comfortable being labeled as a stand-up comic until Red Skelton clarified it for you. He said you were a clown. What about that felt right?
A: I told Red Skelton when I was in Vegas, I'm not comfortable with the term "stand-up comic." I don't feel like I belong, I don't feel like that's what I do.
And he said, "Well, you're not a stand-up. You're a clown, like me. Basically what you're doing is, you don't have a circus, you're just using their stage as your temporary circus ring."
So that really kind of set me free in thinking, I am different. I am a clown. And there are a lot of clowns out there. Like Jim Carrey -- he's not a stand-up comic, he's a clown. He's very visual, he's very slapstick. He's not afraid to humble himself on stage and show a vulnerable side. There's some guys who get up there, you know, they're in $300 suits. They start to sweat and they walk off stage.
Q: What drew you to the characters you do? What was the inspiration?
A: I just enjoy going into "character mode," you know? That's one of the things I do. I guess it comes from watching guys like Red Skelton and Jonathan Winters. Jonathan Winters could pop into a character at a moment's notice. And with Red Skelton, you could see his characters were very precise and definite. So that's the way I went -- to create characters.
But what I do, my characters interact with each other. So I jump around.
Q: "Brain Donors" especially seemed tailored to your talents. How did that role develop?
A: It was written by Pat Proft. And the director, Denis Dugan, used everyone's talents. You know, he was able to hone in on the strengths of each performer. He did tailor it. It seems like every movie I've done, the part was tailored to what I did. In "Kindergarten Cop" and "This is My Life," I basically wrote my own scenes in.
Q: You also wrote a film -- "Ryder, PI."
A: "Ryder, PI" was a movie back in the early '80s which I did back in Long Island. It was a low budget type thing. That was Howard Stern's first movie -- the first movie Howard Stern was ever in.
That was just a bunch of guys on Long Island who were just really big comedy fans.
Q: You were just playing in Nashville, Tenn. A lot of comics will talk about the difference between playing down South and up North. Do you notice any difference?
A: I kind of know where the Funny Bone is. Especially in New Jersey and New York, the suburbs, and whatnot, I can really get them laughing. The Midwest is the same thing. Sometimes I tailor my material to where I'm at, but I do great everywhere.
I think it was the old Playboy Club in New York City. Half the room was Israelis, Israeli men. And they were hysterical. And one of the guys who spoke English came up to me after the show and said, "We don't know what you were doing, but you were having so much fun up there, we just figured we were going to laugh with you."