November 4, 2011
The stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress was poking fun at a woman in the front row at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea recently when he paused to wonder aloud if it was possible to remain likable while insulting the audience.
Willie Davis for The New York Times
The next night Mr. Buress, dressed for a sports bar (baseball cap, rumpled T-shirt on his bulky frame), delivered his answer at Joe’s Pub at the monthly showcase Find the Funny. Mid-set a heckler demanded more jokes about Brooklyn. “We can’t always get what we want,” Mr. Buress retorted, adding sharply, “Everyone here wants you to shut up.”
The room got raucous and a bit tense, but Mr. Buress’s deadpan never wavered. Then he brought the microphone close to his mouth, his voice lowering for the biggest laugh of the night: “So I was walking down Nostrand Avenue….”
Outwitting a heckler is not difficult, but doing it while acceding to his demands for a trendy borough topic requires confidence, quickness and a little finesse.
Mr. Buress is one of the fastest rising comics working today. No less of an authority than Chris Rock has singled him out as someone to watch. He has written for “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” and recently signed a deal with Fox to develop a television show with Jonah Hill. In what may be the ultimate sign of success, he has earned the (mock?) resentment of the veteran stand-up Marc Maron. Who is Hannibal Buress? Mr. Maron asked on his essentialpodcast, the “Fresh Air” of comedy. “What makes him so good?”
Good question. Despite the rumbling buzz surrounding this comic who has refined his skills for nine years, first in Chicago and then New York, obscure dance companies have been reviewed more often in the mainstream press.
Stand-up is the only major art form in which most American critics don’t take performers seriously until they leave the field. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C. K. needed television shows to really receive notice. To paraphrase a great man, today’s comics don’t get no respect, and considering their ambition, diversity and influence, they should.
That conviction undergirds this new feature, appearing every other week and dedicated to reviewing comedy. Not limited to stand-up, this feature will try to reflect that vast and fragmented scene, for creative, funny work can be found everywhere from late-night cable to bars in Brooklyn to a tweet.
As it happens, next week is one of the few times of the year when comedy in New York appears centralized. That’s because the New York Comedy Festival barrels into town on Wednesday. The five-day showcase features more than 150 comics, including some of the biggest names in the field (Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr) presented by one of the most prestigious comedy clubs in the country, Carolines on Broadway.
And while Comedy Week, as it’s being marketed, will include a flurry of acts, New York is something of a sprawling comedy festival the entire year. Last month I saw Mr. Buress perform three times in one week. He hosts his own weekly Sunday-night lineup of stand-up comics at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that is being advertised as part of the festival. Because he’s on the road, the festival is one of the few weekends you can’t see him there.
His shows are typically packed with young fans who seem familiar with his work. Mr. Buress, an African-American in his late 20s, has estimated that 95 percent of his audience is white, although he told Mr. Maron that that is changing. Racial humor is a relatively small part of his act, and it’s generally not the kind based on the invariably stark differences between black and white people, the deathless premise that has borne a billion jokes.
Race is more of an implicit theme, emerging satirically when he explains how he and his friends like to buy white babies as status symbols, or in the casual way he discusses President Obama. “I like that Barack got that job,” he offhandedly says on his very funny 2010 debut album, “My Name Is Hannibal.”
Mr. Buress approaches race the same way he does most subjects: from the side, with a hint of the absurd. Some of his quick jokes even have the off-kilter kick of a one-liner from Steven Wright: In Amsterdam “one day I got so high that I could speak Dutch,” he said dryly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, pronouncing the last word with attitude. What makes Mr. Buress such an exciting talent is actually less the quality of his material than his distinctive delivery, which manages to sound laid back and propulsive at the same time, like a mellow stoner who speaks in the cadences of a Baptist preacher.
His jokes mosey to the punch line, earning laughs along the way by veering between a sleepy drawl and preposterous defiance. Sometimes this sudden shift happens in the same word. He can make a joke about math sound like an old-school rapper’s curse. At the same time he doesn’t settle into a familiar rhythm, his tone and emphasis as unpredictable as a monologue by Christopher Walken.
This incongruity, between cerebral and swagger, is at the heart of his irresistible persona. With his glasses, paunch and understated boasts (“In my hometown of Chicago, I’m kind of a medium deal”) he appears to be a nerd, but one with higher aspirations. His stories about dating women may be awkward, but a perceived slight from a female character in a video game and he puffs out his chest and starts talking tough. It brings to mind the classic headline from The Onion: “Ping-Pong Somehow Elicits Macho Posturing.”
His ability to get laughs from ordinary material may be dangerous because it enables him to coast on charm and technique. At times his act can seem detached, even remote. His comedy becomes truly personal only when it becomes about comedy.
At the Upright Citizens Brigade he boasts about his skill at that most meat-and-potatoes of subjects: airplane comedy. With characteristic fake braggadocio he says he could do every possible variety: airplane food, coach vs. first class, waiting for the flight. Then he pivots: “But I’m really here to talk about anal sex.” That’s the end of the joke. He doesn’t do many dumb one-liners, but he wants you to know he’s not above them.
Just as revealing is a later bit about the shocking and now infamous joke in which the comedian Tracy Morgan, of “30 Rock,” said he would kill his son if he acted gay, a remark that sparked a public backlash and a contrite apology. Since Mr. Buress writes for “30 Rock,” some people asked him if he came up with that joke, he says. He didn’t, but what if he had? The premise established, he imagines the conversation with Mr. Morgan after the fallout.
“Did you smile?” Mr. Buress says, defending himself by explaining how to appear more likable. “Oh, you got to smile! It softens it so much.”