As he performs in the UK for the first time, we take US comedian Brandon Wardell on a tour London that reminds him of home.
Brandon Wardell emerges from the shadowy basement of Soho Theatre into the bright London sunshine. In a crisp white hoody and a matching pair of New Balances, his favourite shoes, he leads us towards his Airbnb on D’Arblay Street. Yeah, that’s right – he’s booked an Airbnb in Soho. He admits that he’s done no research at all into the location – “I now realise it’s like going to New York and being like, ‘ok, let me stay in Times Square!’”, he laughs. Staying near Oxford Street has clearly taken its toll on the young comedian, spending his first night alone in Soho wandering the streets and pondering why people in London love American candy so much.
Away from the chaos and candy stores of Soho, Brandon has been enjoying London’s more tranquil climes. Chanelling his inner soccer mom, he tells me he’s an especially big fan of Hampstead and Highgate, and has even taken a liking to Gail’s bakery. “I’m London-pilled,” he says with a grin. “The first day I got here, I needed to charge my phone, and instead of just going to a convenience store and buying a cheap charger, I ended up going to this, like, tourist trap and getting this…” He proudly reveals an enormous union jack phone charger. He laughs triumphantly.
This is the comedian’s first time in Europe, and his shows at Soho Theatre mark his first outside of North America. “I just wanted an excuse to go to London”, Brandon admits, though he’s being self-effacing. The comedian has a growing UK fanbase, thanks in part to his podcast Yeah, But Still, which he hosts with friend and fellow comedian Jack Wagner. The show has been a runaway success, featuring special guests such as Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard (“my nineteen-year-old friend”), and sad-girl-summer-queen Caroline Polachek. Brandon’s favourite guests, however, are “offbeat” internet personalities such as social media comedian Mind of Json. “Any time that we can get somebody that’s just sort of off the beaten path of podcasting – that’s exciting,” he says. As Brandon puts it, the show arose as “an organic, fun thing,” but it also had a more serious purpose. “I was in a weird spot in my career at the time,” he says in a rare moment of solemnity. “It was kind of like a ‘back against the wall’ moment.” Feeling the pressure, he decided he had to build something as a “foundation” for his career. It’s evidently paid off, his popularity across the pond reflected in the raucous atmosphere at his show later that evening.
Walking through the streets of Soho, Brandon remembers a tweet he’d seen recently that described LA as “shitty heaven” and New York as “fun hell.” Originally from the suburbs of Washington DC, the comedian has lived in LA for a long time now, but naturally finds himself on the road for much of the year. Growing up with a dad in the US Air Force meant his family moved around a lot, and this prepared him well for life as a travelling stand-up. “Going to a new school and having to make new friends … I feel like I had to I had to adapt a little bit,” he says. Being funny proved to be a useful tool: “It’’s a good defence mechanism,” he chuckles. “I never got my ass beat, so, like, that probably helped.”
I ask Brandon if he feels homesick in London, being so far from LA. “The first day I felt like pre-emptively homesick,” he says. He is used to taking friends on the road, and “the idea of just traveling alone to a country for the first time without a friend” was inevitably daunting. When he got into his tiny flat (“I literally can’t move my arms in the shower”), he put on Seinfeld as a “kind of comfort.” Since that first night, however, Brandon has settled into life in London. “As long as I just stay busy [and] I’m not alone with my own thoughts,” he says, “then we’re golden, baby.”
Standing in Leicester Square under the great, big Swiss clock, Brandon suddenly disappears into every Londoner’s 6th ring of hell: the cavernous M&M store. Soon after, he re-emerges with a bag of crunchy M&Ms. He hasn’t been able to find them back home in the US for months. Sufficiently nourished, we jump in a cab … to Buckingham Palace. Brandon is beaming in a spotless “I <3 London” tee. Naturally, the chat soon turns to comedy, and to Brandon’s turn in I Think You Should Leave, Tim Robinson’s wildly popular, off-the-wall Netflix sketch show. In it, Brandon plays a range of characters, often acting as a curious millennial foil to Robinson’s absurd and otherworldly figures. “Tim is, I think, the funniest guy alive,” Wardell says, without his usual irony. With a third season on the way, he can’t be alone in thinking that. “It’s fun when you can be a small part of something that you would seek out in your free time.”
The palace is heaving when we arrive. The Queen, it turns out, is throwing a bash for her Platinum Jubilee, and we have to stand about 100m away from the gates, with cranes and a sea of hideous hats and fascinators blocking our view. Retired veterans in khaki suits are everywhere, and much of the Mall, the wide, red road that leads up to the palace, is blocked off. Rude. Undeterred, however, Brandon snaps a selfie. His tourist day will not be ruined by a royal do, hard as they might try. Satisfied, we head back in the direction of Soho, striding past the old clubs of St James (and almost getting crushed by a Hop On Hop Off bus at Piccadilly Circus) before finding ourselves back in the warm gloom of Brandon’s Airbnb. He is sipping Intergalactic Coke from a wine glass. His suitcase lies open at his feet. He laughs as he recalls how, the day before, he’d accidentally kicked a full iced latte into his open suitcase. The vibes are electric.
Brandon cut his teeth on the Washington DC stand-up circuit when he was just seventeen. A self-professed “comedy nerd”, he snuck along to his first gig after telling his parents he was going to a school play. Unsurprisingly, being a seventeen-year-old amongst herds of adult comedians wasn’t always easy. He had, in his own words, “a real suburban innocence” before entering the world of comedy. “And then you’re just thrust into a world of, like, weird, weird guys that are like ten years older than you … oftentimes alcoholics.” Wardell laughs (you can probably tell by now he’s never far from laughing, the genesis of a smile almost permanently etched on the corners of his mouth). “But, you know, you’re too young to realize at the time, and then you look back and you’re like, ‘oh man, those guys were like…losers.’” He goes on, recounting a particular incident when he was trying to impress a girl at an open mic in a mall in Virginia. “I had like, I think, kissed a girl once at that point in my life,” he recalls, “and then this guy that went by the name of ‘Keith the Comedian’…” — he stops to laugh before carrying on. “He came over and he overheard us, and he said, ‘oh this is how you gotta eat pussy. You gotta do the alphabet with your tongue.’ Which is a crazy thing to say to a teen virgin, and also like … bad advice.”
Brandon is “twenty-nine-and-a-half” now, but he often finds himself playing younger. Later this year, he’s set to appear in Easter Sunday, Jo Koy’s family comedy about Filipino-American life. It’s far from Wardell’s usual material, but he was drawn to it, in part, because of his mum. “My mom’s Filipino, and she’s a huge Jo Koy fan,” he explan. “I don’t think my stuff is really her thing … it isn’t really her cup of tea, [so] it’s nice being in something that my mom can enjoy.”
“Most of the stuff I’ve done,” he explains, “is pretty quote-unquote alt or niche, you know, so it’s exciting to be in this thing that’s broad and amorphous.” He’s not wrong – Brandon’s comedy riffs on everything from streetwear to feet pics, and often involves delayed punchlines and disarming non-sequiturs. Both onstage and online, Wardell parodies a certain kind of man, an archetype that is hard to pin down, but that nevertheless feels deeply familiar. During his show in Soho, Brandon satirises straight dudes who appropriate queer culture to get laid, to rapturous applause. I ask Bandon if he can define this trope a little. In his words, it’s about “performative allyship.”
“You see public figures doing this a lot, where they’ll try to use a cultural moment for their own benefit, which is really opportunistic and gross,” he continues. Despite its irreverence, his comedy is often prescient and caustically satirical, touching on niches within liberal culture that many would slalom around. As for playing a teenager, Brandon is unphased. “You know, you take the work you’re given,” he shrugs. “I didn’t go, like, method or anything”, he says, breaking into a laugh. “I wasn’t just hanging out at a high school in a letterman jacket.”
Outside of his film and TV work, Brandon is a regular fixture of LA’s comedy circuit, frequently performing alongside comedians such as SNL’s Sarah Sherman – though he tries to avoid belonging to any particular scene. “I pride myself on the ability to code switch,” says Wardell, “I feel like I can kind of … float between different scenes.” He has good reason for this, too. “If people just perform in the same kind of room too much, I think it’s easy to get stagnant and just stay in a bubble.” His favourite kind of room to perform in? “I just like a low ceiling,” he chuckles, “and maybe like a two hundred [person] cap.”
Despite this, Brandon is no stranger to big crowds. Outside of his own sell-out shows and specials, the comedian has also toured with the likes of Bob Odenkirk (aka Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) and Eighth Grade mastermind Bo Burnham. He was just twenty-one when Odenkirk approached him to be his opener. “I’d only done like ten minutes opening for people in DC, and that was my first time going on the road and performing for really discerning, cool crowds.” Brandon learned a lot from Odenkirk, albeit, not as much as he could have done. “I was, I think, at that time, a very bright-eyed and bushy tailed … brash simpleton,” he chuckles.
He’s done a lot of growing up since then. The bowl-cut and backpack that acted as a uniform for his early DC career are long gone. He’s “logged off” too, a big step for someone who was a mainstay of the halcyon days of social media platform Vine. But what’s prompted Brandon to step away from the Internet? “I think just limited mental RAM,” he says, “like, no one’s paying you to use Twitter […] When I was twenty-three, I would tweet like twenty times a day … and if somebody’s outside of that small Twitter bubble [and] sees a guy tweeting twenty times a day, they’re like, ‘who’s this psychopath?’” He carries on, more serious now, “I think it’s just a matter of getting older and being more conscious.” When he was younger, “it was all impulse”, which explains videos like “What if the Pope blasted cigs?” If you’re not familiar, Google it now. For your own good.
These days, Brandon prefers to let ideas “fester for a second,” as he puts it, “and then maybe it could become something for stand-up or whatever.” Of course, you can’t be twenty-nine-and-a-half forever, and I can’t help but ask him how he feels about this next chapter of his life. “I’m excited to turn thirty,” he says. “I want to keep doing stand-up heavy and get my own stuff off the ground.”
He finishes off his Intergalactic Coke before continuing. “Sometimes when I meet people whose whole existence and entire livelihood is just, like, being an actor, I don’t understand how they don’t go insane,” he says. “I like having a sense of freedom and control and autonomy, and when somebody’s just an actor, it’s like your entire life is in other people’s control. And I just like to feel as independent as possible.”
Francesco Loy Bell
Jacket – Vintage Burberry at Dukes Cupboard | Jeans – Our Legacy | T-shirt – Stylists own | Shoes – New Balance
Hoodie – Dukes Cupboard | Trousers – Stone Island | Shoes – New Balance
Jacket – The North Face | Jeans – Kenzo
Jacket and trousers – Kenzo | T-shirt – Stylist own | Shoes – New Balance
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