March 28, 2011
In the past year, stand-up comic Hannibal Buress has performed for just about every type of audience: straitlaced tourists on Late Show With David Letterman, skeptical indie-cred arbiters at the Pitchfork Music Festival, even hopped-up poop-hurlers at the Insane Clown Posse’s annual Gathering of the Juggalos. In each case, Buress has emerged unscathed, even victorious. But on a late-winter night at New York’s Town Hall, he faced his most improbable demo yet.
“It’s an older crowd. They don’t go for the crass stuff,” notes one of the organizers of the Nightlife Awards, a highbrow variety show that’s studded with cabaret acts and lasts about four hours. Buress has been named Outstanding Comedian, and though the bespectacled 28-year-old is grateful, he’s wondering if anyone here has actually seen his act, a flurry of absurdist logic and hyperexaggerated anecdotes, with a few masturbation jokes thrown in for good measure—not the sort of material you’d expect on a bill with Christine Ebersole. He sneaks out to get a look at the crowd: The first few rows are a bright, blinding tinsel of gray hair. Onstage is a preppy piano-comedy act that Buress describes, almost admiringly, as the whitest thing he’s ever seen. “It’s going to be a weird night,” he says.
Buress moved from Chicago to New York in 2008, and the next summer, after a scheduled guest got sick, he landed a slot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. That led to a call from Saturday Night Live, where Buress spent a year as a writer, despite virtually no sketch-writing experience. “Just to write every week and not get on. It was rough, man,” says Buress. “But that happens to a lot of people. Larry David only got one or two things on.” He lucked out when he pitched Tina Fey, who was hosting SNL; a few months later, he was hired as a writer for 30 Rock (where he sometimes cameos as a horny homeless guy). Other comedy-star boosters include Chris Rock (who frequently compares Buress to stoner-comic laureate Mitch Hedberg) and Louis C.K. (who cast him as one of his poker buddies on Louie). The hoi polloi can catch him at his weekly Sunday-night residency at Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory, where he both performs and emcees to an inevitably packed house.
As Buress tells it, the comedy thing started as a lark, back when he was a student at Southern Illinois University in the early aughts. “I had a friend who was doing comedy,” Buress says over drinks one night, not far from his Williamsburg apartment. “I saw some other people, and I was like, ‘These people are really bad. I can be really bad.’ So I went on to be bad for a few years.”
It never got bad enough that he quit. In fact, he dropped out of school to work Chicago’s clubs, where he developed a sweetly comedic voice that is stylistically observational and sonically laconic—Seinfeld by way of Humpty Hump. The benign topics he chooses (roommates, apple juice) combined with his casual delivery mean you’re well into his bizarro sensibility before you realize it—as in a bit about how kicking a pigeon might turn into a national racial issue. (Much of his early work wound up on last year’s My Name Is Hannibal album, which would be a dorm-room insta-classic if people still bought comedy albums.)
Buress is aiming for an hour-long special of “maybe angrier stuff, more personal,” he says. For the Town Hall gig, though, he stuck with what works. After taking the stage, a gap-toothed smile on his face, he unwinds with some harmless opening riffs, then dips into the stranger stuff—like how he watches porn with a hoodie on, “so I feel creepier.” The whole thing is over in less than four minutes, and he exits on a gust of applause. “Show wasn’t that horrible,” he texts afterward. Even the seniors love him.