From barking to Bill Cosby: Hannibal Buress’s never-ending tour on the comedy circuit
A routine about Bill Cosby catapulted him up the comedy rankings, but with a host of impressive TV and film credits, and a wealth of experience earned the hard way on the comedy circuit, Hannibal Buress has a rightful claim to the US comedy throne
Hannibal Buress attends t in Los Angeles, California in August. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
I’m waiting for my call to connect to Hannibal Buress somewhat nervously, as our previous attempt had failed. He slept in, the consequence of a late-night existence touring his new show The Comedy Comisado.
A “comisado” is a military term for a surprise attack, usually when the enemy is sleeping: an appropriate title, considering Buress’s leisurely delivery, coupled with the fact that his profile has grown rapidly in the last year. A routine of his about Bill Cosby, delivered in the Trocadero club in Philadelphia last October, was captured on film, and lit a fire, spearheading a fuller debate about those long-standing allegations.
It also spiked Buress’ visibility, and raised a general point about the role of comedy: should it be political, saying the unsayable? There is certainly a rich tradition there, from Lenny Bruce to Dave Chappelle, to Bridget Christie.
“Yeah, I mean, comedy is art, and art has many different aspects. Some stuff is surface, just to get a laugh, but other times you have to talk about things that people might relate to, or not have thought about, or real stories. I do a piece sometimes about a parade in New Orleans for my cousin’s bachelor party and it wasn’t about shitting on something. It was a positive story, and people responded, so there are a lot of different ways to be. I can go either way, and I started doing comedy to talk about all of these kinds of things. “
Buress is in Atlanta, Georgia, filming Neighbours 2, (“don’t you call it Bad Neighbours over there?”). Film work has been piling up for him: there’s the forthcoming Band of Robbers, a retelling of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tales; some animated features, including Angry Birds; and Daddy’s Home, with Will Ferrell.
“It is interesting to see films come together, I just saw a screening of Daddy’s Home, but film takes so long to make. It will hopefully connect in a different way with people, but when you are doing it you can’t really do anything else. It was fun seeing me in a big scene along with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, two of the biggest stars out there, and I was watching it thinking that maybe I didn’t look out of place.”
Buress enjoyed a brief stint as a writer on 30 Rock as well as playing a wisecracking homeless man. He’s in The Eric Andre Show, and the singularly brilliant Broad City as Lincoln. In these series, Buress is often a foil to the more heightened characters, so it seemed like a natural step for him to helm his own show, Why? with Hannibal Buress, which premiered on Comedy Central in July.
“It was nice, because people were recognising me for me, but there were lots of different things to take in. I’ve been in a bunch of shows, working as a writer, and actor, so it was interesting to work as the star and produce, and figure out when I was funny, through editing, especially the monologue, which ends up being six or seven minutes, but I might have done 20 minutes. I had to learn what type of moves worked for me. “
Musical guests are also high calibre, such as Flying Lotus. “It was more to make it an extension of what my live show is. I used to host a weekly show at The Knitting Factory in New York, and often had music there. It was to make the vibe similar to my live show.”
Those roles were somewhat reversed earlier this year in Austin, Texas, at SXSW, when Buress ended up drumming with Speedy Ortiz. “So here’s what happened. I was hanging out with my friend, he’s the drummer for TV on the Radio, and he was getting a text about a gig, and I was getting jealous, so I said ‘I want to drum too’, so I tweeted that out, and said that I was free the next day, and was just letting people know. Then Speedy Ortiz got in touch and asked me to come by, so I went along, very hungover, and I got kind of nervous, wondering if I really wanted to do this, as I thought I’d ruin their show if I drummed the whole time. So I did their last song, you can see me on camera smiling crazily as I was so nervous.”
Buress hails from Chicago, an important touchstone in American comedy culture, home to Second City since 1959, the revered club, theatre, and improv school that has seen people such as Alan Alda, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Amy Poehler come through their doors.
“Second City was a different world, I didn’t take classes there, although they would do stand-up occasionally, so I took classes at the Comedy Store, but I had a lot of friends at Second City, so it wasn’t a case that they stayed over there, and I stayed over here, but my main focus was stand-up, and I decided to do a lot of open-mics, and run around Chicago instead. “
Buress left college midway through to focus completely on that running around. “My parents thought it didn’t sound like a great idea at the time, because they thought, and were correct, that I didn’t need to leave college to do stand-up, it speaks more to the lack of time-management on my part. It was me making a definite choice. It just felt right, and because I was at college initially, I was able to get that positive push, it was seen as a cool thing on campus, like, ‘there’s goes the guy who does stand-up’. In a way, it was my first taste of what fame was like.”
Buress then moved to New York, a different rhythm to Chicago. “It was a shock, as it’s a huge scene, but you have to dive in. When I got the train from Chicago to New York, I had a list of open mics, and went straight from the train station to the first on my list in walking distance, with my big-ass bag, like a crazy person. I did the open mic, then went downtown to another open mic.
“That place had a system that if you ‘barked’ – which means going on to the street and getting people in to the place – you got a spot on the regular, so I did three spots before I went to my sister’s house. I didn’t even think she knew I was coming into town.”
Buress has a love of the road, something that was explored in his friend Louis CK’s most recent series, where “the road” is painted as a terrible, pointless, lonely place. Buress laughs like a drain at the idea.
“Early on, when you are travelling solo, it can definitely wear on you, you just go to the city, and go back to the hotel room, and comedy clubs might cut your guarantee if you didn’t sell as many tickets as they thought you might, but that’s not my reality now, thankfully. Now I travel with my DJ and sometimes a photographer, so we eat, see a movie, it’s fun.I honestly love the road.”
Hannibal Buress performs at Vicar Street, Dublin on October 14. vicarstreet.ie