Interview: Brooks Wheelan on the LA comedy scene, SNL and his return to Iowa City

-- Photo by The.Rohit Creative Commons
Brooks Wheelan performing standup — Photo by The.Rohit (Creative Commons)

Comedian Brooks Wheelan

Penguin’s Comedy Club — Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m. | The Mill — Sept. 13 at 9:00 p.m.

Brooks Wheelan returns to the Iowa City area with performances tonight at Penguin’s and tomorrow at The Mill as part of “The Brooks Wheelan Falls Back on Stand Up Comedy (sorta) Tour.”

The tour’s title, a self-deprecating reference to being cut from the SNL cast earlier this summer, is indicative of his brand of stand-up. Whether it’s discussing poorly chosen tattoos, drunken college pranks gone awry, or being a teenager who hasn’t quite shed his attachment to stuffed animals, Wheelan isn’t afraid to make himself the butt of a joke. To the contrary, he wants to make sure the joke kills and has the whole crowd laughing.

Born in Cedar Rapids, raised in Manchester and a graduate of the University of Iowa (earning a biomedical engineering degree in 2009), Wheelan is Iowan through-and-through, but made a name for himself as a stand-up comic in the LA comedy scene. Little Village recently talked to Wheelan about honing his stand-up act in LA, his experience as an SNL cast member, starting his comedy career in Iowa and his affection for Iowa City.

Little Village: This tour takes you back to doing stand-up, which is where you started out. Is it the kind of comedy you identify with most?

Brooks Wheelan: Definitely. Stand-up comedy is the backbone of my whole idea of comedy. If someone were to ask “what kind of comedian are you?” I would always say that I am a stand-up comedian. Not a sketch comedian or an improv comedian. I am a stand-up. I got to be on a sketch show because of it, and that’s cool. But stand-up is my type of comedy. It’s what I grew up watching. I just really admire and appreciate it so much.

How did you get your start in the LA stand-up scene? How was it coming up in that scene?

I had been doing stand-up about three years, so I thought I was amazing. In retrospect, I was garbage. Stand-up comedy is a thing if you keep going, you don’t give up. You keep progressing. You are self-aware. That’s an important part, being self-aware that you’re not as good as Mitch Hedburg when you’re 20. Not thinking you are the best, but wanting to be the best.

I just showed up at all the open mics. I just showed up and hung out and kept hanging out and hanging out and slowly, started getting on more and getting better. The first two years were really, really hard. And the last two years were there were most fun years of my life.

Being in LA and seeing the best comedians in the world every night, that is how you get better. Constantly seeing who I honestly believe are the best comedians in the world doing a Monday night room to thirty people — watching Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller, Rory Scovel, Pete Holmes just go up and murder to thirty people when you think “this crowd isn’t going to laugh at anybody.” Like I would bomb in front of that crowd, and those dudes would go up and murder in front of the same people. That is the best way to get better.

This stand-up tour is taking you all over the country. How did you decide on including this four-stop Iowa leg on the tour?

Initially, I was just going to do The Mill. And then, people were like, “You’re back, why don’t you do a show in this town.” It turned into a four city tour real quick – Des Moines, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

The Iowa City one was originally the only one I was going to do because I love that place so much. I’ve been working on writing TV shows, before and after SNL, and I’ve set a couple of them in Iowa City. It is a unique place that no one has really written about for TV. It is such a unique, weird town that exists, and it’s so fun. And it’s so rich for characters and debauchery.

Did you get to hang out much while you were here in town? Did you have favorite spots you liked to go to?

Not so much. I was so into comedy, I didn’t hang out at bars a lot because I would be gone every weekend. I would mostly hang out at Old Capitol Brewery just because it was close to where I lived. And I just drank there with my three friends. When I was in Iowa City, I was studying for engineering a lot. Plus, I was thrown out of most of the bars my freshman year, so I held grudges against all of them.

How much comedy did you manage to do while you were in college and in Iowa? Where did you perform?

I did comedy non-stop from the time I was 19 until 22. I got an internship in Kansas City after my sophomore year, and I did comedy every night there over the summer. In my junior year, I got an internship in Chicago, I did comedy there every night. During the school year, I would run a one-nighter every Wednesday at the Summit that paid me fifty dollars and all the Blue Moon I could drink. I can’t even look at Blue Moon without thinking of the Summit and wanting to throw up.

Did you ever do the local comedy open mic at Penguin’s

I actually started at Penguin’s when I was 19 years old. That night I decided I had to work there. I told them I would do whatever, that I just need to work there and be in comedy. I got a job as the guy who ran the sound, and that’s how I started.

Going back to SNL for a moment, was it difficult moving from stand-up to sketch?

There was definitely a huge learning curve. I had never done characters. The things I felt like I was good at on the show were where I was being myself, which is from stand-up. You just come in with your own strengths. Just starting day one as a sketch comedian working at SNL, without any preconceived notions, was tough. I did alright and held my own, but it was really hard.

Did you get an opportunity to write sketches as well?

Yeah, that is the way to get on the show when you are new. I got six sketches on that I wrote, and those were probably the sketches I was funniest in. I was actually hired as a writer. I was there three weeks before I was put in the cast.

Did you have a favorite sketch that you wrote?

I liked just going on Weekend Update and being myself. My favorite sketch that we wrote that made it on was this thing called Critter Control where Edward Norton and I were pulled into the wall and murdered by opossums. That was the type of stuff that I was trying to write. Just this really weird, out there stuff.

Yeah, I really liked how left field that sketch was. Those Weekend Update sketches are really funny in and of themselves, but I think sometimes there is an added appreciation knowing their Iowa background. For example, that one about the “butter prank,” that had to have happened in Iowa City, right?

Yeah it happened in Kennedy Plaza, above Gumby’s.

Yes! That’s pretty much what I was picturing.

Yeah, my old roommate Steve did it. He is strangely proud that people do it now. He thinks it’s great. I get messages like “We totally buttered my friend” And I’m like yes, but tell him you did it. Tell him.

Was it really six weeks of panic for you?

In reality, it was more like eight hours of terror and confusion, not six weeks. I was just so depressed. I was thinking about how I was going to break up with my girlfriend because I felt that I needed to. I didn’t know what I had done.

My roommates came home from school when I was there, and they were like “So what happened last night?.” And I was like, “Nothing. Nothing happened.” “Nothing?” And then, I’m like, “Ok, what did you do?”

That was the panic. It wasn’t six weeks. But for comedic effect, six weeks is great.

You worked really hard while you were in Iowa as a comedian and had success with it. Did you feel you had to move on?

For me, it is important to start comedy in Iowa, but also, just from a realistic perspective, it is important to then take it to a new place. You can’t stay in Iowa and be upset if it is not working. That’s part of it. You have to follow where it goes.

Yeah. People often ambitiously pitch Iowa City as an up-and-coming Austin or Portland in terms of arts and culture. I am always skeptical of that, especially with regards to comedy.

Honestly, it absolutely could. It could become a Portland or an Austin. It is not going to become an LA or a New York or Chicago, but it could definitely reach that level. All it needs is some people who really, really care. Like Andy Wood really cared. He is a Portland guy, and he created the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, which put Portland on the map. It is now this great comedy town. It is really somebody taking the scene and going the extra mile. But it is fucking hard to do.

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