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The New Guy: SNL's Brooks Wheelan is at the crossroads of sketch and standup | The Scene
Brooks Wheelan, 27, is an up-and-comer in the comedy world. Originally from Iowa, he spent the past half-decade playing stand-up shows in Los Angeles, when he wasn’t at his day job as an engineer. In September, he was the last featured player named to the 39th season of Saturday Night Live, becoming part of one of the most significant cast shake-ups in show history.Wheelan spoke with The Scene from the SNL set at 30 Rockefeller Plaza – in the middle of prep for the Dec. episode with Paul Rudd – to talk about writing comedy and what it takes to be a young comedian:
SCENE: I’ve seen several of the sketches you’ve done so far for SNL. Your pest control sketch with Ed Norton was incredibly funny – as was your tattoo segment on Weekend Update. Then I saw a video of your possum bit during a set at a PowerViolence show in Los Angeles. Did you borrow from that story for the sketch?
BROOKS WHEELAN: Yeah. I mean, I wrote it with two other writers on staff – Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin. But, yes, I put in the part about the possums. I think it’s just that I think possums are funny, so I put them into my comedy a lot.
SCENE: Do you frequently draw on your personal life for your comedy writing?
WHEELAN: Oh yeah. Almost all of my stand-up material has been about things that would happen to me. I don’t have, like, jokes that I tell in the traditional sense. It’s funny things from my life.
SCENE: You started performing stand-up as a teenager, but I saw that you earned your degree in biomedical engineering. How does that happen?
WHEELAN: Well… I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college. And I had this girl I was dating who was studying to be an engineer, so I said “OK, me too!” I had started doing stand-up my freshman year of college and I figured if I stuck with this major, it would be a way for me to move to L.A. or New York. I still did it in Los Angeles until this came up.
SCENE: So you were working as an engineer then?
WHEELAN: Yeah, I still had my job in that field right up until all this. I didn’t quit until I found out I had the SNL job.
SCENE: You were the final addition to SNL’s cast of featured players, after being named a writer the month before. What’s the audition process like, and what kind of pressure were you facing?
WHEELAN: You know, it was pretty cool. Each step of the way I thought it was pretty neat that I had gotten this far, so I didn’t put too much pressure on myself in that way. As far as the audition itself, they saw me perform in Montreal, then in L.A., and then I auditioned on the stage where they shoot the show in New York. It was all scary, but I tried to (minimize that).
SCENE: How did SNL approach you?
WHEELAN: I was just doing stand up in L.A. and other places, and I was invited to Just For Laughs, which is the biggest stand-up festival, and takes place in Montreal. They saw me there.
SCENE: You studied improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A. Was that to learn more about another medium of comedy? Was it a career choice?
WHEELAN: It was really very much a matter of having friends who were doing it, and I decided to do it, too. It looked like fun, and it was.
SCENE: How does writing stand-up compare to writing sketch for a show like SNL?
WHEELAN: Well, I’m just a cast member right now to be clear, but the cast members are asked to write our own material each week. But stand-up is pretty different from other forms of comedy. In sketch, you find a premise and heighten and reach a resolution. Stand-up is more like, “this happened to me and here’s the funny way of telling it.” Sketch, to me, is more collaborative. I have more fun writing sketch. They’re different muscles, but they’re both equally funny, if that makes sense. I don’t think of one as being better than the other.
SCENE: Do you feel like you’re learning a lot about sketch being on the show?
WHEELAN: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like boot camp for sketch writing. You write and you write every week. A lot of the sketches don’t get made and you have to keep moving forward. It’s a great experience.
SCENE: How does it compare to writing for an outlet like CollegeHumor?
WHEELAN: (laughs) Oh man, I don’t even know how that bit about me made it onto the Internet. I mean, look: I wrote one list type thing for CollegHumor when I was 19. But I didn’t actually write for them.
SCENE: Oh! Well, how about this: What outlets did you write for before SNL?
WHEELAN: I filmed sketches with friends in L.A. and we would put them up on YouTube and Funny Or Die. As long as you have friends you can do sketch. I probably would have gotten more into sketch if I had stayed in Iowa and (found others interested in sketch). By doing stand-up, I didn’t have to rely on anyone else to make it work.
SCENE: How did you become interested in comedy?
WHEELAN: I loved comedy growing up. I was really into SNL … I was a fan of Adam Sandler especially. I loved it when he came on. Then I read a book (about) Adam Sandler and it talked about how he did stand-up. So I decided I would do it too. I was 19 when I first started doing it, and I drove an hour and a half about once a month to do an open mic.
SCENE: In the same New York Times interview where he announced you as the final addition to the cast, Lorne Michaels said he doesn’t pay attention to potential additions’ work on, say, YouTube or Funny Or Die, like you mentioned. But do you think those outlets are necessary for modern comedians?
WHEELAN: I don’t think they’re necessary, but I think they’re helpful tools to use. People can make it without using them … It’s a great way for people to see your stuff without having to be in L.A. or New York City.