Comedian Bob Nelson can make you crack up without saying a word. Just a simple contorted facial expression can be enough to make you stop breathing for a few seconds.
The 55-year-old Massapequa native has been living down South, and now he's coming back to Long Island for a hometown gig at the Paramount in Huntington Saturday night.
Nelson grew up on a steady diet of Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Tim Conway, Danny Kaye and Red Skelton. While Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser were trying to outwit each other, Nelson was getting nutty.
"I loved the kind of humor that you could just go crazy with," says Nelson. "There was always something different about the guys who were real physical and weren't afraid to look dumb."
From the late '70s through the early '80s, Nelson played clubs on Long Island like the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington, where he developed a cast of characters, including boxer Jiffy Jeff Jaworski (he's so punchy he forgets his name) and lovable nerd Eppy Epperman, who talks with a lisp and can't stop shouting, "Excellent!"
Nelson is known for pushing a joke to the limit. He might use the long hair on the side of his head as a prop, flipping it over his bald crown to make fun of comb-overs. Or maybe he'll put a plunger on his head. "If it sticks, you're bald," he says. Then off comes the wooden handle and he's a French guy in a beret.
In the '80s, Nelson caught the attention of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who put him in two of his HBO comedy specials and took him on the road as his opening act.
"Rodney was really my comedy godfather," says Nelson. "He gave me opportunity and generally looked out for me."
Another comedian who was instrumental in Nelson's career was Skelton, who inspired him to work completely clean.
"Red told me, 'Laughter does good like a medicine. When you curse, it's like putting poison in the medicine, and it doesn't have the healing effect it's supposed to,' " says Nelson.
When Nelson performed with Rosie O'Donnell in the Long Island Laughter Company comedy group, director-comedian Peter Bales of East Northport was impressed.
"I still find it amazing to watch him combine the punchlines of a stand-up with the physicality of a circus clown," says Bales. "Other comics refer to Bob Nelson as 'bulletproof.' He can win over any audience and always gets lots of laughs."
Nelson also has had comedian Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling of Bayville in stitches.
"Bob Nelson has always thought so far out of the box, you'd never even know there's a box," says Martling, who started working the tristate-area comedy circuit with him in the late '70s. "He's as creative as anyone can be."
While he did get some parts in movies ("Kindergarten Cop," "Brain Donors"), Nelson says Hollywood wasn't for him. He prefers to focus on developing his stand-up comedy, which earned him two HBO specials and three spots on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
"I'd always try out for stuff, but it never worked out for me. I don't know if I was too bizarre or too crazy," says Nelson. "I'm a one-man variety show that's all over the place. There's no rhyme or reason to my act."
After spending the past few years performing in Missouri and Tennessee, Nelson is heading back to Long Island to rediscover his roots and perhaps open his own comedy club in Suffolk County.
"I really miss the pace and the people," says Nelson. "When you make people laugh up North, they explode because they are so filled with anxiety and stress. Down South, they just sit back, smile and stare at you."
Performing at the Paramount is the first step in the process.
"I'm really excited about this show," he says. "I can't wait to get back to Huntington, because that's where I started."
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO 631-673-7300, paramountny.com