Brad Wilhelm has been a comedy emcee in Bloomington for more than 15 years. He has emceed at the Comedy Attic since 2008 and was the director of Rhino's Youth Center for 22 years before retiring last year.
We spoke to Wilhelm about his time as an emcee, his favorite comics and how it feels to be considered a staple of the Bloomington community.
Indiana Daily Student: How and when did you get started emceeing?
Wilhelm: I started being a comedy emcee in 1996 for the Comedy Caravan at Bear’s Place. That was a weekly show booked by the Comedy Caravan out of Louisville. It was a one-nighter out of Bear’s Place, and it had been running since ’86. So it was the longest running one-night comedy show in the country for the longest time until it closed.
IDS: When did it close?
Wilhelm: I left for the Comedy Attic in 2008. I think it closed in 2010.
IDS: Do you emcee for events outside of the Comedy Attic?
Wilhelm: On occasion, when I’m asked. I mean, I’ve got a job and family and roots here in Bloomington now, and you know, I’m getting old in the years. So, I don’t seek out that stuff. But, like, when friends of mine who are comedians want me to do stuff, like last fall, Maria Bamford asked me to host her show at the Murat Theatre, or I guess the Old National Centre now that it’s called, up in Indianapolis. Or if Jimmy Pardo asks me to come do something, I’ll do it. But I don’t seek it out at all. I do a lot of emcee work for local things. You know, for fundraisers and that kind of stuff. I’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve done the circle. But that’s just acting as a general host for things and keeping things moving, auctions and that sort of thing.
IDS: What’s the difference between that type of emceeing and doing emcee work for comedy shows?
Wilhelm: Well, normally, if you’re working for a charity, you have to be very careful. I’ve worked things where you go, and certain ideas might pop into your head, but there’s a lot of self-censoring that has to happen when you’re working for a charity.
IDS: What is your favorite part of being a comedy emcee?
Wilhelm: The variety of people I get to work with. I mean, at the attic, I get to work with the best comics from all over the country, all different sorts of styles and genres. That’s my favorite part, just watching other people work. And for me, those ten minutes that I get up front satisfies that little performance urge that I’ve got in me. The high school theater kid, I get that out. And that’s all I really need, I don’t need to pursue a Broadway dream or anything like I had when I was 21. I still get that little bit and get to meet some of the most amazing comics in the world.
IDS: Did you ever venture into stand-up comedy?
Wilhelm: No, I mean, when I was at IU, theater was my second major. The whole idea was for me to go to Chicago, study in Second City, get in Second City and then get on Saturday Night Live. And then in movies, I’d be huge and then retire by the time I was 40. But life changes and Bloomington kind of sucks you in. You know, especially when you have limited talent like me. It became obvious very quickly that Bloomington was the place for me, and I wasn’t going to be a big-time comedy star. And that’s fine. I’m really happy the way it all worked out.
IDS: Do you emcee for big names like Tiffany Haddish on a regular basis?
Wilhelm: Yeah, the great thing about the Comedy Attic is that it is now one of the most sought-after comedy clubs for comics in the country. Acts like Tiffany Haddish are a regular occurrence. It started because when “@midnight” was on on Comedy Central, you could almost call it “the Comedy Attic show” because every night there was at least someone on that panel that had been or was going to be playing at the Comedy Attic. It was kind of crazy.
IDS: What’s one of your favorite comics that you’ve emceed for?
Wilhelm: Maria Bamford is up there. In my mind she’s a genius. Jimmy Pardo, Hannibal Buress, T.J. Miller, there’s so many, Kyle Kinane. And Tiffany was remarkable, just remarkable.
IDS: So, you get to meet and hang out with these people?
Wilhelm: You work with them. You’re in the green room with them. You work out stuff together, what the show’s going to be like. Yeah, so I can say I literally worked with Tiffany Haddish.
IDS: Over the years, do you feel like you’ve built up an emcee persona?
Wilhelm: Oh, I definitely have. The guy who’s onstage, it’s me, but it’s not quite me. It’s an amped-up version, a little different. And then the persona changes, of course, depending upon who I’m emceeing for, who the audience is. If it’s a cleaner comic or a family kind of comic, it’s going to be different than if it’s Hannibal Buress, you know? You just kind of have to read the room and each week, I try to do something a little different or add something from the week or whatever. But you really have to know who your audience is. The goal of the host is not to be the funniest person on the show. The goal of the host is to set the room up, focus everyone’s attention, give them the rules, relax them as best as possible and then keep the show flowing. If I do something or say something that’s not that funny, well, it doesn’t matter because they’re there to see the headliner, the feature act. My job is just to keep the show going. The show isn’t about me. People always ask, “Do you ever get nervous?” I’m never nervous when I’m up there because it’s not about me.
IDS: How would you describe your stage presence?
Wilhelm: I’ve often been introduced now for the past 15 years as a “lovable and affable host,” and that’s kind of how I look at it. A little bit of an asshole, but mostly lovable.
IDS: What makes a good emcee? What qualities do you have that make you good at your job?
Wilhelm: Well, I think you do have to be personable. Most comedy emcees, or hosts, depending on the vernacular you want to use, are want-to-be comics themselves, and they’re younger. So there’s a certain urgency to what they do, and there’s a tendency to make it about them instead of about the show. There’s a real, distinct difference between being a host and being a comic, and that’s the thing that I like to try to remember. I mean, I can try and come up with something funny and that’s great, but it doesn’t matter. Younger comics sometimes are bad emcees. They’ll come in and be like “OK, hey everybody, hey, how’s it going? OK, great, who’s got a birthday?” You know, that kind of thing. You just want to punch that guy if you see him. At the same time, be frank, look people in the eye and let them know what the rules of the show are. Make them feel at home and then get out of the way.
IDS: How does it feel to be considered kind of a staple of the Bloomington community?
Wilhelm: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t mean something to me. I love Bloomington. I fell in love with it when I was in high school and visited campus for the first time. I came from a small Indiana town, and Bloomington seemed like the big city to me. For someone to say that I’m a Bloomington institution or that I have something to do with the fabric or character of Bloomington, that makes me very, very proud. I’m not sure I agree with it, but it’s been said to me before. It does; it means a lot.
This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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