When Kevin Nealon departed his native Connecticut in hopes of launching a career in show business in the late 1970s, his first thought wasn’t to head to Los Angeles.
“When I moved out west, I kind of landed San Diego,” says Nealon, who lived in North Park. “I worked for a temporary-help agency called Manpower down there. They got me a job as a department store Santa Claus, and for a week, I worked at the San Diego Zoo at the reptile cage. It was crazy because I was 24, and I didn’t look anything like Santa. I remember the kids would be so scared they’d actually pee on my lap.”
Nealon has carved out a career in comedy since those fraught holidays posing as Ol’ Saint Nick, maintaining both his relevance and an edge throughout the intervening decades.
Despite his impressive résumé — from his run on “Saturday Night Live” from 1986 to 1995 to his star turns on the Showtime cult hit “Weeds” and the current CBS sitcom hit “Man With a Plan” — it was a single appearance that Nealon holds in higher regard than them all. After pursuing stand-up for seven years, the budding star scored a segment on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1984, the equivalent of reaching the peak of Mount Everest for any comedian.
“My dream was to do Carson. That came to fruition, and I don’t think anything has kind of superseded it. It was the highlight of my career,” says Nealon, who first flexed his comedic muscles in San Diego, both performing and enjoying shows at the former Improv or the La Jolla Comedy Store.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, June 25
Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
“Learning how to do stand-up was easy because I enjoyed what I was doing,” Nealon says. “I remember the first time I ran into Eddie Vedder and he said, ‘Dude, I used to come and watch you at the Improv. I’d surf down in San Diego and at the end of the day I’d see you!’ I enjoyed developing a style and coming up with stand-up, learning how to get comfortable onstage and performing in general.”
It’s those principles that Nealon uses to this day, including the current stand-up tour that brings the comedian back to the place that started it all with a Sunday gig at Solana Beach’s Belly Up Tavern.
“It’s hard to describe my act. I’ve heard friends say that my comedy kind of sneaks up on you and hits you over the head a few seconds later. It’s nonthreatening, absurd observations and notions. I’m not going to be (my foul-mouthed character) Doug Wilson from ‘Weeds.’ ”
As for whether he misses his perch anchoring “Weekend Update” on “SNL” poking fun at the politicians of the day, Nealon says he’s mostly had his fill.
“Sometimes I’ll miss it, but not often. Thankfully I have a diverse interest in show business. I get to do a lot, so I’m not pigeonholed into one thing. I stay excited all the time, so I’m really lucky.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have thoughts about a certain omnipresent target of many comedians’ jokes.
“Typically I’m not a political pundit, but if something’s funny and I come up with it, I’ll say it,” Nealon explains. “I did a line the other night: ‘I used to believe that anyone could grow up to be president. Now I believe that you never have to grow up to be president.’ ”