There’s something fascinating about digging into the work of a comedian who was fired from Saturday Night Live. It adds another layer to examining and critiquing their work. It’s as if we all put ourselves in Lorne Michaels’ shoes to see if we can spot the talent or flaws that influenced the comedian’s career arc, that led them to be hired and then fired. Brooks Wheelan, who announced his departure from SNL in a single, glorious tweet, has a comedy style that would seem to be at home on the show. His debut comedy album, This Is Cool, Right?, is at turns manic, honest, and completely absurd. He crafts jokes not unlike sketches, and has an ear for storytelling that finds universal truths in the examining of his personal life.
For the most part, This Is Cool, Right? finds a wonderful balance between being delightfully over-the-top, as manifested in Wheelan’s sometimes harsh, abrasive delivery, and finding some subtle truths in the mess of anecdotes that life provides on a daily basis. Wheelan’s comedy may venture into the ludicrous, but such detours are typically grounded in reality. The resulting effect is one perfected by people like Tig Notaro and Louis C.K., where the subtle truths reveal themselves after the big punchline, and serve to emphasize the absurdity of life.
For instance, when Wheelan explains that the moment he knew he had to do comedy was when he saw his father kill a possum with a sledgehammer when Wheelan was just 7–“I’m going to have to talk about this,” he deadpans–it’s merely a jumping off point for more insightful humor. The image alone is funny, but when Wheelan goes even deeper, saying, in regards to his dad, “I bet there’s more going on in this guy’s life right now,” it adds a perceptive honesty to the joke.
Wheelan’s best material is drawn from his own life, whether it’s riffing on the struggles of having two brothers who are a lot bigger than him (a bit about dipping his penis in their bottle of Scope ends beautifully and acerbically with his mother hypothetically asking why he would do such a thing, to which he replies, “Because I hate your other children”) or talking about taking a “shame shower” and how you can turn a stand-up shower into a “lay down” shower (“it just depends how sad you are”). These are the moments, tucked into the shouting and strange voices, that speak the loudest, because they get at something universal and yet intensely personal.
If there’s a weakness within This Is Cool, Right?, it’s Wheelan’s occasional reliance on pop culture for punchlines. Working in winking references to The Oregon Trail and Kindergarten Cop, though a believable part of Wheelan’s personal stories, end up feeling more like cheap nostalgia used to get a knowing laugh than storytelling details that enhance the jokes. Such nods to pop culture are the only times where Wheelan’s material feels constructed rather than organic, and interrupt the otherwise natural flow of his material.
Ultimately though, This Is Cool, Right? shows that Wheelan is a considerable talent with a unique voice and perspective. The idea to close out his set by detailing some of his failed sketch pitches for SNL is perhaps an obvious route to take, but that perspective makes it rewarding. When he details a pitch for a sketch that envisions an Australian visiting America who can’t stop saying that “Steve Irwin’s death was our 9/11,” and then immediately transitions to a joke about Bruce Springsteen being on Undercover Boss, it’s indicative of how Wheelan’s comedy finds balance by dialing up the absurdity until it’s practically exhausting, but then roping you back in with a more low-key punchline. It’s a sometimes violent swing, but the material that finds a home in between those ends of the spectrum make it well worth it.