Hannibal Buress got started in the comedy business by fairly standard means, writing for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but it’s smaller, riskier projects that have brought him his biggest successes, thanks to a willingness to question conventional wisdom, an uncanny grasp of what goes viral on the internet, and his very low-key (but very real) double-threat talents as a writer and performer. To comedy geeks, he’s famous for the long-running showcase he booked at the Brooklyn indie rock club Knitting Factory, where raw up-and-comers rubbed elbows with drop-in guests like Dave Chappelle and Method Man. To millennials with edgy comedic tastes he’s best known as Ilana Glazer’s infinitely chill dentist boyfriend Lincoln on Broad City, the laconic co-host of The Eric Andre Show, and the PTSD-suffering stand-up in a particularly intense episode of the weed-centric web series High Maintenance. And to many people who’ve heard of him at this point, he’s the guy who made an offhand comment during a stand-up set about Bill Cosby’s well-known (in the comedy world, at least) reputation for sexual assault that snowballed into lawsuits and a scandal that may have ended Cosby’s career.
Having established himself as a cult star, Buress is currently engineering his mainstream break. This Christmas he’ll appear in Daddy’s Home alongside Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, and next year he voices characters in the animated features The Secret Life Of Pets and Angry Birds. In the meantime he’s starring in (and executive producing) Why? With Hannibal Buress, a freeform weekly series for Comedy Central. We got on the phone with Buress, who was in Los Angeles preparing for the series premiere of Why?, which drops July 8 at 10:30 p.m.
The A.V. Club: There aren’t any advance screeners for Why? because you’re shooting each episode the day it airs, right?
Hannibal Buress: Yeah, man, no advance. We’re just dropping it out of nowhere, but not really out of nowhere.
AVC: So what’s the show going to look like? What’s actually going to happen on it?
HB: It’s going to be like—did you ever see the Michael Jackson “Remember The Time” video? It’s going to be like that, but a comedy show. [Laughs.] No, it’s going to be some sketches, some interviews, some man-on-the-street stuff. It’s going to be my show. Yeah, man. I don’t know why we have to do this. Not the interview, but people, [asking] “What is the show?” I don’t know, it’s going to be funny. I don’t like selling it. [Laughs.] It’s just going to be funny shit from my perspective, and that’s what people can expect.
AVC: So you didn’t go for the traditional Hannibal Buress Show kind of sitcom.
HB: No. I’ll do that when I’m 38.
AVC: What’s the creative process for the show like, and how is it different from what you’ve done in the past?
HB: We’ve got seven or eight writers and we have a pitch meeting, people come up with stuff, and then I decide what pitches to go forward with. I write stuff. It’s cool to write and produce my own stuff. It’s been nice to kind of be all parts of the process and form a show from scratch—the tone of the set and the colors, picking the theme music, and casting, and figuring out all these different details.
AVC: So you’ve been able to make kind of your dream show?
HB: I wouldn’t say my dream… Yeah! Yeah! One of my dream shows! My ultimate dream show wouldn’t be on Comedy Central. I don’t think we have the budget for my ultimate dream show.
AVC: Your roles on The Eric Andre Show and Broad City have done a lot for your career. How do you stay committed to them when you have other projects, especially one that’s your baby?
HB: It’s a scheduling thing. Pretty much right after I wrap this I go out to New York for two days on Broad City and then come back to L.A. for two weeks on Eric Andre Show, then back to New York for about a month or so of Broad City. Right now I’m working on my show, so that’s the thing that I’ll focus on, and when we start on those I’ll be doing that. And it’ll probably be kind of a relief, just to chill instead of having to make a decision every few minutes. [Laughs.]
AVC: In your Live From Chicago special from last year it seems like you spend a lot of time deconstructing the whole comedy process. There are jokes about other comics, there are jokes where the punchline is about the process of writing the joke. Do you enjoy analyzing, or maybe even over-analyzing, things in that way?
HB: Yeah. I just look at stuff and try to figure it out. I guess I look at stuff like a math problem and try to figure out how it works and why people do certain things and what things mean. [Laughs.] It’s just funny with stand-up comedy how we close out our sets. A lot of time comics will have a lot of energy in their closer, you know, a lot of comics’ closers are dirty, so it’s funny to be like, [Adopts funny voice.] “Yeah man, so I was fucking her, blah blah blah, and it was going crazy,” and then, [Adopts serious voice.] “Good night everybody!” [Laughs.] I think in [my special] it was just this long story that I was really into, and there’s callbacks and stuff and then this long thing, and then, “All right, Chicago! I’m done talking.” Stand-up is a weird gig, man.
AVC: It’s not even that weird to over-analyze comedy right now. There’s a million podcasts, comics pretty much have to be on Twitter, and people who in the past would have been casual comedy fans now want to know what the process is like. Does that kind of stuff affect your creative process at all? When you know that everything you say’s going to be torn apart?
HB: I don’t think so. The super comedy fan that you’re talking about is still a minority. But it’s vocal. I just write and do what I think is funny. Sometimes you do have it in your head about certain bits. There are certain jokes where I know if I did them in certain situations it would irk people. There are times where I look at the news and see a story going on and I’m like, “Wow, if I tweeted this, I would get press if I wanted to.” If you want to get reactions from people in a calculated way it’s pretty easy now.
AVC: You did that episode of High Maintenance that revolved around Twitter. How much of that reflects your actual relationship with social media?
HB: Social media is interesting. It helps me connect with fans. It’s immediate. It’s a big part of my touring business—getting the word out via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. There is a thing where people say things [on social media] that they wouldn’t ever say to a human being’s face. I guess it shouldn’t be that fascinating. We cover it a little bit on my show. We have some social media pieces. People like to get a rise out of people. People like to be heard, and to get attention. I’ve had people try to debate me about bits in my stand-up and what they meant, and I’ll catch myself going back and forth with someone and I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing right now?” [Laughs.] So I try to keep away from that. I’m not going to explain my jokes to one person who’s upset about it. Before if you were upset about something you’d just be upset. But the immediacy of it—like you check it and you’re like, [Growling.] “What the fuck is this person saying?” But then if you give it a minute then you’re like, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to say anything to that.”
AVC: There can be one person out of a million who reacts that way, but when they make it personal it’s hard not to want to engage.
HB: Yeah. That’s the thing. I don’t argue with people… if they say I’m not funny, they’re right, for them. I forget who said it, Leno or somebody said, “If somebody thinks you’re funny, they’re right. If somebody says you’re not funny, they’re right.” You can’t change that. If you don’t like my shit, you don’t like my shit. It’s not for everybody.
AVC: Going back to that High Maintenance episode, it’s really emotionally intense and it takes a really dark turn.
HB: Some people think [my character] actually got shot in that episode. “What’s up with that episode where you got shot?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” That’s what I hate too, when people misquote material. Like, “When you said…” and they’ll just mangle a joke. When somebody mangles one of my jokes, that bothers me more than somebody saying that I’m the worst comedian ever. [Laughs.]
AVC: But what was it like playing a more serious role? You get off a lot of jokes, but it’s a dramatic episode.
HB: It was all right. It wasn’t that intense of a shoot. I think we shot over two or three days or something, so it wasn’t like I had to really dig in and be sad for a long time. It was fun. We shot it in my apartment, actually. They made me look good on there. When I started watching it I was like, “This show feels like it should be on HBO or something.” That was a few years ago and now it is on HBO. But I didn’t have to dig that deep. It was just, make a sad face and kind of be sad, and I did it three or four times and they picked the best one.
AVC: You’ve got some much bigger projects in the works. You’re doing an Angry Birds movie?
AVC: What’s it like making that jump?
HB: It’s okay. It doesn’t even really feel like anything because you just talk in a booth to somebody who’s not even in town. [Laughs.] I guess it’ll get more weird when it’s actually finished and out next year. In the scenes I’ve done I interact a lot with Jason Sudeikis’ character, but we never record together. It’ll be cool to see it when it comes out, and it’ll be something cool to check out with my nieces and nephews, but as far as the feeling of it, it’s just going in a booth and saying some shit a bunch of times. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re starting to get legitimately famous, but you come off like the kind of person who enjoys just going out for a quiet drink. Is that harder for you to do now?
HB: Sometimes, yeah. I was walking around Chicago when I was playing the Chicago Theater a couple months ago. I got a hotel like a block from the theater, so I was shopping during the day, right on State Street at the old Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, and I was about to head back to my hotel and [Laughs.] I won’t say this is a pure race study, but in this 30 or 40 minute time period where I’m going back and forth to Macy’s two white people recognized me on the street and they were like, “Hi, Hannibal Buress, what’s up man?” And then there was a black dude and a black woman, and separately they both walked up to me and were like, “Yo, you just walking around and shit?” [Laughs.] “You just walking?” Like what the fuck, you think I’m supposed to be in some weird-ass bubble or something? It’s interesting. I’m able to go most places and kind of chill, but yeah, it’s a different energy.
People with their phones and shit… people would rather show that they were around you for five seconds than have an actual conversation. One of my buddies—I think it was this cat Mike Lawrence—he posted something like, when people post pictures with celebrities they never talk about the weird interaction that happened right before it. I went and saw this show by this punk rap group Ho99o9 last week and there was this dude who was like, “Oh shit, Hannibal Buress! I’m a big fan, can I get a picture?” and I hear the band starting up so I’m trying to walk back toward the stage and dude legitimately started blocking me. He was a bigger dude, and was playing like basketball defense. I was just like, “Take the picture, man, because you’re being weird.” And you let him tell the story and I’m the asshole, probably.
AVC: You’ve been a different kind of famous since the Cosby thing. How does that situation feel now? Do you ever feel like the rest of what you’re doing is being overshadowed by this one moment on stage?
HB: No, I just do my work, man. That was one thing that people, the media kind of grabbed on to. I just do my work.
AVC: In Live From Chicago you have a line to the effect of, “Look at a guy who’s living his dream.” People don’t seem to like hearing other people, especially famous ones, talking about how well they’re doing. People get mad at Kanye about it all the time.
HB: The way I did it—I think I did it after I kept doing the ecstasy joke—that was more about me being goofy and running a joke into the ground. It was more commenting on how much fun it was to just do a music cue with a joke. But yeah, it’s weird. Success is weird. I’ll say some slick shit sometimes that comes off as obnoxious. Like if people in the crowd are obnoxious to me I’ll say some shit. I was doing this show at a casino in Arizona, and I was firing off a joke and I said, “So I landed at this airport in Missouri” and this dude in the third row was like, [Adopts an aggressive voice.] “What were you doing in Missouri?” And I was like, “Making your yearly salary in one day.” [Laughs.] Like what the fuck else? I was working! It’s an insult when people are like, “Why are you going there?” To do the thing that I enjoy doing and also make good money doing it!