Key Bits: “new york stuff” “saturday night live stuff”
There was a sketch on Saturday Night Live recently, but not too recently, that was a play on Family Feud. It was a network edition. On one side stood CBS – host Jimmy Fallon as Jim Parsons, Taran Killam as Ashton Kutcher, John Milhiser as Jon Cryer and Noel Wells as Alyson Hannigan. On the other side stood NBC – Justin Timberlake as Fallon, Kate McKinnon (praise) as Jane Lynch, Jay Pharoah as Ice-T, and Brooks Wheelan. As himself. An SNL cast member. At the time, I laughed at the meta-humor and focused on Timberlake jumping around onstage as Fallon. But, this sketch really defined Wheelan’s presence at SNL, as a comic who was both too grounded and too weird to exist in the NBC universe. And, after his quick firing, Wheelan is out on his own – making that discord work.
It isn’t perfect. Wheelan spends basically the whole album talking about his upbringing, hoping to bank on comedy experiences to bolster his next work. But, Wheelan’s presence as both a bro-comic and an absurdist is strong here, and it’s so conclusive that it’s almost tough to know what to make of him. Wheelan talks about being an incredibly awkward child, through his love of ranking people he knows through brackets without their knowledge, and delivers it in such a way that we all can sympathize, even though that’s beyond crazy. He talks about being the youngest of three brothers in a small Iowa town, but his NYC experiences elevate those memories past the small-town boy charm.
Wheelan might jump from a joke about his brothers pranking him to a bit about how JFK really died from terrible rat breath and that the government covered it up; it’s an elaborate stand-up presence, one that shows that Wheelan is still finding his exact, specific footing.
Where Wheelan’s strengths lie, ironically, is in trying to find out exactly who he is as a comedian. The best bits he delivers on this album are family related – reacting to his father killing a possum with a rock in the garage, dipping his balls in a bottle of Scope that his older brothers used – but he also responds with absolutely unexpected reactions. He ends with pitching all his unused SNL sketches – most of which are weird, cerebral and outlandish (and outstanding, naturally).
He pitches at least eight sketches that SNL didn’t pick up, including a “Field of Dreams” where the players are Nazis, a pair of 109 year old grandfathers who are given Spencer’s gift cards, and an Australian tourist in America who can’t stop saying that Steve Irwin’s death was their 9/11. It’s brilliantly and delightfully weird, just the type of weird that could permeate SNL without making any waves. And on the album, Wheelan sounds a little resentful of his brief time at the show. He wasn’t on air much, and it sounds like it was a struggle on both sides to get his work up. Most of his failed sketches are brilliant, but just not the type to succeed on SNL, and his weird hybrid comedy just couldn’t survive there.
SNL has a history of passing on goldmines – Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and Larry David all had brief stints at the show before leaving unceremoniously. Wheelan never struck out to me much on SNL, but it might be because he never got his chance to. But on his own terms, on a debut album, he’s completely convincing. Wheelan is the bro-absurdist that could bridge gaps we didn’t know could be bridged.
If you like this, try: Kumail Nanjiani’s “Beta Male.” Kumail’s experiences growing up are decidedly different (Iowa v. Pakistan), but his content and delivery is similar to Wheelan’s.