Hannibal Buress has sneaky comic punching power. With his rolling, sleepy cadence, sly grin, and heavy-lidded gaze (“you squinty [expletive blurred]” reads one hate-tweet Buress reveals tonight), Buress’ comic persona looks too loose to the uninitiated, as if he’s just another amiable stoner comic content with lazy, unfocused buffoonery. Anyone lulled into complacency is brought up short before too long, as Buress’ affect hides a sharpness, an observational style that comes at you from unique angles. And when Buress reveals a genuine anger behind a joke, he can draw blood. Just ask Bill Cosby, whose current downfall can be traced without exaggeration back to the comparatively unknown Buress matter-of-factly calling the formerly beloved entertainer out as a rapist onstage. There’s society’s depressing unwillingness to credit the word of scores of women over a famous man in play there, but, while the facts were always available to everyone, it was Buress saying it that catalyzed public opinion. (He jokes tonight about “Cosby assassins” coming for him.) At first listen, Buress sounds like he doesn’t care about much of anything—which makes his comic premises carry surprising weight.
Why? With Hannibal Buress is Hannibal Buress given free rein. And while he’s gathered an impressive writers room (packed with veterans of shows like Totally Biased, SNL, The Daily Show, The Chris Rock Show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Conan, Letterman, Hot Package, and others), the show is very much at home to Buress’ style. In essentially every interview leading up to tonight’s premiere, Buress played it cagy as to what Why? was gong to look like, and that’s reflected in the finished product. Stand-up bits introduce filmed and live sketches, a similarity to Comedy Central sister show Inside Amy Schumer pronounced enough that Schumer herself appears in a funny bit, revealed as Hannibal’s meanest and most dedicated online troll. (“You’re trying to move in on my territory!,” snaps a crazy-eyed Amy as she swats frantically at flies only she can see. “It’s owned by Viacom,” counters Buress, trying to talk his friend down. They’re still on for lunch next week.) Buress also hints at musical guests if the mood strikes him. (The show’s theme song is from Australian neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote.)
Why?, in its first episode anyway, is far less structured that Schumer’s show, and more diffuse in its impact. For one thing, Hannibal—for as much as his very Buress-like spacey dentist boyfriend Lincoln on Broad City is a guaranteed scene-stealing delight—doesn’t have Schumer’s interest in playing characters other than himself. In his filmed bits tonight, Hannibal’s always Hannibal, whether tracking down Schumer’s online harasser or trying out a real-life (white) guy’s uncommunicative method of dealing with the cops (it doesn’t go well at all). Buress doesn’t seem poised to dazzle with his acting versatility on Why?, and doubles down by presenting his supposed Daily Show audition tape, where he lounges in Jon Stewart’s chair and mocks the idea that he could change up his comic style to fit that show’s more straightforward needs. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily—his stand-up bits throughout are typically good, though not his sharpest—but it does lend Why? a certain shaggy sameness of tone.
The show’s title, as Shakespearean as its tossed-off nature might seem, is key to what works best in the pilot. Buress’ stand-up operates from a place seemingly right at the cushiest heart of the observational comedy genre. Indeed, his opening segment tonight sees him not so much taking shots at current topics like Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and Greece’s financial crisis so much as prodding them for unexplored eccentricities. “Greece is gonna end up sleeping on Turkey’s couch” emerges funnier for Buress’ delivery, equating his own history with bankruptcy to the country’s in a show of solidarity mixed with tough love. Similarly, his asides about the Chicago Fire being a tasteless name for the city’s soccer team (“that was a bad time for the city”), and his discomfort with male hotel housekeepers (“go clean a general area like men do”) land better in performance than they read. But there’s a core of icy anger lurking under Buress’ sleepy delivery, and when it comes out—as it admittedly does too infrequently tonight—it’s potent.
When Buress riffs on Independence Day by pointing out how, for black Americans, it’s less a celebration of freedom than a celebration of the time they went “from being British property to being American property,” it lashes out with unexpected power. And when, in the filmed bit about him trying to stonewall the cops, the white police officer responds with an immediate volley of bullets, the implied anger is shocking, even as the smiling Buress, back in the studio, assures the audience that the cop had terrible aim and he’s fine. (Key & Peele’s similarly jarring portrayal of hairtrigger white cops’ violence against black men right before this episode suggests a confluence of “enough with this bullshit” black comic sensibility at Comedy Central.) Hannibal Buress’ signature vibe is a smooth sea, all the more impossible to ignore when it roils up unexpectedly. Unfortunately, Why? sees the sea stay largely placid.
Part of the undercurrent of ordinariness in this first episode comes from an over-reliance on cameos from celebrity comic pals, all of which (apart from Schumer, who brings her signature commitment to her role) are pretty blah. The opening, with Hannibal being shut down by Conan O’Brien’s audience, and a later bit with James Corden blithely blowing him off, are the sort of bits intended to bring some famous person cred. Instead, they’re bland and ordinary. The July 4th pageant (despite the presence of Mr. Show vet John Ennis) goes flat as well, apart from Buress’ aforementioned stinger.
In an interview with The A.V. Club’s Miles Raymer this week, Buress said of Why?:
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.
Why? With Hannibal Buress is funny shit. It’s also less impactful than it should be. In performance, Buress’ looseness is prelude to a sharpness, a comic formula the show hasn’t found yet.
- Buress’ theory on why online trolls do what they do: “It’s a brief respite from the sadness of their own lives” is more charitable than his observation that it seems like they were “born out of their own assholes.” Twitter hate can turn a man bitter.
- On the name Why? With Hannibal Buress: “Part of me really likes the name of the show and part of me thinks that it’ll just be easy for them to replace me with someone else.”
- The concept of having Buress’ odd observations come out of the mouth of an opera singer went on too long, but it’s worth it to hear the guy boom “I would wear a cheetah condom, just for pure novelty.”
- In Buress’ second attempt to not answer a cop, the officer’s a fan (“I know, I like Broad City”), but that doesn’t stop him from calling in a drone strike.