“Humor has got the best critic of all: laughter.”
– Tim Wheeler, although he thinks Jackie Gleason might have said it first.
Before this interview, I didn’t know Tim Wheeler.
We’d only met once before, a year or so ago, at a staff meeting for this magazine, and as luck would have it, we sat at opposite ends of the table, just out of eye contact.
But within minutes, he had me giggling. I laughed at everything he said – at lunch, through the meeting, in the parking lot when we walked to our cars, when we said our “nice meeting yous” and took our leave.
Same goes for this interview. I laughed, and I laughed, and I couldn’t stop. I have a feeling if I’d been in school with him, I’d have spent a lot of time in the principal’s office for not paying attention to what the teacher was saying.
And it would have been worth it.
For 10 years, he’s turned these pages funny.
He’s made us laugh, tickled our collective funny bone, introduced us to his slightly skewed take on life – and along the way, reminded us that the very best jokes are always the ones we turn on ourselves.
Other columnists have come, gone and stayed in this magazine, but Tim Wheeler – the really funny and even nicer guy who writes the “Obstructed View” column – was the very first.
A decade ago, when Jennie Marie Naffie decided to publish “Northshore Women’s Lifestyle” magazine, Wheeler was one of the first people she met. At the time, he was the senior advertising manager at Hackley Hospital. One of his jobs was to create and place advertising for the hospital in the magazine.
Then someone let it slip – he thinks it was his boss at the time, Melissa Freye – that Wheeler wrote humor columns on the side for the “American Airlines” magazine, as well as other national publications. And well, one thing let to another, and Naffie said she’d be interested in running his column. If you think about it, it was quite a risk on her part. Humor writing is one of the toughest jobs on the planet. What one person thinks is hilarious can leave someone else cold, and vice versa. And, in case the obvious is lost on anyone, Tim Wheeler is a man writing for a women’s magazine.
But Naffie was immediately drawn to Wheeler’s quirky style. She took a chance that his was the right voice to add to the monthly mix of stories. At first, she says, she heard from the husbands of the women who picked up the magazine – they loved what he wrote – and soon, Wheeler won over women readers, too.
“He just has such a refreshing way of looking at life. He’s like (Jerry) Seinfeld,” Naffie says. “He sees things, and you think: Why didn’t I think of that?”
So we decided to ask him. After all these years of seeing his words in print, we decided it was time to turn the tables – and get to know the man behind the laughter and the written word.
Just who is Tim Wheeler?
The quick and easy answer is to list some facts, the kind you’d find on a website or old-fashioned resume. He is 52 years old, married (Leanne) and the father of two (Owen, 14, and Ellie, 10). He grew up in the Stevensville, Mich., neck of the woods. He got degrees from Western Michigan and Northwestern universities in English, creative writing and contemporary American fiction – and taught college English classes. He moved to this part of the state to work for Hackley Hospital.
In 2008, he left the hospital to start his own business — Wheeler Creative Studios – now located in the iHeart Media headquarters on Green Street. He does voice-over work and hosts a couple of radio shows. He’s earned 200 national and international writing awards, published e-books, writes about and works with cartoons and animation. He still is in the advertising game.
“When people ask me what I do,” he says, “I just say I’m a writer.”
But that’s not even scratching the surface of who this guy is.
Wheeler is a soccer coach and wears a suit and one of his late father’s ties to every game. He lives in the Reeths-Puffer school district where he’s been hired to go into classrooms and get kids writing. Fourth graders write fractured fairy tales, second graders produce a radio show and so do sixth graders. His office walls are covered with yellow sticky notes, his projects and ideas orderly and in sequence, thanks to a technique he learned at Villanova University when he studied applied project management. It’s a good thing, too, because he tends to schedule five meetings on a Friday, answers e-mails at 6 a.m. in the morning and again at 10 p.m. at night and by his own admission has 6,000 things going in his head at the same time.
Maybe that’s why his files are full of scripts, articles and projects completed well ahead of deadline – and in some cases, even audiences.
“I’m allergic to boredom,” he says, as if that explains the outpouring of such creative energy.
He drinks Arnold Palmers straight from a can during interviews – that curious combination of lemonade and ice tea – and asks his guests if they’d like one for the road.
When he laughs, it is both a roar – bigger than his spoken voice – and a rush of delight. He laughs often, generous in his appreciation for other people’s senses of humor. He is self-deprecating, disarmingly so, calling himself a moron – or worse – when it’s so obvious that he is not. When anyone objects to his description, he just shrugs his shoulders – and laughs.
His mom was funny, he says; his dad was an engineer, quiet and more serious. Wheeler has three older sisters, and he discovered early on that he could make his family laugh. He says, and there might have been tears in his eyes when he said it, that his humor was something he could give them – a gift, if you will – as the youngest child, the one with the least responsibility.
It was a good day, he says, if he could make his mom laugh.
It is one of the few times he takes pause, leaves the conversation, finds a place of silence for a few seconds. His parents are both gone now; his children, without grandparents.
“I had a great upbringing,” he finally says. “I wish every kid had that.”
He was also funny at school, even as a little guy. He remembers getting his name written on the board as early as fifth grade – the universal sign that he was talking in class – but his friends remember his humor emerging well before that. He was the kid who’d skip playing outside after school to watch Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons – his heroes. Only when the cartoons were over would he go outdoors.
One of the highlights of his life – just ask him – was meeting and interviewing the late Chuck Jones, creator of Bugs and Daffy, for a story Wheeler did on animation for the airline magazine. He has a photograph of Jones – and a sketch Jones doodled during the interview – framed and on the wall in his office.
“My heroes,” he says, pointing first to Jones, then imitating Daffy Duck.
But we digress. We did a lot of that while talking for this interview, jumping from subject to subject over the course of three hours. Just one more important story from his childhood, a keen insight into his style, his calling.
From the time they were kids, Wheeler and his buddies worked at making each other laugh, upping the ante, perfecting their timing – with one unwritten rule.
“Making somebody feel like shit is not funny,” he says.
Somehow, everything then – his childhood, his college degrees, his foray into the advertising and marketing world, his writing, his sense of humor, his commitment to teaching kids how to write and laugh – have morphed into his work at Wheeler Creative Studios.
“I wish I could say I planned all this,” he says.
In April, he rolled out a new project – educational cartoons called Rocketoons – that he calls his “dream come true.”
But that’s a whole new subject, one that needs its own telling – so here’s the tease, told in Wheeler’s own words.
“Now when people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer,” he says, “and I make cartoons.”