As a former member of Saturday Night Live and a holder of a degree in Biomedical Engineering, Brooks Wheelan is not your typical stand-up comedian. His jokes on his latest album, This is Cool, Right?, range from trying drugs to being obsessed with creating brackets as a child, but that’s just scratching the surface. We sat down with Wheelan before his show at the Highdive and discussed life before, during and after comedy.
Smile Politely: Is this your first time visiting Champaign?
Wheelan: Oh it is. Yeah man, I had some friends go there in college and they all got arrested. I went to the University of Iowa and they came to Iowa and they were like “don’t go back.”
SP: What have you heard about Champaign and the campus town that you’re looking forward to experiencing?
Wheelan: You guys have a good Halloween, right? You guys do something fun. I don’t know anything.
SP: The comedy scene is a thriving element in the C-U community, so can you tell those involved how you got involved with comedy yourself?
Wheelan: Yeah, I loved it ever since I was little and watched Adam Sandler do The Weekend Update. I started doing comedy when I was 19 and a freshman at the University of Iowa. I did it for three years around the Midwest in like Chicago and campus city. To make it my job I had to go to like L.A. or New York. So, I found a job out in L.A. and just went there and kept going.
SP: When you were first starting out, where did you pull your material from?
Wheelan: Growing up. I put out an album that’s just about growing up.
SP: Speaking of your album This Is Cool, Right?, what was the thought process behind putting out an album featuring your stand-up?
Wheelan: I mean, I’d written out so much material, and I was on the road just doing so much stand-up that I was bored of those jokes and didn’t want to tell them anymore even though I still thought they were great. So, I basically put out that album to be able to retire an hour of material and continue writing.
SP: When you’re writing these jokes, does the material come easily, or do you have to really pull from life experiences to get the jokes flowing?
Wheelan: Sometimes things just trigger other things. Like, I forgot about something, and then I remember it. I kind of just write from stage now, which I wasn’t able to do for like the first seven years because I wasn’t getting a lot of stage time. But now that I do so much stand-up, I can just write from stage.
SP: How would you describe your comedic style?
Wheelan: I do magic and puppetry. It’s great.
SP: Was there ever a really helpful piece of advice you received from someone that kept you going?
Wheelan: Yeah, I was just in Iowa and I was concerned by what wasn’t happening and someone told me “you’re not where it happens, get to where it happens, and then you can complain.” I was like, alright that is a great note to be given. You need to put yourself in the situation where it could happen.
SP: Did you have a backup plan or was it always comedy?
Wheelan: I only ever wanted to do stand-up. I got a Biomedical Engineering degree and I did that in Los Angeles until I got hired at Saturday Night Live. I was working at this lab at Caltech. That was just my day job. I could have cared less about it.
SP: Now that you’re no longer appearing on Saturday Night Live, do you use anything you experienced in your time there in your stand-up?
Wheelan: Well, I don’t talk about SNL at all anymore on stage. That was kind of a cathartic like for me. Like I’ll put it on [This Is Cool, Right?] and just leave it alone. Like, nobody likes the dude that just talks about his old job. So, I don’t talk about it on stage, but it was a cool thing I got to do.
SP: Has there been a show that stood out from the rest in any way?
Wheelan: It wasn’t until…I’d been doing this for six years and I got Comedy Central’s Ten Comedians for that year. So, I went to New York and did this Comedy Central showcase and I was like, okay, I might be alright at this.
SP: Besides this tour going on, has anything exciting been happening in your life recently?
Wheelan: Yeah, I’m just working on a couple different TV shows. That’s like my main goal. When I moved out to L.A. it was like my main goal. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia came out when I was like a freshman at Iowa and that blew my mind. So, I was like yeah, I just want to do that. So, that’s what I’ve been working on.
SP: Are there any current comedians that inspire you?
Wheelan: That’s also the best part about being in New York and L.A. You’re surrounded by like the best comedians in the world. It’s not any one person, just when I see someone really have a great set. It’s like, well, I’m not that funny so I have to get funnier.
SP: What would your advice be to stand-up comedians trying to find a start?
Wheelan: Oh man, I don’t even know what I did. I just kind of hung out. I think if you just don’t give up and keep actively trying to get better. Literally just do anything that works.
SP: Is there a certain mindset you hope your audiences will have when coming to the show?
Wheelan: I just like anyone that comes to a show just like excited to be there. I don’t like anyone that comes to shows with the idea that I better make them laugh. I like people who are just open to it.
SP: Which stop on the tour are you most excited for?
Wheelan: I head down south. I’ve never really done south, but I’m excited to [do shows] in like Nashville and New Orleans just because I never really go down there. We’re not doing just huge cities; we want to do places that I’ve never been. I lived in Chicago and L.A. and New York. I wanted to do all the Big 10 schools and go to a place that doesn’t get a ton of stand-up comedy.
SP: Any last words?
BW: No, I’m stoked for the show and to be in a Big 10 town. You guys have a really great wrestling team too. I really love wrestling… I’m going to go eat a hot dog now.
Check out Wheelan this weekend, Saturday, October 17th at The Highdive. Grab your tickets here.