Sometimes, it’s the modest ones that have the most to say. The client is demure and casual in his cadence and mannerisms, which is why it often takes me a moment to realize the weight and eloquence of his answers. Despite being let go from one of the most renowned comedy shows in modern history, the patient can only focus on the positives – that he was on the show at all in the first place, and that he can make a living pursuing comedy in general. That being said, he isn’t too proud to share his failures; however, he is quick to point out the positives in even his shortcomings. I sense his resistance to routine in his disdain for day jobs and painful recollections of his time as a biomedical engineer. However, despite his past as a scientist and his well-earned fame from his time on Saturday Night Live, Brooks Wheelan was as modest as they come.
Before your time on SNL, you worked as a biomedical engineer, correct?
So how do you think your experiences as a biomedical engineer prepared you for a career in comedy?
I would say zero, nothing. There is no crossover. Probably the only thing it did for me was…having a day job is the most motivating reason to want to leave a day job, so it made me work harder at comedy.
Did you glean any comedic inspiration from your time as an engineer?
No, but in a sketch that got on SNL, I had boring jargon, and I used real names and showed my engineering chops, so that was cool. But it’s kind of hard to write jokes about biomedical engineering because it’s so unrelatable and so braggy.
Do you ever hold it over the other comedians that you had a more “practical” major than they did?
No, I was terrible at it, so I definitely didn’t talk about it a lot. I treated that job like McDonalds. I would just show up hungover, get paid, and leave.
Although you majored in biomedical engineering, did you do any comedy in college outside of your major?
Yeah, that’s where I started. I started when I was nineteen, as a freshman at the University of Iowa, and I wrote funny stories for the newspaper. I did standup all over the Midwest as much as I could. I went into Minneapolis and Chicago to do shows.
What would you say you’ve learned from your time on SNL?
I don’t know. How to write sketches better? It’s like sketch writing college.
Did you feel at all disadvantaged coming from a standup background, as opposed to an improv or sketch background?
No, I think everybody brings their own strengths to that job. So I was better at solo stuff, and other people were better at other stuff.
You’ve turned some of your standup bits into Weekend Update characters. Were there any failed attempts at turning your standup into sketch?
Yeah. I probably wrote twenty to twenty-five update pieces, and I only got to do two, so it’s a high failure rate at that show.
Since you’ve been back to doing standup, do you feel like people treat you differently because of your time at SNL?
The good thing about SNL is that it gave me a lot of exposure. Before I was on the show, no one would come to my shows; now, people come to my shows. It’s great.
When did you first know you wanted to do comedy?
Really young. Maybe fourth or fifth grade? I just loved standup so much. I really liked Adam Sandler. I was obsessed with him; I used to stay up to watch him do Weekend Update, and I was like, “Oh, I want to do that, too!”
With standup you can do really intimate shows, but like, there’s something to be said about knowing when to say what. Like, I’m not a filthy comedian, but if my mom’s in the crowd, I’m definitely going to chill out.
What do your parents think of your career choice and your standup in general?
I don’t know. They were more pro-biomedical engineering. But they’re cool with whatever, really. After I got on SNL, they were pretty okay with the comedy.
Yeah, I imagine that would quell their fears. Have they seen any of your standup?
Yeah, they went to a show I had in Iowa a few months ago and I think they liked it, so that was good.
Are there any jokes that you wouldn’t say in front of your parents? Do you have any censor for them?
I mean, there’s jokes I will never record. With standup you can do really intimate shows, but like, there’s something to be said about knowing when to say what. Like, I’m not a filthy comedian, but if my mom’s in the crowd, I’m definitely going to chill out.
Has your upbringing had any impact on your career as a comedian?
Yeah, I mean, it’s like basically what my standup’s about, just growing up in Iowa.
So, if you could give advice to kids growing up in Iowa right now who want to pursue comedy, what would you say?
I don’t know. I think I would say, “Just go for it. Don’t let people say it can’t happen. Also, you’ve gotta leave Iowa.”
Did you like the Iowa City comedy scene?
There wasn’t really one when I was there. It was me, and a guy who lived in Davenport, and a guy who lived in Cedar Rapids. I was just back recently, and it seems like they have a comedy scene now, and that’s really cool.
You’re currently living in New York, but you’ve spent some time in L.A. and Chicago as well. Which city do you think has the best comedy scene?
I think, if you want to get good, New York is the best one, but I moved to L.A. and lived in L.A. for five years, so I’m biased, but I think Los Angeles is the best comedy scene in the world.
What about the scene there makes it so great?
It’s really experimental, and also, the greatest comedians in the world live there. Except for your handful of New York guys, Attell and stuff. Most dudes live in L.A. All the guys I look up to live in L.A., like T.J. Miller, Rory Scovel, Howard Kremer, Kyle Kinane. So when I see some of the best comedians in the world doing shows, it makes you want to get better too. It’s just super motivating.
If you could go back and do anything differently with your time at SNL, would you change anything?
That’s a hard question. I feel like when I was there, I tried really, really hard. I don’t know how I really could have gone at it differently. It’s just a really weird question – like, hey, if you could go back to high school, what would you do better? It’s like, I don’t know – been chill?
Have you ever bombed on stage during a set?
Oh yeah, for sure. I just bombed at the University of Florida. That place sucked! I had to go on in between Foster The People and Ludacris, and I got booed off the stage. It was just the worst experience. This was like a few months ago. It was crazy. So it’s cool. Now I have a least favorite city on the planet. And also, they have a least favorite comedian, so it goes both ways. But Ludacris was good, so it was a fun trip overall!
How does bombing make you feel? Do you feel like you learn a lot from it, or do you never want to go on stage again after you bomb?
I always find it kind of funny. Like, I’m at a point now where I can find it funny. If I were just starting out and bombing, that would really hurt, but now I’m like – whoa, what happened? It’s just a weird experience to step back from and be like, “Well, don’t do that again.” Also, that Ludacris show is the last time I think I’ve bombed in the last five or six years. It was just terrible, but it was pretty funny. In retrospect, I talk about it on stage now, so it was kind of worth it.
Do you find that you often take comedy from the embarrassing points in your life?
Yeah, I mean, I think vulnerability is the funniest thing, and when you fail, that’s the most vulnerable. When you talk about that, people can relate to that. I’m not on stage talking about the time I totally won an arm wrestling state championship, and then spent a hundred dollars on something cool…I can’t even think of something cool to spend a hundred dollars on, which shows how uncool I am. I was gonna say scratch lottery tickets, and then realized that’s not cool at all. And also? You should talk about the time you won the arm wrestling state championship. I don’t even know how to talk about cool things.
A lot of people say, on a similar note, that comedians are, on average, more depressed and anxious than the general populace. Do you find yourself suffering from depression and anxiety, or find that your comedic coworkers do?
I think people are depressed, man. I would say there are probably the same amount of biomedical engineers as comedians. I think the only difference is that comedians talk about it, so you hear about them being like, “I’m sad,” but you don’t hear a lot of biomedical people on the radio talking about how sad they are. But I’m not sad, I’m digging this!
Post-SNL, have you felt more optimistic about comedy?
I mean, for sure! It’s my job. That’s all you can really hope for in standup comedy, is to have it be your job. So yeah, I’m super lucky.
Have you always been an optimistic person, or do you think coming out of SNL with a new standup special has made you more positive?
I don’t know, man. I’m like everybody – I’ll be really excited and then I’ll be really bummed out. But that’s just life. I mean, definitely having my career up to me is exciting. If it works out, it’s because of me; if it doesn’t, it’s because of me. That’s a motivating thing.
Do you think you’re a very self-motivated person?
You kind of have to be, to do standup comedy. If you’re not, man, people are going to pass you by.
How has comedy affected your mental health?
It probably saved it, man. Because if I were still an engineer, I would be bummed out. It gives me an escape, especially when I had a day job. I could look at my day job and think, “This isn’t forever because I’m gonna go do the thing that I love.”