I am always amazed by the lives of people I have known throughout the years. I am the type of person who is always curious as to what other people are up to these days. Who has an interesting job? Who is in a third world country saving kids from malaria? Who is still working at McDonald’s? Of course, myspace and Facebook have made finding old peers, former classmates, long lost friends, forgotten relatives, unknown friends of friends, departed neighbors, neglected associates, and all other categories of people much easier.
A few months ago, I looked up (“Googled”, searched for, etc) several of my former co-writers from my time at the Florida State newspaper. I found out one became a writer for defense news in D.C., another works for a public relations firm in New York City, and a few are no longer writing. Then there is Michael James Nelson, who is currently living in Los Angeles and working as a comedy writer, producer, and comedian (hence the title of the post). (He even has a Wikipedia page!)
After much cajoling, convincing, and sending of payments, I convinced Michael to do an emailed Q&A for The Serious Tip. Perfect timing too, as he will be making an appearance on The Oxygen Network‘s “Pretty Wicked” on Tuesday, April 14th at 10p.m. (yes, that’s a plug). So read the interview and then check him out during the upcoming week.
So who is Michael James Nelson?
Michael James Nelson: I am someone that was in jail; actually, I was locked in a cage. I thought my life was over, but then a couple Dwarfs came by, they called themselves Nelwyns. Anyway, one of these Dwarfs was carrying a baby and he said that he had to return the baby to a “Dakini.” Whatever, I grabbed the baby and set off on adventure that would lead me to Nockmaar Castle — along the way I become infatuated with this chick named Sorsha who had major issues with her mother, Bavmorda — and then I found myself in Los Angeles doing comedy.
How did you get into comedy/comedy writing?
MJN: I have wanted to be a comedian every since I was in pre-school. But I was terrified at the thought of going up on stage and doing jokes. So, sometime around my first year of high school, I started writing stand-up material, but never even entertained the idea of presenting it to anyone. I was, to say the least, a very shy person. But one night during my senior year of college I organized a bunch of material and snuck away to go to an open mic night on campus. I told absolutely no one. I remember shaking violently right up to the point where they called my name and the audience started applauding. I even vomited in a trash can back stage. It was the scariest moment of my life. I then wiped my mouth and walked on stage and proceeded to do five minutes and I do not remember a single second of it. Afterwards, I think the audience gave me a courtesy applause and I wondered off stage, in a daze, trying to figure out what just happened.
I snapped out of it when a guy tapped my on the back. He introduced himself and said he was a booker for a show off-campus and he wanted me to headline a show that was to happen the following month. Now, I had no idea what headlining meant. I thought it might be the guy that takes the stage at the end of the show and does five minutes while everyone pays their check and leaves, so based on that false definition, I said yes.
Three weeks went by and I called the guy to confirm the show and he said we were all set. Then, I asked him how much time he wanted me to do, expecting him to say that the five minute set he had seen at the open mic would be plenty, but he said 50 minutes to fifty-five minutes would be just fine. I about fainted and vomited and cried and ran away at the same time. I had now idea the headliner was the main attraction. We hung up and for that week I scrambled to write anything I could that might get a laugh or even a chuckle. I even skipped my classes to stay focused. Then, that night came. The house was packed with hundreds of people and there I was back stage, having only done a five-minute open mic show prior. As each comedian went up, each doing around ten minutes, I started having a panic attack. I was totally falling apart. My shirt was already soaked with sweat. I was drinking so much just to kill my nerves. And then, my name was called, the audience applauded, and I walked on stage and did fifty minutes nonstop. I remember the entire show. I remember getting laughs the entire time. I remember the audience roaring with laughter. And I remember being up there and thinking to myself, “This is it. This is what I am supposed to do with my life. I’m a comedian.”
What are you doing professionally these days?
MJN: I am a comedy writer, producer and performer in Los Angeles. I have written for MTV and ABC and a bunch of networks. I wrote for National Lampoon for a while and I wrote a show for Nick Cannon. I do stand up every week and this April I will make an appearance on the television show “Pretty Wicked” on the Oxygen Network. I also write feature films, sketches, and hilarious bar mitzvah speeches.
Funniest thing that ever happened to you at FSU?
MJN: Hmm, funniest thing… that is a tough one. I had a blast at FSU. There are way too many hilarious moments to sort through and then to find “the one” is almost impossible. But, one that comes to mind is when my best friend fell of a balcony and hit his head and had to get stitches. We all dressed up in costumes and were partying on a balcony. We had been drinking since early afternoon. We started throwing stuff of the balcony and cheering. Then, he threw a huge sign over the side and ended up going over with it. We were only one story up, but he did fall and hit his head. So, we took him to the hospital (a whole separate story for another time about how we had to hitch hike to get to there) and while he was getting stitches, there were at least fifteen of us in the waiting room, all of us still drunk and in our costumes. Although a little scary at the time, now that I look back, all of us in the waiting room dressed in the most random costumes, I can’t help but laugh. What a long, funny night.
Are you the greatest comedian/comedy writer in FSU history?
MJN: Hahaha. I do know other guys that came out of FSU and they are very funny and they do comedy. But, when I was doing my sketch comedy show (That Show With Those Guys) while I was at FSU, we were always told that it was the funniest show to have ever aired on the network. And not only did they air old episodes of the show years after I graduated, but there were also spin-off shows. I have always been very proud of that. I don’t think I am ready to claim greatest comedian in FSU history, but that would be cool if that day came.
If I remember right, the Spring 2003 valedictorian gave you a shout-out. Did you know that was coming? How did you react to the instant fame that presented?
MJN: Hahaha. That was insane! I had been told before the graduation ceremony that I was going to be mentioned during the speech, but I didn’t think it would be to that degree. He practically made his speech about me moving out to Los Angeles and becoming a comedian. Hahaha! It was Jim Davis that put me in his speech and he was president of the senior class. I know Jim and there is no way he was valedictorian! But, he did his speech during that humongous graduation ceremony and he did talk about me and I have always thought that was so cool. I was happy that he could pull inspiration from the crazy dream I had in my head.
Who are your comedic influences? Why?
MJN: I would have to say that Bill Cosby has influenced me a great deal. I remember lying in bed, listening to his stories dreaming of having that ability to tell a story like he does. The characters, the humor, another reality, it is all there. I think I have always strived to convey a sense of story and comedy like he does. But, probably the most influential comedians for me have been Howard Stern and David Letterman. They are the reason I got into this business and I still watch them in awe. I remember being a kid and memorizing Letterman’s monologues. And when I was in college, Tallahassee didn’t have the Stern Show on any stations. So, I would have my mom record the show and mail me the tapes. I was obsessed.
Do you ever feel “not funny”? Like have you ever told a joke and no one laughed?
MJN: Hell motha f’in yes. There are days that I wake up and don’t feel funny at all. Cerebrally, I could be laughing my ass off – anything crossing my mind is funny to me. But, there are times that I can’t convey that comedy to anyone in anyway at anytime. Maybe it is because I am tired or stressed out or my mind is somewhere else… who knows. And as far as ever telling a joke and no one laughs… oh yes. That has happened many times and it will continue to happen for the rest of my life. It happens to everyone. I have seen Chris Rock bomb a couple jokes. There is no comedian out there that hasn’t bombed a joked. It is impossible not to bomb. And funny enough, bombing is where you grow the most and where you become stronger as a comedian and it is a very important part of the process.
Your Alicia Keys video is hilarious. Has that ever happened to you?
MJN: Hahahaha. That was a random idea I had when her song started playing in my car. I started free styling the phone call on the spot and when I got home, I wrote it out and shot it a week later. However, for the past five years I have been getting calls from some random corporation that thinks they are calling their IT guy. I guess my phone number is one digit different then the number they are trying to dial and I have learned that their IT guy has the same name as I and the first time they called me I answered and they asked for “Mike” and I said “speaking.” They then told me that at 2pm I needed to show a group of investors around the building and explain our computer network and explain how it is setup. They wanted me to put a power point together just so they could get a visual sense of how it all works. I was a production assistant at the time out on an office supply run. I started freaking out because I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought maybe I was supposed to know the setup of the network and started franticly wracking my brain for anything I might have been told about our computer network. I agreed that I would show the investors around and then hung up the phone.
I got back to the office and started putting together a power point presentation, guessing how the network was set up. I got about one page into the power point show and then decided to tell my boss that I had no idea how the network operated. She looked at me like I was insane. So, for the past five years, they have continually called me and left me messages about all the computer problems happening around their office. I have never returned their call to tell them that they are dialing the wrong number and have the wrong “Mike”, but I think that the next time they call I will finally break the news to them. That would be hilarious if my calling them back and breaking the news were to solve this gigantic company mystery that has caused people to get fired and investors to pull their funds. What if my not coming clean is the reason we are in a recession? Now I feel guilty.
So would you really turn down Alicia Keys?
MJN: No. I think she is hot and hopefully one day she will call me with any computer network issues she may be experiencing.
I have this theory about comedians. I think if I introduce you to someone and say “This is Michael, he is a comedian”, that person will automatically think whatever you say is funny. They will laugh by default. True or false?
MJN: Ugh, no way. If I am introduced like that, people always say, “Say something funny.” It sucks. I decline and the conversation goes on and then, if I don’t say anything funny they will say, “You aren’t funny. How can you be a comedian?” I guess it comes with the territory. I guess people need to understand that being onstage and offstage are two different things that spawn night-and-day mentalities and emotions and thoughts and personas. And most comedians I know are quiet off stage and aren’t that funny when you just stand around and chat. I once talked with Robin Williams before a show and he was very reserved and not trying to be funny at all. Same with Dane Cook, I hung out with him and we talked for an hour and he was quiet and not that funny. But both were very nice people. In my dealings, comedians are usually pretty serious people that observe everything around them. I may not sit there and crack jokes, but I am always observing and breaking things down and thinking of ways to make stuff funny. I just might be quiet as I do it around you. To avoid all of this, when I am out-and-about, I just tell people that I am a plumber.
What does the future hold for you? What do you hope it holds?
MJN: I have no idea, but that is what is so exciting about this town. In Hollywood, one day can completely change your life and all of your dreams come true. But, you can’t really think about that or strive for that. You just have to do what makes you happy, enjoy life, stay grounded, and if that day comes, it comes. For me, my ultimate goal is to have my own television show… just like I had in college. That has always been my focus.
Where can people find out more about you?
MJN: People can visit www.michaelnelsoncomedy.com or go to YouTube and search Michael James Nelson. Anything other than that would be considered stalking and shame on you.
Who would you like to give a shout-out to?
MJN: I would like to give a shout-out to Jim Davis… listen buddy, you didn’t make valedictorian, but damn it, we are all still very proud of you.