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How Hannibal Buress Evolved From Jokes To Storytelling–And Became One Of Comedy’s Most Respected Voices

One of the hottest comics right now, and a ubiquitous TV presence, Hannibal Buress talks to Co.Create about how he’s steered his career.

How Hannibal Buress Evolved From Jokes To Storytelling–And Became One Of Comedy’s Most Respected Voices
[Photo: Constance Kostrevski]

Hannibal Buress is everywhere. He’s on the breakout hit Broad City and the sublimely strange Eric Andre Show; he was in last summer’s Seth Rogen movie, Neighbors, and he’s in the upcoming Will Ferrell film, Daddy’s Home; he’s also in the news, as the comedian whose thoughts on Bill Cosby helped ignite the long-dormant powder keg that exploded Cosby’s image. Buress’s path toward ubiquity, though, only began once he gave up one of the more coveted positions in TV comedy at the time–writing for 30 Rock–in favor of an aggressive touring schedule. He’d already found his voice by the time he landed that show, but it was on the road afterward that he figured out the best way to use it.

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Working at 30 Rock put Buress in an elite club, presided over by Tina Fey, of people who went from writing on Saturday Night Live to writing on a show about Saturday Night Live. (He scored the SNL gig after his second-ever late night appearance, on Jimmy Fallon, earned him a meeting with then-head writer Seth Meyers.) But writing for someone else’s TV show was only ever going to be a short stint for Hannibal. He’s a thoroughbred stand-up who’s earned cosigns from Chris Rock and Louis CK, and whose rat-a-tat cadence is distinct enough to inspire imitation. And as the whole Cosby situation has proven, he has a fearless way of looking at things that resonates with people–whether it’s an older comedian’s hypocrisy or the time he drunkenly attempted to kick it to Scarlett Johansson at a club.

As the second season of Broad City takes off and the third season of The Eric Andre Show winds down, Buress talks to Co.Create about some of the decisions that have shaped his career, and how extensive touring helped cement his status as a storyteller.

Hannibal Buress as Lincoln on Broad CityPhoto: Walter Thomson, courtesy of Comedy Central

Know The Room You’re Playing To, 2009

As a Saturday Night Live rookie, Hannibal had the unenviable task of selling his ideas and himself to a room full of seasoned comedy pros. It was an adjustment, to say the least, but Buress soon found a trick for getting his voice across in a way everyone would understand.

“I was writing things that would work if it was The Hannibal Buress Sketch Show; things that didn’t fit SNL all the time,” Buress says. “It was a learning curve. SNL doesn’t have a traditional writer’s room. On Monday, there’s the pitch meeting with the guest, and I played that like it was stand-up. Some people would sit on couches in Lorne [Michaels]’s office, some were on the floor, a couple stood up–but by the second week I made sure I was always positioned by the door facing everybody and standing up so it would feel like I was on stage. So my pitches would always crush in the room, because I knew how to sell a joke. Even though my sketches wouldn’t get on, in that setting I was able to prove that I was funny to my peers.”

Photo: courtesy of Comedy Central

No Half Measures

After leaving Saturday Night Live, Hannibal made the jump to 30 Rock. He also started generating more heat as a stand-up. By the time Comedy Central offered him a half-hour special in 2010, Hannibal had already been featured on The Awkward Comedy Show, Live at Gotham, and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show. He respectfully declined.

“I felt like I’d done enough short form stuff that was, in my mind, equivalent to doing a half hour,” Buress says. “It wasn’t like I didn’t have anything on Comedy Central and they offered a half hour and I said no. If that was the case, I would’ve taken the half-hour. But by then, I just felt like it would be more productive for my career to have my next thing be a full hour.”

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Know When To Go, 2011

Although writing on 30 Rock had raised both Hannibal’s profile and his comedic output, after a while he felt like it was holding him back.

“Once you’re in a room like 30 Rock, it’s a creative setting, so you write more even after you go home, just because you’re still in that mode of coming up with jokes,” Buress says. “So the job wasn’t sapping standup jokes but it was sapping stand up time and energy and I wouldn’t be able to travel as much. I couldn’t tour like I wanted to tour if I kept a writing job. So right after we wrapped that season, I quit the show and went on the road right away, for about eight months that year, all over. And that’s what led up to me filming my first Comedy Central special, Animal Furnace.”

The Difference Between Telling Jokes And Storytelling, 2012

On his first album, Hannibal has bits about everything from the prospect of metal arms to the frugality of flicking pickle juice on sandwiches for extra flavor. By the time Animal Furnace came out, however, more of his jokes had evolved into stories with a complete arc, like this hilarious one about jaywalking.

“It just happened through life,” Buress says. “Performing, traveling, meeting people and having these things happen that couldn’t be told in two-line jokes. It was real stories, and it became fun trying to figure out how to make them work in the same way as jokes. The challenge really became, could you tell the story but also make it real punchy, with lots of jokes in it and a good ending. Because if you don’t have a good ending, it’s rough. When I’m working out these stories, telling them the first couple times, they’ve got these funny parts in the beginning and middle and then you kinda get to the end and it’s like, ‘Well, that’s the end of the story.’ It’s taking something that really happened and punching it up.”


Never Get Bored

Comedy Camisado is the fourth hour of material Hannibal has toured behind. In order to keep from boring audiences (or himself), he has looked for ways to innovate his on-stage dynamic wherever possible–whether it be adding a DJ to his set or creating the “Gibberish Rap” bit (now retired), which involves ballet dancers, flashing lights, and maybe Ryan Phillipe.

“A lot of comedians do bits where they say, ‘I was listening to this song and this person said this and you know how they say that?’ And I thought it would work better if I actually had a DJ put that song lyric right there,” Buress says. “It makes it more dynamic and it’s more energetic. The DJ I’ve been working with, DJ Rufio, sometimes at [Buress’s weekly show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn] he would, out of nowhere, do certain sound effects, like a gun shot sound if an audience member says something dumb, and the crowd will go crazy. All of that helps me to put on a better, livelier, more fun show and gives me somebody to bounce off of onstage too. You’re up there just talking for an hour and some change, and it’s good to have somebody right there to just bounce off of so I stay into it.”

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Make Your Own Vehicle, 2015

Although Hannibal Buress has roles in several current TV shows and upcoming films, he also wants to star in one of those films eventually. (Judging from his guest turn as a lead on highly acclaimed webseries High Maintenance, he’s got what it takes.) He’d rather not just wait around for the right role to come along, though.

“I’ve been talking about [writing a movie] for a while. It’s kind of tough to get motivated and do it, but it’s just one of those things you gotta do,” Buress says. “I’m maybe a little intimidated by it. I never have written a movie, but there are some bad movies out there. I can make one. I definitely want to get into that because that’s how you, at my level, would get a lead in a movie–by writing a low budget thing for myself. So I gotta get to it. Maybe I’ll get to it now just because of this interview. Maybe I’ll go in this coffee shop. I always wonder (about) these people in coffee shops–are they really writing stuff? Are some of them gonna make it?”

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