Brooks Wheelan could be described many ways. I could tell you about Brooks the comedian, who you know from “Saturday Night Live,” “Conan,” his Comedy Central “Half Hour Special” or his critically acclaimed and all around exceptional album, This Is Cool, Right?.
Or I could talk about Brooks the actor, who you recognize from “Girls,” “@Midnight,” and his voice as Fred in “Big Hero 6: The Series.” There’s Brooks the writer. The photographer. The wanderer.
Wheelan really lives life – lives in moments and lives in laughs. He’s not only an incredible comedian, he’s also just a top-notch guy. Someone you instantly want to be pals with. A kind soul.
His comedy is honest, his storytelling is true blue. If you don’t know Brooks Wheelan, I’m happy to be the one to introduce you in this interview. We talk about comedy, a shared love of the outdoors and life.
Serial Optimist: What up Brooks! How are you doing? Can you describe your exact surrounding as you are responding to this interview?
BROOKS WHEELAN: I’m great. I’m just procrastinating in my apartment right now. I’m sitting next to a bunch of cassette tapes I bought because I like to waste my money.
SO: What else are you supposed to do with it? I know I could Wiki this but I want to hear your story. Where were you born and raised, and describe Brooks Wheelan at 18?
BROOKS: I grew up about ten miles outside Manchester, Iowa. Like 5,000 people live there. It was alright, but I never really dug it. I had two older brothers and we all grew up wrestling. My oldest brother was super into comedy and is the reason I pursued it. When I was 18, I was a freshman at the University of Iowa studying Biomedical Engineering. I was thinking about comedy at that point and saw engineering as a way to get to move out of Iowa.
SO: How long have you been doing stand up now? When did you start?
BROOKS: I started before my sophomore year of college, so I would have been 19. It was a small comedy club in Cedar Rapids called Penguin’s. I did my first open mic, then immediately asked for a job there. I ran the lights, gave the audience announcements, and when the crowds were really shitty, they would let me host those shows. So I suppose I’ve been doing stand up for ten years now, which makes me feel old.
SO: Can you talk a bit about the roller coaster that is comedy? We all have it in life, but specific to comedy, how has the ride been for you?
BROOKS: It’s pretty nuts. There’s been a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I moved to LA when I was 22 and then got on “Saturday Night Live” when I was 26 and thought it was gonna all work out from there, but life’s weird.
I was a biomedical engineer up until that point; I had never been on TV. So my first comedy job was “Saturday Night Live” and it was tough. I learned a ton there though, and it made me really appreciate stand-up comedy more than anything because that’s the only thing you have 100% control over.
SO: What are you currently working on?
BROOKS: I mean a bunch of garbage. That’s comedy; you can’t rely on any singular thing. I just wrapped doing the voice of Fred for season one of “Big Hero 6: The Series” on Disney and it’s already renewed for season 2 so that’s rad. Voice over stuff is really fun.
I just finished writing a feature film with my writing partner Mike Burns that is the most insane thing I think I’ve ever written.
I’m pitching a travel TV show around. I’ve got a new podcast coming out and I’m working on this scripted pilot I really like. I also have the material for my new stand-up hour special finished, and I think it’s the best stand-up I’ve ever done. I’m just figuring out the right way to put it out.
But most of all I’m just trying to enjoy life for the first time in a while.
SO: I love Mike Burns! Also, that sounds like some beautifully entertaining garbage. Your albumThis Is Cool, Right? was just the tops (literally, on iTunes). What was the process like putting that together, and even marketing it?
BROOKS: I am so proud of that album. That was what I put all my effort into after SNL. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t bad at comedy. That album was just pretty much just taking all the sets I had been doing in New York and Los Angeles for the last four years and touring with them for a year to figure out what stays and what goes. It ended having a solid theme if you listen to it.
The album begins with the reason I started comedy and moves forward chronologically until I was fired off “SNL.” I like to think that if you listen to that album you know exactly who I am. Then I went and did a 53 city tour to promote it. I just did small music venues and it was so fun. That tour is where I developed a lot of stuff in my new hour.
SO: Transition to the outside! I love your Instagram and following your outdoor adventures, something we both share a love for. Have you always been into nature? How did this love begin?
BROOKS: Actually I wasn’t into camping at all until later in life. Maybe it was because I literally grew up out in the woods. So, I was more interested in cities than the outdoors. Then when I got to the Los Angeles and New York I felt smothered.
When I was 26 I went with a random girl I met to Hawaii and it blew my mind. After that trip, I decided I wanted to see the whole world, but since I was a biomedical engineer with ten days of vacation every year I knew that was going to be tough. So as soon as I was able to leave my day job for a career in comedy I haven’t stopped traveling because I understand how lucky I am to have the luxury of making my own hours.
I like traveling so much that I stupidly made a travel website instead of a comedy one, which in hindsight, probably wasn’t my smartest move.
As for photography, when I was really young I always carried around this shitty camera trying to get photos of Bald Eagles that lived in the woods I hung out in. I wanted to be a nature photographer, but then my obsession with comedy overtook that. So now I’m just a shitty amateur photographer and Instagram is great for that. It makes the whole process way too easy for idiots like me.
SO: Love this so much. I didn’t get into the outdoors and nature until after living in NYC for a bit and turning 30. Then all of sudden it was, “How have I been living without this?” You go solo camping quite a bit and on solo adventures. Is this a way for you to just unplug? What do you mentally get out of it?
BROOKS: I only go solo because no one will go with me. Camping has become my favorite thing in life. It’s just a way to gain perspective that things aren’t so bad. Whenever I’m feeling down, I just head out, and it fixes my brain. I see mountains and just think, “What do you have to complain about?” I read a lot when I’m out there alone and just hike around taking photos.
I like to go camping before big stand-up gigs, like a special or album recording. Some people really want their set to be honed in, but I don’t like that. I like taking time off stand up before something big, so my set is looser. It doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be in the moment.
SO: That’s an interesting approach. I love that a priority is that it needs to be in the moment. Moments are everything. What do you do outdoor wise? Hike, camp, do you backpack at all? What are two or three of your all-time favorite adventures?
BROOKS: Honestly, I mostly car camp. I’ll head to a National Park and find a spot during the weekday and set up, then just wake up early and spend all day hiking. I’ll find a lake and just chill out and drink beers by it. I would love to get more into the legit backpacking.
One time I was camping solo in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite and I tagged along with some backpackers for a day and it seemed so amazing, but I’m not organized enough to set that all up. You have to plan way ahead for that and when I camp it’s usually just because I get the itch and bail. The best adventure I’ve ever been on was the first one to Maui with this girl I met in a liquor store parking lot. That opened my eyes to the world.
Another amazing experience was last year I went to Alaska on my 30th birthday. I went with another comedian Nick Rutherford. I wasn’t in a great head space and needed to get away and think for a while and it honestly fixed everything. My favorite spot I’ve ever camped though was just a few weeks ago in Glacier National Park with my girlfriend. That place blew my mind. I can’t recommend it enough.
Oh also, I shot this online travel show called “Laughs In Translation” two summers ago. After it wrapped I just trained around Europe solo for a bit and ended up in Switzerland. That’s probably my favorite country I’ve ever been to in terms of beautiful nature.
SO: I can’t wait to check all this out. I like your approach to really living life, which is hard. We all deal with daily anxiety every day. I know nature helps me with that big time. What are your thoughts on nature as therapy?
BROOKS: Nature is the most cathartic thing in the world for me. When I’m in nature, nothing is wrong. My end goal is to get a cabin out in Wyoming and put a dark room in it to develop film and just spend as much time as I can there.
SO: What are your top 10 must-haves when camping?
BROOKS: Really basic stuff. A headlamp, my sleeping bag, my Leica camera, my Kelty tent, beer, books, my camping grill, and some food. That’s it. I’ll bring along my cassette player too if I didn’t have to fly to wherever I am and have more room in my Subaru Outback. I’m not rugged.
SO: Do you shoot your photos with your phone or do you have a camera camera? If you have a camera camera, what kind kind?
SO: Any advice on how to deal with this disaster of a country right now?
BROOKS: Who knows? I suppose to vote in the next election. But in the meantime, just go somewhere without cell service so if the world blows up, at least you won’t see it coming.
Solid. What was the last thing that really made you laugh hard?
BROOKS: Memes. I somehow just found out about memes. Nothing will ever be funnier than memes. There is this one called “Scumbag Steve” and my girlfriend and I couldn’t stop laughing on a plane the other day. Like people were angry with us with how hard we were laughing. I don’t know how I missed memes, but I did. I try to tell people about “Scumbag Steve” and they’re like, “Yeah we knew about him in 2010.”
SO: I’m actually laughing out loud at this answer. It’s perfect. I have to make a meme out of this. What’s a song you’ve been playing on repeat lately?
BROOKS: “Sarah” by Alex G.
SO: Thanks, Brooks!