“FIRED FROM NEW YORK IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!” became last year’s tweet heard around the comedy world. With the announcement that his SNL career was coming to an end after just one season, many wondered what would happen to the Iowa born and raised comic Brooks Wheelan. Don’t worry, Brooks is doing just fine. His standup is stronger than ever, his album This Is Cool, Right? dropped earlier this year to great reviews, and this weekend he has his own Comedy Central Half Hour special. I talked to Wheelan about the special, the SNL bump, and his upcoming tour of “Central America.”
How do you feel the Half Hour went?
I liked it a lot. I just had fun with it. I didn’t take it too seriously, which hopefully comes across well. It’s the first time I got to do a long set to where people get to see how my show actually is, which is always really loose. I wanted to try to get that across.
When I talked to Hampton Yount a couple of weeks ago, I asked him about his opener, which was him screaming about bees. He said that was inspired by a backstage conversation that the two of you had where it was like, “What are we going to do when we walk out there?” Instead of just coming out with a tight bit, he said you guys wanted to do something different. You opened with the concept that the show was giving you a panic attack. Was that a last-minute call?
Yeah. I think it’s so weird to… I mean, it’s not so weird. A lot of people do it, just go out and start doing their material. But that’s weird to me. There should be like an opening dialogue with the audience and then, “All right, we’re going to get into some stuff.” That was what I did. Me and Hampton were just dicking around and I was like, “Let’s make it weird.”
You also threw in a brand new bit that you had created the night before about a guy who is leaving a party on rollerblades. How much other new stuff is in the special?
Well, that rollerblading bit I wrote with Andrew Santino and Hampton the night before. We were kind of stoned in our hotel room and we were just doing bits and I did this bit about a guy on rollerblades just trying to hang out. I’m glad that made it in because I’ve never told that joke and I don’t think I will again. It’s very hard to do. It made me get out of breath. I wanted to do stuff that I hadn’t really done because I don’t want it to be all stuff from my album and I want to do an hour special, which is pretty close. But I didn’t want to do any of my hour special material in my Half Hour, you know? So, for the Half Hour I goofed around a lot and did the stuff from my album that hadn’t been on television yet.
How do you feel about burning material? Like, if you do a late night set or a Half Hour, once that stuff hits a mainstream media platform, do you consider it done?
As soon as I put something out on TV or an album, I quit telling it. But with the Half Hour… I want to do an hour. I own the hour and Comedy Central owns the Half Hour. So, I kind of had to be talked into it, but I did do some stuff from my album that hadn’t been on TV yet. Still though, it’s different and better and I don’t have that version on my album. As soon as you do something to where everyone can see it, start new stuff. It’s more fun that way and doesn’t get boring.
You talk a lot about being a weird kid and getting picked on by your brothers and just kind of being odd in the way you related to other kids in school. How long did that hold on? Did it follow you all the way through high school and college?
It’s still who I am. I don’t know if I talked about it on there, but whoever you are at eight is whoever you are at 30. You’re just better at hiding it. I’m still weird. I don’t know what I do. I have weird ticks. Instead of collecting Pokemon, I collect records now. You just fill gaps in your weirdness with new weird things, I guess. I’m still a little idiot in my brain where I talk too much when I get nervous. I hit uncomfortable silence and it just comes across that I’m an idiot.
You were raised in rural Iowa. How did that type of a landscape affect your style of comedy? As a kid did you know you wanted to go into entertainment?
Yeah. When I was eight I loved Adam Sandler. I read a book that said he did standup comedy and that got him on Saturday Night Live. I was like, “Hey, I’m going to do that.” Then I had older brothers, which was really lucky because they loved standup. I watched a lot of it growing up.
When did you get out and go to your first mic?
I went to my first one when I was 19 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Then I bounced around the Midwest, driving to Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City all the time. I worked at this comedy club called Penguins in Cedar Rapids. Then I moved out to LA and got a biomedical engineering job because that’s what I was going to school for the whole time.
Did you have much of a chance to pursue that as a career?
Yeah, that was my job for four years out here. I only quit once I got the call to write at Saturday Night Live. I got that call and then got to hang up the phone and quit.
It must feel good to have a career fallback in case you decide to quit, or things slow down at any point in your life. You could always go back to that field with your degree and experience.
I think the only thing that degree taught me was to never quit or let comedy slow down, or I would have to go back to that. It ‘s more motivating than comforting.
There are a lot of comics who either quit school, or don’t take it seriously, or don’t get a marketable degree and then it hits them, that motivation like you said of, “Oh my God, all I really have is comedy. If I leave, I’m not going to be ready for a normal workforce.”
I never enjoyed it. Biomedical engineering was my only way to get out of Iowa. I didn’t have money to move and just start in LA or New York. When I was in college I just looked for jobs on Los Angeles or New York because I knew I wanted to be in one of those places doing standup.
I wanted to go back to something you said about Adam Sandler being a big influence. In the special, you do a lot of voices that are inner monologue, or character-based. Now that you said Sandler, I can definitely see that influence. But I was thinking of stuff that is much older, like a Vaudevillian sense, or a Marx Brothers kind of thing where there’s a lot of physicality. There’s one where you talk about looking at Marilyn Monroe and you do the tongue unroll, the bulging eyes, the “ah-oogah!” You go for it fully in a slapstick way.
I never commit like I did in the special. I’ve never committed that hard. It was fun.
Did you ever find influence in some of those comics from the early TV and film days?
No. I don’t like any comedy that’s before… this is an argument that I get into with my friends a lot. I say comedy for me started with Billy Madison. I don’t care about anything before that. It’s so not OK to say that statement and I know people will be offended. Of course, I don’t really mean it. But I don’t go back and watch old comedy. I don’t know who the Marx Brothers are. Steve Martin rules. But I don’t watch anything from the 40s and 50s. I don’t even know. It’s kind of something I say to get a rise out of people. “Comedy started with Billy Madison,” and people get pissed. I was in third grade when I saw Billy Madison. It’s the whole thing of, “What caused you to do what you wanted to do?” It was Adam Sandler. I was always super grateful that that dude was around. I haven’t seen Billy Madison in a long time, but I know if I put it on I would be happy.
Being on SNL for a year and having the credit of former cast member – what has that done for your career?
Oh man, it’s been great. I don’t have to be an engineer anymore. That’s pretty much it. I’m a comedian now. It let me go headline. It gave me the most confidence to be onstage. I wasn’t nervous to do the Half Hour. If I had never done SNL I would have been very nervous to do it. People will see me for projects that maybe didn’t know about me before, which is visibility, which is never bad.
You said that one of the blessings that came out of that was getting back to LA because you’re not tough enough for New York. Do you think LA is an easier city to live in? If a comic from the midwest is coming up and is ready to make the move to a bigger city and said, “Hey man, New York or LA?” What would your advice be?
I think New York would have been great if I hadn’t lived in LA so long before I moved there. I like to camp a lot. I was used to being able to hop in my car and go to Joshua Tree and just kind of chill. It’s very easy going out here. Then I moved to New York, Alphabet City. I had a stressful job. It was just different levels of stress. That’s really what it was. My own experience is I like to be calm. But if I had moved to New York first, I’m sure I would hate Los Angeles. It’s just whatever you’re used to.
You’ve got a tour coming up. What’s the name of it?
It’s called “Brooks Wheelan tours Central America.” People don’t understand that joke, which is great. But at the same time it’s like, “C’mon. How can you not know that I don’t know?”
BROOKS WHEELAN TOUR DATES:
Wed. Oct. 7-Sat. Oct. 10 - Phoenix, AZ @ House of Comedy
Tue. Oct. 13 - Pontiac, MI @ Crowfoot Ballroom
Wed. Oct. 14 - Lansing, MI @ The Loft
Thu. Oct. 15 - Fort Wayne, IN @ The Tiger Room
Fri. Oct. 16 - Indianapolis, IN @ Theater on the Square
Sat. Oct. 17 - Champaign, IL @ The High Dive
Sun. Oct. 18 - St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
Mon. Oct. 19 - Columbia, MO @ Rose Music Hall
Tue. Oct. 20 - Wichita, KS @ Roxy’s Downtown
Wed. Oct. 21 - Lincoln, NE @ Vega
Sat. Oct. 24 - Honolulu, HI @ Crossroads at Hawaiian Brian’s
Tue. Nov. 3 - Columbus, OH @ Woodland’s Tavern
Thu. Nov. 5 - Newport, KY @ Southgate House Revival
Fri. Nov. 6 - Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar
Sat. Nov. 7 - Nashville, TN @ The Basement East
Sun. Nov. 8 - Memphis, TN @ Hi Tone Cafe
Mon. Nov. 9 - Birmingham, AL @ Syndicate Lounge
Tue. Nov. 10 - Hattiesburg, MS @ Brewsky’s
Wed. Nov. 11 - Mobile, AL @ The Merry Widow
Thu. Nov. 12 - New Orleans, LA @ Publiq House
Fri. Nov. 13 - Lafayette, LA @ NiteTown
Sat. Nov. 14 - Little Rock, AR @ Jaunita’s Cantina
Tue. Nov. 17 - Houston, TX @ Whaterver Fest