Seventeen different people make up this year's Saturday Night Live cast, one of the largest in the show's near 40 year history, so someone was bound to get left on the fringes in the fight for screen time. The battle to get on screen after the sketch show's week long writing and production process is notoriously competitive. After the Wednesday night read through, the Thursday dress rehearsal, and the Saturday night run-through, they say around 200 sketches get whittled down to a measly eight. The show has not grown with the staff; someone was going to get left behind. This year, it seems like that person is Brooks Wheelan.
Wheelan was part of one of the largest influx of new blood the show had seen in 20 years. Along with Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, John Milhiser, Mike O'Brien, and Noel Wells, they were the featured players for another "transition" year; the fresh-faced underdogs who could one day be the next Seth Meyers, Eddie Murphy, or Tina Fey. (Sasheer Zamata joined mid-season, as you may have heard.) The opportunity to join SNL's cast is a dream for any young comedian. Wheelan even made a video documenting the last year of his life:
It's a great video. We see a young kid grinding through the comedy clubs in L.A., with glimpses of the occasional glamours California life provides, before eventually getting drafted into Lorne Michaels' first family of comedy. The video is the story of a young comedian making it. You want that young comedian to have made it.
But moreso than any other new member, Wheelan has had impossibly bad luck trying to break into the show on a weekly basis. Take last week's episode, the one Melissa McCarthy hosted, as an example. Wheelan appeared briefly in one sketch, the Danny Trans one, which Joe and I loved for reasons completely unrelated to his participation. He had an unspoken part in the crowd with most of the other featured players. Vulture's Joe Berkowitz thought it was the episode's worst sketch, one that gives credence to the too-common "SNL sucks now" refrain. Flavorwire's Alison Nastasi said the sketch was a "complete mess," but noted one thing: "Hey, Brooks Wheelan. It’s been a while." Hitfix's Ryan McGee gave the sketch an F, literally, but found one silver lining: "On the plus side? BROOKS WHEELAN SIGHTING! HE LIVES! Poor guy. I bet he's incredibly funny. We just have no clue." He's right, because we have had almost no chance to see Wheelan's comedy chops.
Wheelan is statistically one of the least used cast members on the show. Splitsider, the comedy site, tracks the screen time of every person on the show. At mid-season Wheelan was second last among the new cast members, appearing only 3.46 percent of the time SNL broadcasts on NBC. Here's how Erik Voss, Splitsider's chief SNL corespondent, evaluated the new kid's first half:
Kyle Mooney has carved out the last few minutes of the night to star in offbeat pieces reminiscent of his Good Neighbor videos. Noel Wells' impression skills (Lena Dunham, Zooey Deshanel) have gotten her airtime. Beck Bennett seems the most well adjusted, appearing alongside Mooney in video segments and receiving praise for his CEO Baby character. John Milhiser got off to a slow start but struck gold with his Jon Cryer and by busting a move with Lady Gaga. Brooks Wheelan had an amusing turn in a Weekend Update bit about his embarrassing tattoos, and Mike O'Brien had funny bits as a reporter following around bugs and an old-timey car salesman, but both performers have yet to show their true potential.
O'Brien may have clocked the least screen time, but his moments have been memorable, including a very well-received Bug Reporter digital short. You get the sense that the show is just biding its time, waiting to fully unleash O'Brien's potential. Plus, even when he's not the featured performer in a sketch, he's been given small niches with which to work, such as the Cartoon Catch Phrase sketch that so vexed poor Diane. O'Brien also gets a boost from having been on the writing staff of SNL since 2009.
Wheelan's best appearance on SNL was his first, during the first Weekend Update of the year. He played Brooks Wheelan, telling the world about his terrible, truly awful tattoos. Seriously, they're really bad:
He was charming and funny, though not perfect, but who's blaming anyone for fidgeting and occasionally not looking at the right camera during their first appearance on national television? All told, it was a fine debut, though perhaps indicative of a performer who is stronger as a stand-up than a sketch guy at the moment. After his debut, things went downhill, and his absence from the show was almost immediately turned into a joke. His second major part was, again, as Brooks Wheelan, SNL cast member, for a Family Feud sketch on the episode before Christmas break:
The fact that he's never seen on the show was the conceit of his character, and it's clearly not that funny. Fallon/Timberlake horseplay overshadowed any opportunity Wheelan had to make any inroads with viewers. Here's the guy who's never on the show, isn't it hilarious how often you don't hear or see him? That kind of "who's the new guy?" hazing isn't unique to Wheelan in the history of the show, but the fact that it reflected Wheelan's very real difficulties breaking out among this freshman class made it a bit too real.
Since the show returned from Christmas break, Wheelan hasn't fared much better. It's not a great sign when one's mere appearance in the background draws notice from the people who cover SNL extensively. Seeing Bennett, Mooney, Wells, Milhiser, O'Brien, or Zamata—who has been a wonderful, welcome and worthy performer as she works her way in from the margins—is commonplace. Even casual viewers can differentiate them from the extras.
We statistically have seen so little of Brooks Wheelan that we do not know whether or not he's funny. We know Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Mike O'Brien make weird digital shorts that can polarize people. Wells has her impressions and can rap about her Uncle Ted. During her short time on the show, Zamata has been a brilliant straight woman for Aidy Bryant and Jonah Hill and an integral part of two music videos. If you work out the math, I would wager she's close to or has already surpassed Wheelan's accumulated screen time.
This isn't exactly an endorsement of Wheelan over any of the other new cast members. He might not be very funny! How would we even know? And while the dog-eat-dog process of getting a sketch on air is a good way of letting the cream rise to the top, it'd be nice if the SNL overlords let us find out for ourselves. Give the kid a shot when the show returns after the Olympic break. He at least deserves an opportunity to pass or fail on his own merits. Don't just brush him aside before he's even given a shot. We want to see you, Brooks Wheelan. We want to judge for ourselves.