Hannibal Buress: "Bombing Can Be Good"
Photo: Juile Seabaugh
By Julie Seabaugh
In his second special, Hannibal Buress: Live in Chicago, the laid-back comic relates the story of throwing a bachelor party in New Orleans. "One of my friends said, 'Hannibal, you should hire a second line band to follow you through the streets,'" he recalls. "Basically in New Orleans, for $300 you can have your own parade on a day's notice!" Soon alcoholic beverages and the police become involved, and Buress decides to throw himself a parade every week.
Not that the 31-year-old Williamsburg resident suffers from a lack of attention. Chicago debuts on Comedy Central Sunday, March 29, and the former Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer currently co-stars on Adult Swim's The Eric André Show and pops up regularly in Comedy Central's Broad City. He'll also appear in May's Seth Rogen/Zach Effron-starring film Neighbors.
The evening before he offered SXSW audiences a sneak peek, Buress sat down to discuss the special, the benefits of bombing and his love for the New York comedy scene. Then the following night he concluded his post-film Q&A by leading a six-piece band around the theater, out through the Alamo Drafthouse lobby and onto the chaos of 6th Street. As Buress confesses in Chicago, "Don't worry, you're just watching a man living out his dream."
Watching your comedy evolve, I've noticed more complete storytelling. It's not something that a lot of comics are doing in such a visible capacity. It's more often done on storytelling shows, podcasts, or Ari Shaffir's Comedy Central web series, for example. Doing a good story for me is just real, especially figuring it out. It's figuring out how to put in extra parts and finding how to put as many jokes in as possible, and then have the ending also be satisfying and a good close to the story. It's a real fun way of working. It feels good, especially if it's something people can kind of connect to, or even relate to. Even if they can't relate to it, I'm hoping people will enjoy it. But I think if people have been on a timeshare presentation or different things like that, it's a lot funnier.
As opposed to just joke, joke, joke, you're letting audiences remember the whole set piece. Like in the New Orleans story; it makes the narration come more alive. Even "Jaywalking" was one from my last special that people would yell out: "Do 'Jaywalking!'" I don't know how to do that anymore. It would be tough to recreate it. A good thing about a story is you're putting yourself right there again. That's what I try to do just so I don't go dead eyes/autopilot during the set.
I always liked that jaywalking story, because the same thing happened to me in Montreal. I was legit baffled. Obviously I made it structured for comedy, but the actual thing, you're talking maybe an hour, hour 10 minutes of me going back and forth 'cause I didn't want to give them my ID. I thought if I didn't give them my ID they would just leave me alone, but they started to go, "We'll come with you to your hotel!" And I starting thinking, like, do I want to be walked into the fucking Hyatt with the police at the comedy festival? It wasn't even a close jaywalk; it wasn't one where I had to jog or anything. I haven't paid that ticket out of spite yet, either. It's funny, 'cause now with Twitter and social media, if I post a Canada tour date online: "Can you still go back into Canada with your jaywalking ticket?"
Of course it's nice that people know your material so well. It is fun when people do that. Especially when somebody else gets written up about jaywalking, they're like, "Look at my jaywalking ticket!" or "Look what I'm doing with pickle juice!" Or rental cars: "I'm on a shuttle bus!" It's interesting. A lot of comedians do stuff that sticks with you, especially situational stuff. "This reminds me of the bit he said that..."
You mentioned the pickle juice bit, and that's definitely a notable thing about your special: you have sound and musical cues. I did a lot more stuff with the DJ that we couldn't put on, a couple songs, some song lyrics. It's just a fun element to bring into the comedy. We tried it, and it worked. And now it's funny, because of the sound cue part of it or whatever, it gets a bigger reaction than when I was doing that joke onstage originally. [Laughs]
How often do you like to experiment with those different aspects at your Sunday show in Brooklyn? I have a DJ all the time in Brooklyn; that's the way I test out stuff, too, just because it's low stakes. I'll try a new bit, and if it works there then I'll take it and try it at the Comedy Cellar, and kind of develop it. I like that space at the Knitting Factory. It's an audience that's familiar with me and like my stuff, but if I'm not bringing it, they'll just stare at me. [Laughs] Sometimes they'll give me more than I should get on a solid bit, but on a bad bit, they won't give it up. I have to work for it.
They're not easily swayed. New York audiences are comparatively savvy about local comedy. There's a lot of good shows now: Matchless on Mondays. Louis Katz has a show on Mondays at Legion. Jermaine Fowler and Barnett do a show that's off and on at Trash Bar. There's a lot of good places to perform in Brooklyn.
Union Hall, Bell House, Littlefield... There's a lot of good stuff! New York is obviously the stand-up capital of the world, so there's a lot of places to be able to do it.
You talk about bombing as you were coming up as a comic in Chicago. And these rooms we're talking about can give you the space to do that in a safe environment. A lot of new comics overlook the fact that you can learn a lot from bombing. Yeah, bombing can be good. I remember a long time ago I was on Invite Them Up. Demetri Martin was on, and he was already established at that time and touring, so he was working out stuff. In my mind I was like, "What's going on?" I was a new comic thinking "Demetri Martin just had a so-so set!" He's trying new material! He could kill it if he wanted to kill it. He could do 10 minutes, 12 minutes and just crush it, but it isn't that productive. That's what I think some nights when I'm about to go out. "What do I want to do today? What am I trying to achieve? What do I want to say?" I can go and do 15 minutes and new people will see me kill, but it's a different stage of the game where I'm at now. I used to always want to kill, kill, kill all the time, thinking to myself, "Maybe this will be the show where I make it! I do this show in this basement; this might be it right here!" I used to have that mindset about shows, but then you grow up and realize it's about continuing to work. It's about making progress.
But you don't want to bomb at, say, Carolines. You don't want to bomb at Carolines, where your name is on the ticket and people are paying $29.50 plus two drinks. No, that's not the time to be fucking around! But when people are paying five bucks and there's five, six other comedians on the bill and you want to try out some stuff. You never want to be fucking around when you're a headliner.
Acting-wise, you seem to be all over the place. There's Broad City, and The Eric André Show's coming back again... That's not acting!
OK, it's a TV presence. A TV presence!
Where does acting and TV presence fit into the big picture of your comedy career? It's just for me to build my stand-up audience, but it's also trying to be a part of good projects and do funny stuff. That's the main thing; if somebody's got a good show and they want me to be a part of it, I'll do it. Eric Andre and Broad City, I'd worked with them before on a smaller scale. I did the web series with Broad City, and The Eric André Show, we shot the original version as a dirty pilot, and we did stand-up together. So they're friends of mine that had projects I could be on, so it's cool.
What is it about stand-up that keeps you coming back to it? What do you get out of stand-up that you don't get out of TV appearances? Just doing stand-up is why I got these gigs and why I'm working in these situations. Really any work in general I've gotten through stand-up. But stand-up is fun, and it's fun to tour, it's fun just to go to a city and people get excited. I've been touring for two years, and still if I sell out a place, it's "Oh, people know me here? I'm not even here that often! They're coming to buy tickets?" It's just like anything you do over and over again: you go to a city, you do well in that city, you go back to that city, and more people are going to go to your show. So just seeing that that progression, even in my own town, small venues to doing Zanies with nobody coming to see you headline, to doing Zanies and kinda almost selling out, to doing a long run at Zanies and selling out, then doing theaters. It's fun to see things grow.
Anything else you'd like to get out there? Tell people to call their mom more. Try to eat less bread. If you can't cut down all the way, try to cut your bread intake in half. See how that changes your life. Hot dogs are good. But no unnecessary bread. That's pretty much it. And watch the special.
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