Iowa City Press-Citizen: UI Grad Takes Bite of the Big Apple with "SNL" Gig

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Comedian part of largest show overhaul since '90s

By Michael Morain
For the Press-Citizen

Brooks Wheelan
Brooks Wheelan / Special to the Register

“Live from New York’s Saturday niiiiight!”

Well, almost. And when someone shouts that famous line on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live,” set for Sept. 28, it just might be an Iowan. The bigwigs at NBC announced Monday, after weeks of rumors, that Iowa native Brooks Wheelan is one of this season’s new additions to the cast.

The 27-year-old comedian and (now former) medical technician is one of the six new hires who will step in after the recent departures of Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis. It’s the show’s biggest overhaul since the mid-’90s, when Phil Hartman, Rob Schneider, Julia Sweeney, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Kevin Nealon and Adam Sandler all left within the space of two years.

Wheelan was born in Cedar Rapids, was a quiet kid in Manchester, and came out of his shell at Dubuque Hempstead High School, where he racked up a 4.0 grade-point average, some wrestling trophies and a homecoming crown. He earned a degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Iowa in 2009 and headed to Los Angeles to work in a research lab, first with heart valves, then eyeballs.

But since his late teens, he’s always done stand-up on the side. He interned at clubs in Kansas City and Chicago during summer breaks from college and contributed work to The New York Comedy Festival invited him to perform last year as one of Comedy Central’s Top 10 Comics to Watch. And in Los Angeles, he was a regular with the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club.

“He’d get up. Go to work for eight hours at his day job, and then go out to the clubs,” said Brad Wheelan of Cedar Rapids, the oldest of the three Wheelan brothers. “He lived on four hours of sleep for five years.”

And now it’s paid off. Big time.

“This is so surreal!” his mom, Chris, said on the phone (before this reporter even explained why he was calling).

She and her husband, Jim, live in Cedar Falls and followed their son’s progress over the last few weeks. He did a stand-up show this summer in Montreal, which apparently caught the attention of “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels, who flew to Los Angeles to see Wheelan perform.

“I’m a very nervous person,” Chris Wheelan said, and was even more so on her son’s behalf. “I wanted to just hug him, to just love him.”

Brooks Wheelan, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday through NBC, must have done just fine. Someone called the next day with an invitation to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan.

Wheelan auditioned in Studio 8H, met with Michaels in his office and, like almost every “SNL” performer before him, returned home convinced that he’d blown his big chance. But he got another phone call. And another. On Aug. 21 — his birthday — he was hired to be a writer. Last Thursday, he was promoted to the cast.

He picked up the phone again and called his mom.

“If you can scream as loud as you can scream: That would be me. Times 10,” she said.

She added that he met the season premiere’s host, Tina Fey, on Monday — “He was up there in the clouds” — and picked up the keys to his new apartment over the weekend, after a real-estate ordeal that will give him material for years.

Jokes about eyeballs may last him awhile, too.

His sense of humor is “very dry and goofy,” brother Brad said. “He finds things funny that a lot of other people don’t.”

Michael Morain is a reporter for The Des Moines Register and can be reached at