Look at it this way: if Brooks Wheelan didn’t get fired from SNL, he might not have recorded his hilarious new debut standup album.
Not many comedians have parlayed a TV show dismissal into standup success as quickly as Wheelan, an accomplished standup comic who was let go last year after one season as a featured player on SNL. But rather than sulk over his disappointment, Wheelan owned it and soon commenced the “Brooks Wheelan Falls Back on Stand Up Comedy (sorta) Tour.” Much of that material, including his SNL experience, is on his new album, This is Cool, Right?, which was released yesterday.
I recently had the chance to chat with Wheelan during his last week in New York about his start in comedy, his takeaways from SNL, and why he needs to start taking acting classes.
You’re going back to LA soon, is that right? How come?
That’s where I lived for five years before I moved to NY. It’s nice. I like the nature, I love the comedy scene there a whole lot. I think people just tend to like where they got good, and I got good in LA.
None of the NY comics were able to sour you on LA?
No way. I feel like NY is great if you didn’t live in LA first. And you didn’t know it’s way easier to live over there. Sure comedy is amazing in NY. It’s by far the most standup I’ve ever done and I feel like I got much better living in NY. But I’d rather go to Walmart than draw a treasure map to go looking for blinds or an air conditioner.
I’ve never heard someone make the argument for LA that LA has Walmarts.
I love it.
You were in NY for 2 years?
About a year and a half. It was cool when I was doing SNL, but now I’ve been touring so much so I haven’t really been here. January has really been the only month I’ve been living in NY with nothing to do and that’s when I realized I needed to get out. It’s so easier to drink here. Way too easy to drink.
You feel like you got better at standup though during your time in NY?
Oh man. New York really shows you where you stand. I moved here thinking I was pretty good at standup and then I realized I was way too loose on stage. I would go up having fun and people would be like “nope, we need jokes. Give us jokes.” Living here really makes your set tighter. You can really tell the difference between NY comics and LA comics in that NY comics are just so much tighter with their jokes, which I totally respect after living here.
So will you have to recalibrate when you go back to LA?
A hybrid is the best way. No one way is better. You can’t be all loose. And I don’t like just all jokes. NY is tough. I bombed the first month I was here. I’d go up being all goofy and they’re like, “alright we need material dude.” It’s funny though, each city is different. I was just out in LA for two weeks and I didn’t do as well as I’ve been doing in NY. It’s just getting the feel of the city. It’s not like I was bombing, it’s just that I thought I was better than what I was getting. Then I realized no, the crowd was totally right.
You used to be a biomedical engineer? How did you get your start in comedy?
Yeah, I was always obsessed with standup growing up. My older brothers were always watching it on Comedy Central. When I got to the University of Iowa, I started writing for the student newspaper there and then my brother got a job as a bartender at a comedy club in Cedar Rapids. One night I went there and used my jokes from the student newspaper on stage. That night I asked for a job and then just starting working there for the rest of college…It was weird, most of my friends in college were 35-year-old dudes going through mid-life crises.
I went to school for engineering, and one summer I got an internship in Chicago. So I spent the summer there doing comedy and that’s when I got to see the standup I became obsessed with, people like T.J. Miller…I thought about moving back to Chicago, but then I felt like I might get trapped there with a job, so I just moved out to LA.
Did you get noticed in LA the old-fashioned way, just showing up at open mics, etc.?
Yep, I knew one person when I moved out to LA, this guy Mike Holmes who’s a funny comedian. I didn’t even move to LA. I moved to Huntington Beach because I thought it was LA, but it’s not. [laughs] Yeah, I had a day job as a biomedical engineer in Irvine. So I would drive up to LA every day for two and-a-half years to do shows and mics. And again, I learned my place in comedy watching people like Howard Kremer murder when I would bomb. You just surround yourself with the best comedians in the world.
That’s a long drive from Irvine to LA every day.
Dude, I think I was spending $400 a week on gas. I listened to every podcast imaginable. Eventually I fully went crazy and lost my mind at my job in Irvine and then moved up to LA proper and got a job at Cal Tech. I would drive two and a half hours up, just to hang for an hour, then I would drive two hours back. I can’t believe I did it. It was such a nightmare.
It paid off.
Yeah, it’s funny. Some of the Orange County comics would be like, “why don’t you just stay here?” I was like, listen, I didn’t move here from Iowa just to blow up in Orange County.
So when did you get on SNL’s radar?
It was kind of just out of left field really. There hadn’t been that many standups on the show in a while, and I didn’t really think it was in the cards for me. I just always really wanted to write my own TV show. I love Workaholics and Broad City and those types of things and creating TV shows. That’s a big dream for me, still is and was. Then just plugging away in LA for three and a half years I got to do their Top 10 Comedians to Watch thing and that led to doing the South Beach Comedy Festival and that led to doing Montreal where SNL people saw me and had me audition for them in LA. I remember Nick Rutherford was auditioning with his sketch group Good Neighbor and I remember telling my girlfriend that they were auditioning for Saturday Night Live, “how cool is that?” and then ten minutes later I got an audition for Saturday Night Live. It was just real insane.
That was exciting and then at the showcase everybody had characters and I just did standup and it somehow went great. Then I just came out to New York and did that whole test and it went well again and I couldn’t believe that then they just called me and said since I didn’t do any characters or anything they were like, “Hey just come write on the show.” That was amazing. You know, John Mulaney is like a hero of mine, and he is so funny and that career path seems amazing, you know? So I was still working as an engineer when that all happened, so I had to quit my engineering job and move to New York like two days later, and then I wrote on the show for like three weeks and it was real fun, and then Lorne just called me into his office and said, “We’re going to put you in the cast.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” Then it was real hard after that. It was tough being in the show.
I know you’ve talked ad nauseam about SNL so I won’t belabor that for you, but having worked there do you have any new appreciation for the show?
Being on the inside…you know I hadn’t watched the show in a while. I think that happens with a lot of the cast – like we hadn’t seen the show in a few years, since high school really. I will back that show up forever just being there and realizing how hard it is to make. A new TV show every week? All those writers are the funniest people. One thing that I kind of look back on is realizing I probably won’t work in an environment with this many funny people around me again. The show hires so many of the funniest people around. I just have an appreciation for how tough it is to make that show. Being in the cast… it’s tough, it’s just a tough gig. It’s emotionally draining so I just appreciate it and I would never talk bad about the show.
And you got some stuff on. Some sketches you wrote.
I wrote 11 sketches that made it to dress rehearsal, which isn’t bad considering that I’d never written a sketch before being there.
Did you ever feel out of place as one of the few standups writing on the show? It’s just a different art form, there’s no collaboration with standup.
I think one thing I had to shake at first was I thought I would show them how funny I was writing by myself. I quickly realized it was a terrible idea, I needed to collaborate with some of the amazing sketch writers. Then it went a lot better when I was pitching ideas and trying to write with other people.
SNL really is sort of a stepping stone job, people complain if you’re on it for too long.
Oh, for sure man.
Do you feel like you got a lot out of it? I’m sure it opened plenty of doors for you.
You never want to be fired from a job, you want to do well. You always want to go in some place and do great, but I’m honestly happier off of the show working on standup again then I was on it. I had a lot of anxiety and standup is what I love. I’ve just been doing standup again and working on that. I wasn’t working on it as much because I was working on the show. I’m thankful I got to do the show and I’m bummed I got fired, but I’m thankful that I’m back to doing standup, which is the version of comedy I think I do best and love the most.
When you’re on the show your standup takes a hit. You can’t get out most of the week because you’re working so many hours.
Yeah for sure. You have to take a little time off because you get a little fried. And also one thing the show did most for me was give me a kick in the ass. Nothing makes you want to succeed more than failure. I was like, “I gotta go show everyone I’m funny. I can’t let this make people think I’m not funny.” So it was really motivating to go out there and kick ass in standup, and I went out and recorded an hour making a new album that I’m really proud of. It was a really motivating factor.
It seems like you’re doing more acting now.
Oh yeah, that’s another thing that’s come out of SNL. I’ve always thought of myself as just a writer. I was into writing scripts and pitching, but once you’re on SNL they’re like, “Oh you’re an actor.” That’s what happens and you’re like, “I guess so.” So now I audition for stuff. It’s cool but ideally I would get to write the thing before I’m in it, which is what I hope to achieve soon.
Have you taken any acting classes?
No, I’m told almost daily I need to. I gotta get into that. I went to take an acting class one time in LA. I faked a phone call and feigned my friend was in a wreck. I answered my phone and was like, “Oh my God! I gotta go, my friend was just in a wreck.” That was my only – it was 20 minutes of an acting class.
Well you’re getting cast without them right now, so…
I guess. I got “the guy from Iowa” on Girls.
So you recorded your album in Madison, WI. When did you record it?
At the end of November. I’d been on the road for about six months straight and I had gotten so bored with my material, but I love it so I want to get it out there so I can move on. That’s really what it was. I needed to retire this but I like it and just don’t want to dump it. I wanted to put out an album. It just came together great.
Is it newer stuff on the album? It’s your first one, so do you incorporate older stuff?
It’s probably everything I’ve written in the last two to three years, but that’s just because you become better at standup. That’s when I felt like I got good. So I quit telling jokes and started getting personal. The album is really autobiographical. It starts when I was young through when I was on SNL. That’s what the album is about. Growing up in Iowa, moving to LA, getting SNL, but also hopefully funny.
Comedy Club on State is notorious for being one of the best comedy clubs around. I’m sure you have a lot of laughter on the album.
That’s the concerning part. There’s almost too much laughter where people will think I faked it. Where I talked in to a microphone in my room and then played back Chris Rock Kill the Messenger laughs. After Comedy Club on State I was like “I should have done a two-hour album” and then I go to another comedy club and I’m like, “I shouldn’t have done an album.” That place is just great. I enjoy it very much and I can’t wait to go back there.
Was there any inspiration behind this album? Not a guide, but was there a direction you wanted to go with your first album?
No, not really. I wanted it to be loose. The only input that I really brought in was I wanted to be self-aware that “yeah we’re recording an album and if stuff happens talk about it.” I just wanted to be loose but other than that it’s pretty autobiographical. I really don’t have jokes in there that are just “joke jokes” because if you just write about yourself then nobody can ever say you copied. Everything is just so personal. It’s an album about this weird little weirdo from a 3,000-person town in Iowa.
Any other projects or anything else we should know about?
I’m just working on creating my own show out in LA and starting to write. I already have 30 minutes of my next hour ready to go so I would love to just get going on that.
Is that going to be your goal – just to turn them out as quickly as possible?
No, I don’t think I should do that yet, but I do want my next special to be a full one-hour special whether it’s through Comedy Central or Netflix. I just wanted to put out this album to show everyone I could do it. Now after that I want the next one to be video. I just want that to be up and ready to go before anyone says, “hey do you want to do it?” I have a lot of visual bits I didn’t do because I didn’t want to do them on the audio album and I’m saving those for video. Except for the opening joke on the album. I crawl underneath the table to tell a joke in order to fuck around with the fact that I’m doing audio and telling a visual joke. I listened to it back. I don’t think it was the best idea I ever had, but we’ll see.
Brooks Wheelan’s new album, This is cool, right? is available here.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.