Entertainment

Inside The Mind Of Hannibal Buress, Comedy’s Biggest Risk-Taker

How a comedy novice went from sleeping on subways to being the hottest stand-up act in the country.

Seth Olenick

Hannibal Buress sat in a hidden nook of a hole-in-the-wall Brooklyn bar one December evening, thumbing through his iPhone, musing over the long-forgotten notes he had left for himself months earlier. One little time capsule, from 8 a.m. a couple months prior: “High as shit.” Another note implored, very simply: “Fuck space.” The galactic damnation, he realized after a few moments, had been the seed of a joke about NASA and all the money the U.S. wastes in Houston and Cape Canaveral.

A few hours later, the 30-year-old Chicagoan stood in front of a packed house at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, tossing out the “Fuck space” line during a short, extemporaneous musing about those old, castaway brainstorms. And laughs came easy. His set also included a few cracks about the three days he had just spent performing and freezing his ass off in Buffalo, N.Y., another topic that he was winging that night.

Buress was playing on home turf; he lives a few blocks away from Knitting Factory, a Williamsburg venue where he hosts a stand-up show every Sunday night. His proximity — and local popularity — means he doesn’t leave for the gig until 8:58, two minutes before showtime. He crosses the street unassumingly amid the stirring hipsters who bounce around to keep warm as they wait in line. Soon, he’s greeted by the club’s manager, who hands Buress a wad of cash to disburse among the other performers, and then, he heads on in, saying hello to a few comics and friends who linger in the hallway.

When he’s not on stage, he’s hanging out off to the side, sticking close to the DJ and blending into the crowd gathered for the weekly happening, which has seen both rising comics and stars like Louis CK, Chris Rock, and Amy Schumer drop in and work on their acts; on this night, former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac was the unannounced guest, and Sasheer Zamata, the newly hired SNL cast member, also did a short set.

Buress’ riffs killed with the local crowd, as did the samplings of developed bits that he brought out for some refinement and polishing. Between his laid-back stage demeanor and ability to improvise, he gives off the impression that comedy comes naturally to him, as if even his crafted jokes and detailed stories are just quips he’s firing among friends.

“Hannibal has my favorite quality in a stand-up comedian, which is that he doesn’t stress me out,” Mike Birbiglia, Buress’ friend and fellow stand-up, told BuzzFeed. “I find so much stand-up to be stressful to watch, when you’re watching someone on stage, because inherently so many stand-ups are so uncomfortable, and pushing their jokes on you… But Hannibal I could watch for hours.”

The truth is, it took a lot of big leaps to land in such a cushy spot, and a lot of practice to make it look so easy.

In conversation, Buress is even more casual than he is on stage, a demeanor that signals his confidence, but also belies the fact that he’s worked his ass off over the last decade to get himself on the doorstep of national fame.

He has served as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, is the co-host of the cult hit Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim, and is in the final stages of prepping a third live stand-up album (and second special for Comedy Central). Buress also has a growing portfolio of acting roles, including parts in the upcoming Zac Efron–Seth Rogen comedy The Neighbors and regular roles in the new Comedy Central show Broad City and the upcoming FX cartoon Chozen. And he’s got his own pilot in production, also at Comedy Central, where he has an overall deal that has turned him into the network’s jack of all trades.

Buress fits the profile of the modern comedian: In an era saturated with seemingly unlimited outlets spread across more mediums than ever before, piercing the dull buzz of endless options requires a wide range of talents and ability to pivot between every format imaginable. The diversity of Buress’ résumé is especially impressive, considering he didn’t begin even thinking about working in comedy until the moment he actually began working in comedy, when he decided to walk up to the stage at a college open-mic night.

It was the first risk in a career that has been defined, and greatly rewarded, by taking chances.

Before that fateful evening at Southern Illinois University, Buress’ experience with crowds was limited to the football field, where he played special teams in high school (“I had no stats: no tackles, no catches, no rushing yards,” he joked) and the scholastic debate club. But the moment he picked up the microphone at that little college talent show, he stepped into his future.

Comedy, and the pull of the stage, consumed him. His educational pursuits were rendered academic, and so Buress dropped out of school to focus on his act, shuttling back and forth between his parents’ home in Chicago and wherever he could crash in New York City.

That was risk number two.

“I remember my first bit that I really liked and I thought was a killer: What if Jesus got high?” Buress said, laughing at those heady early days. “Would he be all philosophical, like, Oh, I always thought Joseph was my real dad, and My birthday isn’t even on December 25? That was my first one that I thought would kill, and it did kill, and I loved it.”

He still pokes plenty of fun at religion (much to his mother’s chagrin), but Buress’ routine has also expanded with age. Largely apolitical, his set generally consists of stories about dating (and failing at it), observational quips (“When people go through something rough in life, they say, ‘I’m taking it one day at a time.’ Yes, so is everybody. Because that’s how time works”), reassessment of the mundane (he’s got a popular bit about pickle juice), and good-spirited breakdowns of pop culture insanity (rappers beware).

More or less, he’s focusing on everyday experiences and inanities, often with a detached bemusement. As Birbiglia noted, “He just is what he is. He’s a brilliant joke writer. He comes on stage, and he’s sharing it with you in this way that’s kind of like, take it or leave it. You guys want some jokes? Here’s some jokes.”

But Buress has a kind of on-stage cool that is hard-earned, the sort of self-assurance built up over tens of thousands of miles and nonstop repetition.

By the summer of 2006, Buress’ public profile (if not his bank account) was on the rise. He was still making sandwiches at Pita Pit, but he had also snagged spots in events of increasing credibility, like a comedy festival in Las Vegas and an NBC Stand-Up for Diversity showcase. He also had a good grip on the layout of the New York comedy scene. After arriving in Manhattan for one of his last visits as an outsider, the hustling would-be headliner made a beeline from Penn Station to three different open-mic spots…and then dropped in on his sister, who was raising a newborn baby in a small two-bedroom apartment.

That arrangement didn’t work out — “I didn’t even call her to say I was visiting New York; I just popped up with suitcases, and I came home late as shit” — and so he cleared out, sleeping on subways when necessary.

Call that risk number three.

“You just ride back and forth. People didn’t wake me up that much,” Buress recalled, shrugging and downplaying any danger he might have faced. “I’d go to bed, that shit was empty. And I woke up, people would be dressed up for work around me.”

Older and wiser, the comedian tends to blanche whenever someone tries to mythologize his days crashing in subway cars, as if it were some big sacrifice made by a true dreamer. “It was just me being a stubborn 23-year-old,” he insists. Either way, the hustle and extended hours spent kicking it in the makeshift MTA motel paid off, as the endless club hustle earned him his first huge opportunity: an invitation to sling some jokes at the famed Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which begat his first TV appearance…in Amsterdam.

With a hustle like comedy, where performers bounce from bar to bar in hopes of building intangible buzz and spinning a web of loose connections, it’s almost impossible to point to a definitive moment that created the big break. And Buress did perform anywhere that would have him during the first few years of his city escapades, running between clubs all over downtown Manhattan, so there is certainly an element of career heat being stoked by the friction of feet pounding pavement.

But he can also trace the trajectory he’s on back to, very specifically, a downtown stand-up showcase put on by Eugene Mirman. There, he got to know A.D. Miles, the head writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, who eventually invited him to fill a last-minute opening on the NBC playground. The short spot on Fallon opened more eyes around the Midtown hub, and ultimately got Buress hired to stay at 30 Rock and write for Saturday Night Live.

Mirman, as Birbiglia said, is “the Andy Warhol of alternative comedy,” who finds new talent and gives them the platform to be seen, heard, booked, and rocketed toward the national spotlight.

In the lone season he was working at Lorne Michael’s flagship, Buress got only one sketch on the air, a bit with host Charles Barkley about the NBA legend’s terrible golf game. There are several pitches he made that didn’t make the cut and still make him laugh out loud to describe.

“I had a sketch called ‘Fedora Basketball,’ which was about basketball players having to wear hats; in addition to scoring points, they have to make sure their fedoras don’t fall off,” Buress remembered, shaking his head. “I wrote a sketch for Megan Fox, her being a horror movie villain that kills people with scat singing. Actually, that [concept] was on [the Adult Swim show] Eagle Heart recently — there was a villain who scatted and killed people. They said it was accidental, so I trust them on that.”

After a year, he left SNL — risk number four — to write for Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, where he fed Alec Baldwin lines like, “Quiet, chalk hands!” and guest star Queen Latifah the quip that NBC “is whiter than a Wilco concert.”

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, he wound up leaving that dream gig after just a year on staff, too, which brings us to risk number five.

“I can work as a writer, but I wanted to do stand-up,” Buress explained. “And I knew I could, at worst, work as a stand-up. And I like to travel, and I knew I wanted to do an hour special, so in order to get ready for that, I had to hit the road.”

Buress has become an überpopular road act without ever really making much of an attempt to host his own podcast, which has become almost a required effort from comedians these days; Buress compares the format to a “rapper’s mixtape,” giving away content to hype up the stuff they’re really selling. Luckily, people are buying what he’s selling — Buress was named the Best Club Comic at the 2012 American Comedy Awards.

Comedy Central

Soon, Buress will record his third stand-up hour special, which will be released both as an album and TV broadcast next month. During the early December set at Knitting Factory, he recounted an absurd odyssey with an endless coterie of timeshare salesmen in Mexico, which jives with the patterns set in his previous specials. Everything is routed through loose stories, which veer off into frequent asides and musings.

For a taste, here’s his take on gangs: “I want to be a Crip, but minus the gangbanging and shooting people, because if you take all that away, it seems like they just dance and go to barbecues all the time.” And his feelings about the troubling number of men in his neighborhood who sport handlebar mustaches: “All you’re allowed to talk about is Slinkies and kazoos, and that’s it.”

It’s a fine line to walk, to be the weirdo that lays the smack down on ludicrousness (especially when telling jokes that poke at the often self-consumed hometown crowd), but Buress manages that balancing act without breaking a sweat.

“It’s his point of view, which is so specific,” Broad City creator Ilana Glazer, Buress’ friend, told BuzzFeed. “It’s definitely observational. I think hipsters and young people love him because he just happens to be what the trend is, which is ‘awkward,’ or ‘random,’ so he happens to be cool. He didn’t plan it that way.”

As with any comic, though, there is the occasional rough outing. A few months ago, Buress was slotted to do a short set as an opener for Chance the Rapper back in his hometown of Chicago. The show was situated in a concert hall — not the most comfortable spot for stand-up — and kids were pressed up against each other, waiting to dance. Buress knew right away that this wasn’t an audience primed for, or even interested in, witty wordplay or annotated anecdotes.

“I did a joke I’d done in other cities: ‘I’m from Chicago, not the suburbs. People from the suburbs say they’re from Chicago, and you say, ‘What part?’ And it’s not Chicago,’” he recited, laughing. “As soon as I did the joke, I realized probably 60 to 70% of his fans at that show were white kids from the suburbs. It got weird and aggressive — it threw me off just because [Chance’s] fans just got insulted. One dude up close just started chanting, ‘Kevin Hart! Kevin Hart!’”

“And so I said, ‘OK, have a good night,’ and walked off the stage. I didn’t acknowledge that I was bothered or anything.”

Left unsaid — and waved off in public — is the insidious racism of a chant like that.

Hart, who is perhaps the most successful stand-up comedian working today, has an energetic and off-the-wall stage presence that is the antithesis of Buress’ laconic style. And yes, they are both young black men, but that broad feature is really the only thing they have in common.

And yet, they are lumped together by an audience of suburban white kids, dismissed at the hint of a quip that made posturing suburbia the punch line, insomuch as a harmless observation even has a butt-end.

Buress’ act touches on race at times — he muses about white versus black strip clubs and bringing “diversity” to college campuses — but he mostly steers clear of heavy cultural criticism. And he talks with great reverence of this generation’s mysterious master of cutting social commentary, Dave Chappelle, with whom he went on tour earlier this year. Being paid to be his peer was a semi-strange experience; as Buress told Chappelle over and over, he’d snuck into his stand-up shows on more than one occasion while living in Chicago circa 2004.

Buress was there this past fall when Chappelle had what was first reported as a meltdown on stage in Hartford, Conn.; later, the enigmatic comic discussed how much he was being heckled by the mostly white audience, and how he worked to restrain himself from losing his cool.

Almost instantly, Buress said he didn’t want to talk about the incident. It was the one time he was forceful throughout our conversation, a response automatically triggered the moment the subject came up. It is, in retrospect, an unwinnable situation, to talk about a murky incident involving your misunderstood hero.

Both Buress’ experience in Chicago and Chappelle’s in Hartford underscore what a fundamental risk it is to stake one’s life on comedy in the first place; the act of devoting years and talents to nightly trials by fire in front of unfamiliar juries in strange new cities. Nothing in life is a sure thing, but few careers have such thin middle grounds. It is hard to make a living as a comic, and even when you do, one ornery patron drunk on one too many expensive cocktails can strike you down with a thoughtless jeer.

The Chapelle topic aside, Buress is game for anything. He rarely ever gets very dirty with his jokes, but like most anyone else, he’s got a few bits that have earned him some awkward encounters, which come with the kind of accusations that get him frustrated all over again.

His last special, for example, included a story about a late-night rendezvous gone wrong, when an attempted 5 a.m. pickup led to a series of increasingly angry admonishments from an inebriated Scottish girl, culminating in his fleeing in panic as she quoted rape statistics. Predictably, some people have accused him of slandering rape victims.

“I got into an argument one day with some dude who tried to debate me about the situation, but like, you weren’t there, man; you don’t understand that shit,” he said, showing rare frustration. “‘Rape’ is a sensitive word, and so when people hear me talk about it, they go, Oh, he’s making fun of people getting raped. No! I’m talking about my fear of being falsely accused of rape.”

For the most part, of course, these moments of tension are brief exceptions (not that he’s telling anecdotes about fawning fans, of course). Buress has lived in New York full-time for almost seven years now, and is constantly traveling to perform shows across the country (and make weird TV appearances), exposing him to a vast number of people, with largely positive reactions.

“We were shooting in Grand Central and oh my gosh, we encountered this gorgeous female soldier, she was hired — I don’t even know what — to stand in the station, and she was like, ‘Hannibal!’” Glazer said with a laugh. “It was this running scene, and we were running back and forth and back and forth, and he made sure to get her a picture.”

Over the past few years, Buress’ fame has been on the that guy in that thing level to those who don’t live in Brooklyn or self-identify as comedy nerds. That’s beginning to change, though, thanks in part to his work with his old buddy Eric Andre.

The two comedians struck up a friendship during Buress’ 2006 New York stretch, as participants in a program called the Awkward Comedy Show; after hitting it off, Andre asked him to take part in an idea he’d been cooking up in his mental meth lab. The pair shot a low-budget pilot for what would become, a few years later, Adult Swim’s Eric Andre Show, the most batshit television program of the last decade; it defies comparison, but if pushed, you could say it’s like a more evolved descendant of Tom Green’s stunt-filled half-hour on MTV in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

“I think he had been doing earlier versions of it live, with different hosts, before we filmed that pilot,” Buress remembered. “So he had been doing that in different spots in New York, and we shot it in this bodega in Bushwick. And now it’s some cool-ass bar. It was a shithole.”

A year later, the mischief makers at Adult Swim got ahold of the tape, decided it could fit on their demented late-night network, and a real pilot was shot in May of 2011. The next year, the show hit the airwaves.

Putting something like that on television — and making it your first big on-screen venture — is yet another risk, because few things have ever even resembled The Eric Andre Show, much less approached its levels of insanity. Every episode begins with Andre destroying his set, panting at a newly rebuilt desk as Buress coolly walks to his seat, settling in as the program’s super-chill co-host. Today, The Eric Andre Show is an underground hit, a product of internet buzz and the splintering of cable television audiences, which helps keep programs with small but devoted fan bases on the air.

There are ludicrous man-on-the-street segments, fake celebrity guests (“Joe Biden” was a roast duck lowered from the ceiling; “Russell Brand,” a recurring contributor, is an elderly, haggardly black man), and, especially in the just-wrapped second season, awkward interviews with actual B-list celebrities — some of whom (hello, Lou Ferrigno) are more in on the joke than others.

“We might use different weird parts, but we do actually ask questions,” Buress promised, adding that what the show viewers end up seeing is about 5% of what they shoot. “My favorite bit is, whatever guests come on, I go on CelebNetWorth.com and then ask them like, ‘CelebNetWorth says you’re worth $8 million. Is that true?’ A lot of people got uncomfortable — except for Mel B, Scary Spice,” he continued, smirking. “CelebNetWorth had her at $8 to 10 million less than her real worth, and she was like, ‘No, it’s this.’ She was one of the best guests, because I got to feed her Funyuns, and it was beautiful.”

As co-host, Buress flies into Los Angeles a few days before The Eric Andre Show starts up on production, helping to vet the writing staff’s work, pitching his own ideas, and selecting what makes it to the taping. It is, for sure, a radically different situation than what he experienced earlier in his career at both SNL and 30 Rock.

Buress made a few on-screen appearances at that time — playing a homeless guy — but it’s only now that he’s making major headway with his acting career, years after leaving what were two of the biggest comedy shows on television. Along with the Broad City gig, and the sizable part he has in the Rogen-Efron frat battle flick The Neighbors, Buress popped up in a small role in last May’s coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer.

Making the leap from stand-up to full-blown movie star is one of the most difficult show-business transitions to make; for every Steve Martin, there is a Chris Rock, gigantic performers who just couldn’t translate to narrative success. Buress hasn’t had that chance yet, and at the moment, he’s pretty certain that it’s not going to happen if he waits for Hollywood to take notice. Instead, he’ll have to take the risk himself.

“I haven’t really tried to write a movie,” he admitted. “It’s tough to get into that mode. I’m doing some movies, but as far as a lead role, I have to write that myself right now. If I want to be a lead in the movie, it has to be someone that likes my shit, loves my shit, or it has to be me coming with a good idea and pushing through like that.”

That said, becoming a movie star isn’t his biggest concern right now, anyway. Not when he’s taken so many chances in pursuit of simply being himself.

Correction: Buress will record his third stand-up special on Jan. 25. An earlier version of this post misstated that he had already recorded it.

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