Caravanning through Central America: A Q&A with comedian Brooks Wheelan
It’s 3 p.m. on a Friday, and I’m on the Greyhound en route to central Illinois. There’s antifreeze dripping from the ceiling, my fingers are still slightly greasy from the bus station pizza I just finished (the only pizza in the world that tastes like cigarettes!), and I’m casually on the phone with Brooks Wheelan.
If he hears the relentless wheeze of the bus’s motor (motor? exhaust? the sounds of people giving up?) on my end of the line, he doesn’t mention it. Maybe he doesn’t notice it, since he’s also driving through the mountains. He’s on his way to hang out with some people—a laid-back weekend is probably necessary before he goes on his fall tour, called “Brooks Wheelan Tours Central America 2015.” After a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live,” he released his first standup album, “This Is Cool, Right?” early this year. His tour will feature an all-new set of jokes from his forthcoming album. I got the chance to chat with him about his life, tour and upcoming projects.
Student Life: When did you start doing stand-up?
Brooks Wheelan: I started when I was 19 in Iowa. And then I’d drive to Chicago a lot to do shows.
SL: Did you go to mics in Iowa City?
BW: There weren’t any mics in Iowa City. There were two open mics, one was in Cedar Rapids and one was in Davenport, and they were each once a month, so I had to drive to Chicago a lot.
SL: You studied engineering, which is crazy. How did you balance school while also driving out to Chicago and doing comedy?
BW: I don’t really know. Looking back, I don’t think I’d do it again. It sucked. It was just hard. I would just do school, and then I’d do stand-up on the weekends.
SL: Did one have more weight over the other?
BW: Oh, yeah. I cared about comedy infinitely more.
SL: At that point, did you ever think you might actually be an engineer forever, or were you always sure that you wanted to be a comedian?
BW: Oh, yeah, when I was 19 I was like, “I’m going to be a stand-up comedian. Like, immediately.”
SL: Did you ever consider dropping out of college?
BW: No, because I didn’t have any money. And going in-state—I went to the University of Iowa—it was cheap to get a biomedical engineering degree, and I used that degree to leave Iowa and move to Los Angeles. Because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to move out there.
SL: So I shouldn’t drop out of college, then?
BW: I mean…college isn’t that bad.
SL: Did you move to L.A. right after you graduated college?
BW: Yeah, as soon as I took my last final.
SL: So did you have a job at that point?
BW: Yeah. I spent my senior year of college looking for jobs in Los Angeles, and I found one, so I moved there to start working.
SL: You mentioned somewhere that L.A. is where you “got good.” How long did it take you to get to that point where you felt like you were good?
BW: I think like, five years in. That’s when I got [recognition from] Comedy Central—they picked 10 comedians to watch, and I was on that.
SL: You do a lot of personal material. Have you always done personal material, or is that a thing that’s happened as you’ve evolved as a comedian?
BW: Well, I wasn’t doing personal stuff until about five years in. When I started being very personal on stage, and talking about my point of view and my experiences—that’s when everything started clicking. Things started working out after that.
SL: Is that something that you want to stick with, or is there something else you want to experiment with in your stand-up?
BW: I don’t know. Whatever’s making me laugh, I’m going to keep doing.
SL: Who were your stand-up influences growing up?
BW: I loved Mitch Hedberg. He’s my favorite comedian—it’s stuff that’s beyond anybody else, you know? I used to listen to him too much, and I would go onstage and [I’d imitate] him, and everyone would be like, “You’re ripping off Mitch Hedberg,” and I’d be like, “I know, I’m sorry.”
SL: Obligatory SNL question: What was it like writing sketches on “SNL” coming from a stand-up background?
BW: It was—I mean, it was—it was a tough job. It was just hard. It was a totally different skill set that I thought I got way better at by the end of my time at “SNL.” Because, coming in, I was writing some pretty bad sketches. You have to learn—it’s not easy.
SL: Going back to stand-up, which cities are your favorite stand-up cities?
BW: New York City is the greatest in the world. It’s a stand-up town. It’s the best, if you want to do stand-up. Nothing comes close to it.
SL: But you hate actual New York?
BW: I mean, I didn’t have a great time there, but that’s just because I like Los Angeles so much. It’s not even that I like Los Angeles—I just like California. I like the weather and the mountains and the ocean.
SL: How would you say the L.A. and New York scenes are different?
BW: You can just do so much more stand-up in New York. In New York, it seems like all the stand-ups are there to mostly do stand-up and in L.A., people are doing a lot of different things. I live in L.A. because I write for TV and act, and I also do stand-up. New York is more focused on stand-up than anywhere else, I’d say.
SL: How do you feel about Chicago, then?
BW: I really like Chicago. I lived there for a little bit. Chicago is the best place to start. You get a lot of stage time in Chicago with real audiences. It’s great.
SL: For your tour, are you doing material from your most recent album or are you doing new stuff?
BW: I’m working on a new album, so this is all new. I think it’s pretty good right now—I have a really good hour, but I’m hoping to make it so much better. It’s about making it better.
SL: What do you do when you get stuck while writing?
BW: Oooh, I don’t know. Huh. I don’t really have any—I mean, you just have to force it. You just have to keep going. You can’t let yourself get stuck. You have to like, not allow it. You have to force stuff through. Even if it’s bad, just keep writing.
SL: What are some things that you’re working on besides stand-up?
BW: I’m working on a half-hour scripted TV show right now that I really like. You know, trying to write a show that’s really dark. I love stuff like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Eastbound and Down,” so, I don’t know, things like that. I just love that type of comedy.
SL: Okay, everyone hates this question because it makes them feel old, even though it’s not supposed to: Do you have any advice for younger people?
BW: The best advice I got was in Iowa, where somebody said to me, “You’ve got to go where it’s happening. It’s not happening in Iowa. Surround yourself with stand-up comedy—that’s the only way you can do it. Move to a place where everybody’s doing stand-up comedy and hang out with stand-up comedians. Put yourself in a situation where it can happen.”
See Brooks Wheelan at The Firebird next Sunday, October 18th. Doors open at 7 p.m.; show starts at 8 p.m.