On the Couch with Brandon Wardell

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Brandon Wardell

During the course of our brief session, the patient distanced himself from a previous comedy album by highlighting how young he was then. He’s currently 23. It’s hard to blame him when, though – touring with Bob Odenkirk and performing on Comedy Central really has its way of aging a person. Rather than take the usual route of self-deprecation and heightened self-scrutiny, he puts on a thick skin, wearing the bravado of an emcee as he vehementely insists that his critics don’t faze him. A potent cocktail of youthful energy and world-weary ironic distance, Brandon Wardell is the face of the next generation of comedy. Now he just has to release his mixtape, Yeezus 2.

AG: Is it fair to say you’re branded as a sort of “millennial comedian”?

BW: Yeah, I guess so.

AG: Do you ever feel pressured to represent a certain demographic in your humor because of that?

BW: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s not something I consciously tried to become. Anytime I’ve used that word, I’ve always been making fun of that word. It can be annoying when people want me to be a dumbed-down version of myself. I feel like sometimes people just want me to say “fam,” and they think that’s all I do. But I can’t complain about it too much, because I also benefit from it a lot. That Vice article I wrote, that was one of the first things that helped me pop off a little bit, and it’s all super tongue-in-cheek, all fake advice. But because I wrote that article, I’ve gotten actual consultant work, where my job is to go in and be young. There’s people that maybe don’t get it, but everybody that I respect in comedy is a fan of me. Everybody that I’m a fan of is a fan of me. I’ve felt pretty happy with work for the most part, so I don’t get too in my head about it.

AG: Well it’s interesting you consult on behalf of young people because you’ve had a pretty unconventional adolescence – you dropped out of college, you moved to LA to do comedy. Do you ever feel like you grew up too quickly?

BW: Not necessarily. I don’t think I actually grew up too quickly because I was never a child star or anything. I basically got “alt-famous” at like, 22, 23. I feel like 2016 is the first year when things really felt like they were happening. I started stand up at 17, when I was in high school, went to college in Virginia, and didn’t move to LA until 21. When I was doing stand up in Virginia, I wasn’t engaging in any sort of debauchery or anything. I was just doing stand up and going back to my parents’ house. So there was never really an element of growing up too fast or anything.

AG: Do you ever wish that you had stayed in school?

BW: Fuck no. Absolutely not. My grades in high school weren’t that great. I went to VCU, which is a pretty good state school. But I don’t think I would have done anything tight if I went to college. A lot of my Twitter followers are in high school, and I’ll get messages on Snapchat or people will “@” me saying, “I started doing open mics and I really like stand up. Should I drop out?” And I’m always like, “Fuck no.” I think I was lucky and my trajectory was very unique. I moved to LA in February 2014, and in May of 2014 I recorded that Bob Odenkirk album [Amateur Hour]. And then that came out later that year, which is when things started happening a little. That’s how I got the manager and agent that I’m with now and everything.

But I was very lucky. I don’t recommend dropping out unless somebody’s absolutely sure that they have things in place. I had visited LA the summer before I went to VCU. I graduated high school, did a year’s worth of work over the span of two years at Northern Virginia Community College, transferred to VCU, and visited LA the summer before I transferred. I had a different manager who I’m no longer with, and I visited LA and I had a couple of meetings that summer. And then I went to college and I was like, “Oh, fuck, what am I doing in Richmond?” And so I at least had a taste and knew that there was some interest and something out there for me. So I felt pretty safe dropping out.

There’s never any part of me that regrets it, because anything I would have gotten out of college I sort of got out of my first couple of years in LA. When I first moved out to LA, I felt like that was my college. When I was going to VCU I was going back to DC every weekend and was never really experiencing the proverbial college experience. So I feel like LA was my college.

AG: Compared to the DC scene, the LA stand up scene is much denser and more competitive. Do you like that there are a lot of other people coming up along with you, or does the amount of young comedians in LA feel overwhelming?

BW: For the most part I’ve just sort of kept my eyes on my own paper, because I think I’ve had such a weird path. That [Bob Odenkirk] album came out, and I went on some tour dates with Bo Burnham, and I just assumed that after that album came out, everybody would want to hire me. And that wasn’t happening. So I realized I just had to make stuff on my own, and that’s when I started freelancing and writing shit for Vice and Four Pins and that sort of thing. Once that happened, I was going hard on Twitter and create my own lane, because the conventional comedy outlets weren’t hiring me. Then eventually people at Comedy Central took notice and I just sort of focused on using the Internet the best way I could. I’m pretty good at stand up, but I’m not going to be the guy that gets big off of just stand up.

There’s comics around my age like Jak Knight, who’s a very purist stand up. He does stand up every night and is just really committed to that grind. That’s a good friend of mine, and somebody that other stand ups definitely respect more than me. But I don’t see him as competition because I’m just doing my own thing. I just try to do as much as possible so that there’s no reason to feel like I’m competing with anybody, because I’m doing my own thing. I’ll fake DJ sometimes, and I’ll put on this thing called Teen Party at Los Lobos in LA. I’m doing one on July 8 and Nick Coletti is DJing, and Kreayshawn is DJing, and Heems is performing. I just try to create my own world. I never really feel like I’m competing other young stand ups. I don’t do stand up as much as I should, so I just compensate by doing other things. Rather than being amazing at stand up, I’m pretty good at like five things.

AG: How do you know when a joke is better suited for social media versus live stand up?

BW: I think my brain compartmentalizes it all, where I have a different voice for Twitter and stand up. I’ll see stand ups who will just read their tweets on stage, and that’s a nightmare. People who went out to see a show don’t want to see that shit – they can just stay home and look at their [Twitter] timeline. I just use them a lot differently – for stand up, I’ll tell more stories because it’s something that I can’t do on Twitter. The part of my brain that gets pleasure from telling short-form jokes, I get that from Twitter constantly. I can get that rush of dopamine from Twitter, so when I’m doing stand up, I’d rather just use it differently.

AG: Do you think your youth gives you a leg up over older comics on Twitter?

BW: Yeah, because I was born with the internet, so that’s just how my brain works. Ever since I’ve been in middle school I’ve been online. Nothing fazes me anymore because I went on every shock site when I was fourteen. I think the internet and irony broke my brain in a way where I’m good at Twitter. My brain is broken but tweeting good content is very easy for me.

AG: After your album with Bob Odenkirk, some people said you weren’t experienced enough to open for such a veteran comic – how do you respond to criticism like that? Would you do another album with a comic from a different “era” of comedy?

BW: Yeah, absolutely. Not that many people listened to the album. Bob didn’t promote it at all because he was promoting Better Call Saul and his book at the same time. When I went on tour with him it was a book tour, it wasn’t a tour for the album. He happened to throw me a bone and let me go on this book tour. It’s called Amateur Hour because he doesn’t do stand up a lot and he wanted it to be raw. The criticism never really got to me. Again, there aren’t a lot of review of that album that exist. It’s not even something that I’m super proud of at this point because it’s 2016 and I’ve grown so much since then. I was young and nervous, and it wasn’t even that good of a set. I’ve grown a lot since then. It was a really cool cosign. The only criticism I really care about is that of my OGs, and the fact that he did that cosign is crazy. Bob Odenkirk is the reason why I have a career. So there was never any part of me that was like, “Oh, some comedy nerd doesn’t like that I’m talking about Drake at the beginning of this Bob Odenkirk album.” You can fast-forward it, I don’t give a fuck.

Criticism is so much worse now because of Twitter. I had to stop searching myself on Twitter, because I’m a straight white male who’s occasionally problematic on Twitter and I talk about rap a lot, and use slang. So there’s people who don’t like the combination of that and my success, because they’re like, “Who’s this white kid?” And it seems like it came out of nowhere. Most criticism I’ve gotten has been from like, woke intersectional Twitter. For the most part it’s a vocal minority. Once I was a part of the Vice, Four Pins world, and people from that side of Twitter started paying attention and then I sort of popped off, I’ve definitely seen friends of friends say, “Why is this white kid using joke formats from black Twitter and getting famous?” The criticism from that side of Twitter isn’t overwhelming.

AG: Do you have any response to those critics? Those who say that your comedian persona is built around appropriation of black culture?

BW: I think I’m pretty cognizant of that. When we were making the pilot for Rad Nerds [for Viceland], that was definitely something that came up. One of the guys producing the show was like, “I don’t know if we even want to call it Rad Nerds, because people will question, “Who’s this white kid hosting rap nerds?” We didn’t want to feed into the narrative that Vice is a bunch of white cultural tourists. I guess I’ve always been very respectful – I don’t think I’ve ever crossed the line, I think I’m very genuine. I don’t try to front ever. I think I’m pretty harmless. I never want to be comedy game Iggy Azalea.

AG: What interests you about interviewing rappers? Is it more of the lighthearted, party aspects, or are you also intrigued by the darker side of rap?

BW: I think both. I got into hip hop late. Literally Kanye and Kid Cudi got me into rap. I was in high school and I was like, “I didn’t know that there’s rappers that were sad.” It was Kanye, Cudi, and Drake. I guess it’s just a very visceral kind of music, and I appreciate “sadboy” rap but also “turn up” rap.

AG: Do you see any overlap between rappers and comedians? Using your diary as entertainment, that kind of stuff?

BW: Yeah, absolutely. There are similarities in good and bad ways. There’s similarities in terms of good comedy and good rap, and being an honest expression of where that person is in life at the time. But there are similarities between whack comedians and whack comedians in terms of using social media to flex and create a false perception of where they’re at in life. In any type of entertainment there’s always people being gross. So that’s sort of something that I’ve talked to Asher [Roth] and Makonnen and Heems a lot – rappers and comedians being dumb on social media. We just pull out the Instagrams of the people we hate, like, look at this fucking idiot.

AG: Are there any plans to produce your rap album, Yeezus 2?

BW: Yeah, eventually. That’s something that will eventually happen. We’ll see. It’s my detox, y’know? [Pauses] That was a Dr. Dre reference.