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Performance by comedian David Lee Nelson raises money for oncology center

  • David Lee Nelson

Performance by comedian David Lee Nelson raises money for oncology center

05 Sep 2017

Nothing about cancer is funny. Or is it?

When comedian David Lee Nelson of Atlanta was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer last March, he decided to fight back with humor. As his tumors continue to recede, the strategy seems to be working.

“I’ve been doing comedy and stand-up and writing solo shows for about 14 years now,” Nelson says. “I was an actor for a long time, living in Los Angeles, and I looked around and there were a lot of actors.

“I just wanted to have a little control over my career,” he says. “I wanted to write and perform when I wanted to, so I moved to New York after year in L.A. It took off, and I was on the road a lot and was touring a lot.”

Changing perspective

Things were going great until the diagnosis.

“It’s been a really interesting year for me,” Nelson says. “What I’ve always done in my career has been written in life. I was told, ‘If you write about you own life, nobody can steal from you.’

“I got sick in January, I started chemo in April. I started a blog in early May about my experience.

“I was doing chemo and completely changing my perspective about life,” he says. “The last couple of months, I developed that into a show. That’s what I’ll be performing in Savannah.”

Nelson will headline the 11th annual Foundation Gala, A Masque Gala, presented by Liberty Regional Medical Center on Sept. 9 at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens. The evening will feature live music by Michael Hulett, stand-up performances, live and silent auctions, cocktails and dinner.

Proceeds will benefit the development of the new Oncology Center to bring the latest research and care to cancer patients in the area. Savannah’s Improv Company will provide stand-up comedy by Jason Groce of Charleston and by Nelson.

‘You can’t do dark’

Responses to Nelson’s announcement of his illness have varied.

“Obviously, when they first find out, people are shocked,” he says. “Everyone is asking how I’m doing. None of that has really changed.

“It’s no longer a question, it’s more of a statement. I also realize people want to know.

“I feel my reaction to the whole thing determines the other people’s reactions,” Nelson says. “I try to view it with as much humor as I could with a friend who has cystic fibrosis.”

That friend has been helpful to Nelson.

“He said, ‘You can’t do dark,’” Nelson says. “‘If you do dark, it’s so hard to get back.’

“When I feel sick, I think, ‘Great, something more to write about.’ I go to Emory for treatment and meet an amazing amount of people who’ve had cancer. It’s really humbling.

“The good news is they’re having really good results with medicine,” he says. “The surgery took everything out of my organs, and the treatment has gone really well.”

For a diagnosis that is so serious, Nelson is doing surprisingly well.

“Everything is shrinking,” he says. “They’re starting to talk about maintenance treatment after September.

“The very first surgeon, when he broke the news, said, ‘The first thing is to remember is anyone can get hit by a bus at any time.’ I replied, ‘I have cancer,’ and he said, ‘Yes, you have cancer.’

“How do you tell someone they have cancer?” Nelson asks. “It’s like telling someone they have a stain on their shirt.”

Enjoying the good days

Nelson has become as wise as he is funny.

“It’s not about how much time you have; it’s what you do with the time you have,” he says. “When good days happen, I have to enjoy them now.

“It could be 50 years of good days, it could be 50 days of good days. A part of me appreciates life more.

“I’m much more easy to deal with traffic now,” Nelson says. “I have much bigger things pressing.”

Nelson became involved in the foundation gala through a friend, John Brennan of Savannah, who runs Front Porch Improv.

“We knew each other from times in Charleston over the years,” Nelson says. “He contacted me and said he had this gig. He mentioned Liberty Regional Medical Center, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s perfect!’

“This is going to be a really good time for a great cause,” Nelson says. “Jason is very funny.

“My show is touching in parts and funny in parts,” he says. “If you like to laugh and feel things at the same time, this is the show for you.”

Charleston improv

Groce will open for Nelson.

“I’ve been doing comedy for over 12 years, eight as a stand-up,” Groce says. “I started doing improv at Theatre 99 in Charleston, and still do, and that eventually led me to the microphone.”

Groce recognized he was funny fairly early on.

“Probably when I was a kid and said something meant seriously and people laughed at it anyway,” he says. “I still do this.

“I get angry about something that just happened and mostly people laugh at me, not with me,” Groce says. “I took improv classes 12 years ago and after about the fourth class, I was like, ‘I’m not bad at this at all — and it’s so much fun!’”

Naturally funny people are the best for Groce.

“People are at their funniest when they aren’t trying to be,” he says. “The spontaneous things people say are amazing.

“The funniest moments are with great friends. I love when it’s just a couple of friends hanging out and we can’t breathe from laughing so hard from something dumb we did in the past.

“Also, those videos where robots people are testing fail miserably trying to do things like open a door or get out of a car,” Groce says. “I can’t stop cry-laughing at those. They’re all over YouTube.”

As a comic, Groce loves “guys and girls who can truly speak their voice.”

“Their point of view is theirs and theirs alone and you can read their jokes on a page and probably guess who is saying it,” he says. “Mitch Hedberg, Richard Pryor, Maria Bamford, Bill Burr, Todd Barry, Jim Gaffigan, Kathleen Madigan.

“Most of the big names are big because what they do is unique to them and I admire that,” Groce says. “Outside of that, I admire my mom, who is a very strong woman who is battling kidney disease right this moment waiting for a transplant, and she still looks out for others and remembers more birthdays than I have had.”

Doing comedy professionally is hard at times.

“Getting paid to do what you love is obviously a dream and an honor,” he says. “I still work a few jobs now, but comedy is a hobby and a job that is so fulfilling because I love to laugh, too.”

One of the worst experiences in stand-up is bombing on stage.

“Bombing always sticks with you, because we all have done it,” Groce says. “When your big opener one minute into your 20-minute set flops and you know you still have 19 more minutes, time stretches out before you and it can feel endless.

“Also, I did a show early in my career with some friends at a synagogue on a Friday night for about 200 people who averaged about 80 years of age, and I was worried it wouldn’t go well, but it was so much fun and such a receptive crowd,” he says. “Drunk hecklers are always memorable and it baffles me people still want to challenge a person who talks for a living and has a microphone at that moment to a war of words.”

Groce is looking forward to doing the fundraiser.

“I also love the cause of the fundraiser — to make cancer treatment more available and closer to home for patients,” he says. “Having family and friends close by is important on its own, but the burden of having to travel to get treatment has to be a true struggle. Giving patients real relief from both their symptoms and stress surrounding their illness is awesome.

“It’s a Saturday and what is better on a Saturday than to have a bunch of laughs?” Groce says. “Okay, football is great, too. But laughs are better for you than watching football.”


What: 11th annual Liberty Regional Foundation Gala, A Masque Gala

When: 6-10 p.m. Sept. 9

Where: Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, 2 Canebrake Road

Cost: $50-$125

Info: 912-369-9400,