In 2010, Jeff Wheatley-Heckman moved from Maryland to Milwaukee with the intent of helping inner city youth. After the comedy fan’s noble work experience concluded, he decided to stay in town and help himself to the wealth of stage time and improvisational tutelage available in Milwaukee. Not only does Wheatley-Heckman manage to tackle tough topics like race, sexuality, and adoption with an astoundingly affable and identifiable approach in his stand-up act, he recently completed the rigorous training to gain acceptance into ComedySportz. Before one of his nightly 6 p.m. ComedySportz appearances in the Kohl’s Captivation Station, Wheatley-Heckman spoke to Milwaukee Record about his unique path to the city, his initial exposure to local comedy, and ways stand-up and improve overlap.
Milwaukee Record: So you’re originally from around Washington D.C.? What originally brought you out here?
Jeff Wheatley-Heckman: I originally moved out here in 2010 after high school to do City Year. It’s a non-profit where they pay kids 17 to 24 to work with inner city kids for a year. So I did that one year, then got asked to do that a second year, and went to college for two years. Stared doing improv and stand-up and was like, “I should just focus on this because I love this stuff.”
MR: So when you moved here, you happened upon improv and stand-up. What was your initial exposure? Like, how did you find it?
JWH: Initially in my life, I found comedy when I was nine or 10. I would watch Comedy Central and saw people doing stand-up. I wanted to do that. Then I started watching Who’s Line [Is It Anyway]? Years went on, and I didn’t really know how to get started in comedy. I either thought you were asked or you just sort of did it. I didn’t know it was step you had to take. When I turned 21, I tried stand-up for the first time at the Comedy Café, and then when I was working with inner city kids, we took them to ComedySportz. I didn’t know there as improv troupe in the city at all. I saw them and wanted to do it. Through UWM, I took the classes 101 and 102, then went into minor league—which is what you do before you start playing. I did that for about eight months. It’s a pretty long process. Then I started playing this year.
MR: It’s a lengthy process and not everybody makes it all the way. What’s it like to be asked up to the majors?
JWH: It’s amazing, honestly. Just watching the talent that you get to be with on stage is intimidating, but also very cool. I had no idea about the history of ComedySportz. It’s been around since 1984.
MR: Yeah, and this is the flagship one. They’re international now.
JWH: Yeah, it’s amazing. A lot of people that are successful in comedy now got their start in Milwaukee at ComedySportz. Knowing that, it’s amazing. I feel very lucky. It’s really cool.
MR: Are there any ways you utilize what you’ve learned in improv to inform your stand-up or vise versa?
JWH: Definitely. They feed eachother. It’s weird that they don’t really cross over more. The thing about stand-up is you need a character when you’re on stage. Not necessarily yourself, but you need that persona to filter your jokes through. That persona can also be used in an improv setting. And as an improviser, you’re taught not to expect anything and kind of just go with the flow.
MR: You have to accept every situation. “Yes and..”
JWH: Yep. Be ready for it and have a quick wit, which can help you with a heckler in stand-up or with doing crowd work. It helps everything.
MR: You mentioned a character for your stand-up. What would you say yours is?
JWH: I think just by default, because I look a certain way, I like to play a big dumb guy who is an aloof, confident person. I mostly do that in my improv. With stand-up, I don’t know, just an innocent and friendly-faced guy. I’m still trying to find my stand-up voice. It’s a long process.
MR: And you kind of hit on some larger, uncomfortable issues, but in a way that’s kind of inviting. You talk about being bi-racial and adopted, but you do it in a way where you seem to be just as unsure how to handle what you’re saying as the audience.
JWH: Yeah, I try to do that. Those things are hard [to discuss on stage], but the more you make fun of it and the more that you let people laugh at it too, it might expose the audience to something they may not know and give them a viewpoint they can use in their lives. At least that’s what I like to do.
MR: Is there anyone both in the stand-up camp and the improv world that you identify with or who you’ve kind of learned from by observing?
JWH: Yeah, Erik Koconis for both, honestly. He’s a great improviser and a really funny stand-up—just a genuinely nice guy, too. Learning from him performance-wise and also seeing how to handle you handle yourself off stage after a show. Jacob Bach is my teacher in improv. He’s helped me a lot. I used to be in my head a lot now I’m all over the place. He’s helped a lot. Dick Chudnow, the founder of ComedySportz, has done so many cool things in his life, including starting a club and having it sustain for 30-plus years. If you see him out and about, he dances through life. It’s cool to see people like that—people who love comedy, who do it well, and also aren’t arrogant about it. They just do it because they love it.
MR: So you guy are here every single evening of Summerfest. What has it been like so far?
JWH: It’s great. It’s some of the most packed shows so far. It’s kids through grandparents, so everyone in the family is laughing. From the improv standpoint and the audience, everything has been going great.
Jeff Wheatley-Heckman will perform every night of ComedySportz’s nightly Summerfest showcase at 6 p.m. in the Kohl’s Captivation Station. For the full list of traditional ComedySportz shows, consult their website.