Brooks Wheelan’s first stand-up album, This is Cool, Right?, came out last week. It’s a strong debut, with the Iowa-bred comedian sharing hilarious tales about his dad, his childhood, old jobs and that time he did ecstasy while watching Skrillex at Bonnaroo. Wheelan is a smooth comedian and a natural storyteller, a skill he proved again during a phone call with Paste last week. Somehow we talked for almost twenty minutes before getting around to that old sketch show he spent a year on.
Paste: How are you doing?
Brooks Wheelan: I’m hanging out in my bare apartment. I don’t have any furniture, I’m moving.
Paste: You’re moving right now?
Wheelan: I literally just got back from shipping a couple boxes and yeah, I have no chair in my apartment right now. It’s great.
Paste: Where are you moving?
Wheelan: I’m moving to Los Angeles, from New York City.
Paste: You used to live there, right?
Wheelan: Yeah, I lived there for about five years and I’m excited to return.
Paste: What did you miss the most about Los Angeles when you were living in New York?
Wheelan: I missed the nature in general, the desert, mountains, the ocean.
Paste: I was out there in November, I drove from Vegas to LA, and man, that drive is gorgeous.
Wheelan: Yeah, and that’s just Southern California; up north it gets better. I like New York as a city better but I love California, I just like the diversity of the landscape. You feel more free there, you have a car and there’s an escape if you want. You’re having a bad day, you can just drive to the mountains. In New York if you’re having a bad day, you go to the bar and drink—it’s just more self-destructive to me.
Paste: As long you don’t need water California is a cool place to live.
Wheelan: Yeah, no kidding, I’ll just drink ocean water. You can drink salt water, that’s all right.
Paste: So your first album came out last week. When you record a special like that, does it affect you as a performer? Like how you approach your material or what you’re doing on stage?
Wheelan: I’m always trying to do new jokes in my set, I very rarely a do a set of all jokes that I know are gonna work because that’s boring. But for an album, I want them all to work so I tell the ones that are polished.
Paste: So it’s like the hits?
Wheelan: Yeah, just the ones I know work so I can get ‘em out there and then try new ones.
Paste: If you tell a new joke and it just doesn’t work, how long will you try to make it work? Or do you drop it immediately?
Wheelan: If I think it’s funny, I stick with it. I think I have a good gauge now of what is funny and what isn’t funny in my voice and so I don’t usually let just one audience determine anything.
Paste: You pull a lot from your life. I guess you keep on living, but do you ever worry about running out of good stories to tell?
Wheelan: You gotta just keep putting yourself in situations that allow you to comment on them, and things just keep getting weirder. I’m at a point of like 30 minutes of good material that I really like for the next special and what I’m realizing is this theme of a dude from Iowa enjoying this miniature version of success and not knowing how to, like, be drinking wine and flying first class. And I’m not saying I fly first class all the time, it’s happened like twice, and I don’t know how to deal with that. I grew up not liking rich people and now like every once in a while and now I’m around rich people, and it turns out it’s great.
Paste: How is it great?
Wheelan: Everything is so…easy. You get to lay down watching TV while you travel through the sky; it’s ridiculous, so unnecessary. But I was in the situation so I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna live it if this is just a one-time deal.’ But man, being rich, it’s easy.
Paste: I always think it’d be awkward for first-class people when the rest of us are walking down the aisle, trying to see if there’s anybody famous.
Wheelan: Yeah, I was so excited to see how far back my seat would recline and it ended up going all the way back until I was completely prone. So everybody just saw what was clearly a buffoon who had never flown first class.
Paste: You mentioned new material for another special. When the album came out did you just immediately retire all that material?
Wheelan: Yeah, for sure. If I did a half-hour special for like Comedy Central, I’d bring it back for that, but that’s it. I would treat that special as if it was a special for the CD. That’s what [Mitch] Hedberg did, so I don’t feel bad doing it.
Paste: I saw him live a couple times and that would be his encore, he’d do stuff he’d done before. Maybe because his standup is more short and punchy like a song.
Wheelan: Yeah, he’s so good. He’s my number one comedian of all time. I admire the hell out of that dude.
Paste: He was one of the first comedians that I interviewed.
Wheelan: How was that?! I bet he was so nice, right?
Paste: It was awesome, I actually got to do it twice. He was so nice. Both times he was just driving alone in his car from one show to another and he sounded really lonely.
Wheelan: Everyone you ask who knew him would say he’s so nice and just a genuinely great comedian. He was like the holy grail, I wore out my Mitch Hedberg CD I had in the car just from listening to it so much. And I of course went out and got another one.
Paste: On the record, you talk about being a biomedical engineer. Other than just liking it more, why did you pick doing comedy over that? I would think starting out the money would be a lot better doing that.
Wheelan: Well, you wouldn’t just go work some place easy because you love writing, right? I love comedy, I didn’t love biomedical engineering. I’m just chasing it to do what I love. Now that comedy is my only job, it’s crazy, it’s like I won the lottery. My life is a joke because the way I make money now, I would do for free.
Paste: What did your family think when you told them you were gonna focus on comedy?
Wheelan: I still had a full time biomedical engineering job when I got hired to go work at Saturday Night Live. I had to quit my biomedical engineering job to work at SNL, so they weren’t too bummed out about it. They were like, ‘That’s fine.’
Paste: Other than Hedberg, who were some of your other favorite comedians when you were growing up?
Wheelan: I love Dane Cook, absolutely. His CDs really made me laugh. I’m into the new stand-up comedians, who are truly, to me, the funniest dudes on the planet. Like Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller, Matt Braunger. Those are the dudes I look up to; they’re making comedy so cool and unique.
Paste: I interviewed Kyle last week. I definitely see a lot of his style in you, in terms of telling stories rather than jokes.
Wheelan: I think that’s where comedy’s headed. Not jokes, it’s getting personal and creating relatability on stage. It’s people talking about themselves in very unique points of views.
Paste: Kinane was talking about how comedy’s kinda flooded, there’s like comedy everywhere.
Wheelan: SO much comedy, I’m pretty worried. I think had to have been those Oddball Shows with like 17,000 people. That’s gotta be the peak of it, people have to get tired of it soon. But I hope not, and I think it’s reached a level where it’s so good, people won’t get tired of it. It’s gotten so much more DIY, people are taken power away from the comedy clubs and putting on their own shows, which is awesome. I like clubs, but I like shows where people have to find out about it. Instead of, ‘I wanna see comedy, let’s go to the place for comedy,’ it’s more like ‘These comedians will want to see these types of comedians and this music venue.’ I love working at a music venue.
I would rather do just one show stacked with people who really wanna see me and just move on instead of six shows over three days. You just kind of build your own market.
Paste: So I saw the album is coming out on vinyl later this year?
Wheelan: Yeah, vinyl is backed up right now because not a lot of places make it. I don’t think they saw it coming back as big as it did.
Paste: So when you decide to get self-indulgent, will you listen to vinyl or MP3s?
Wheelan: Oh, I probably won’t listen to it. I only listen to my standup to find mistakes. And I actually edited my own album, so I’m so over it by now. I’ll get a record, just because I like vinyl and I like the artwork because it’ll just be cool to have that.
People who come to my shows seem way more into vinyl. I don’t know anyone who’s buying CDs, but I know a lot of people buying vinyl. I don’t see why anybody would price gouge their fans. You might make a record for $8, sell it for $10, and you’re not making money off it but you’re building a relationship being cool to your fans.
Paste: I was watching Girls and I saw you pop up on there. Were they just looking for a guy from Iowa? How did that come about?
Wheelan: When Lena Dunham was the host of Saturday Night Live and I was on the cast, we became friends. That was pretty much it. She was like, ‘You wanna come do the show?’ and I said, ‘That’d be great!’
Paste: Were there connections because of you being from Iowa or was it just a coincidence?
Wheelan: I think we talked about it when she was hosting, and when she was writing that she thought, ‘Oh, Brooks is from Iowa, he’d be great at this.’ It was super cool and nice of her because that show is great.
Paste: How sick are you of being asked about SNL?
Wheelan: I don’t mind, it’s a good show and people talk about it. It’s one of the reasons why people know I do comedy. I have no problem appreciating the show giving me the spark to get out of engineering.
Paste: Was it surprising when they didn’t bring you back?
Wheelan: I thought I had like a 50/50 shot. I feel like in this business, you always wanna be 100% sure. So it was more like, ‘Oh, dang. Well, that’s cool.’
Paste: When they hired you did they explain why they brought so many new people on at the same time?
Wheelan: I think everybody just had their own little unique thing that they brought on.
Paste: How do you prepare for a job like that?
Wheelan: When I found out I got hired, I actually watched all the seasons of Mr. Show. I told that to Paul F. Tompkins and he was like, ‘You watched the wrong show!’. But that’s what I did, and I showed up and read a bunch of sketches.
Paste: Did you read the Live From New York oral history?
Wheelan: I did actually start reading that in like the middle of the season; it’s pretty spot on.
Paste: People are so fixated on what goes on backstage at that show. People like to read, so that’s why we write about it.
Wheelan: Yeah, people love talking about that show. And I don’t mind talking about it. I’m done talking about it on stage, absolutely. I do a couple rejected bits on the album, but I just don’t wanna be that guy doing standup and they’re like, ‘Is he still talking about that show?’ Just because I don’t wanna come across as a jerk.
Paste: So you do stand-up, acting, sketch—what’s your favorite type of comedy to do?
Wheelan: Stand-up, and then the types of TV shows I watch are dark comedy. I love Eastbound and Down, It’s Always Sunny. Dark comedies that comedians write, that’s what I love and that’s what I wanna do.
Paste: Yeah, Eastbound. You never really get the South on TV that’s not the cartoonish version of the South. It’s straightforward, it’s not weird or funny, they’re just Southern; it’s who they are.
Wheelan: I think an even better version of that from Eastbound is the movie they made, The Foot Fist Way. That was like even less cartoony than Eastbound, even though Eastbound isn’t too cartoony, it’s still grounded in reality. I love it, that’s what I would love to create some day.
The first pilot I wrote was about a real place I worked at in Iowa called Crystal Lake Cave. It’s a tourist trap that tries to compete with the Field of Dreams. It’s a real place, I wrote it when I was 24, and it was like the first thing I ever wrote, this half-hour dark comedy about a kid who inherits the cave and tries to turn it into a laser tag arena.
Paste: You need to revisit that.
Wheelan: I think I just have to write a new one, and I am working on one that’s more relevant to me as a 28 year-old as opposed to a 24 year-old. I’m with ya, I wish I could just re-submit but nope, gotta do something new.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. You can find him on Twitter @grmartin.