By Maya-Roisin Slater
VANCOUVER — Carbondale, Illinois is home to the yearly Southern Illinois Irish festival, “mommy activist” Jenny McCarthy, and Hannibal Buress’s comedy career. This career includes work as an actor on The Eric Andre Show and Broad City, as a writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, and onstage as an absurd and sarcastic stand-up comedian. In the beginning however, he tells me he was nothing more than 19, a student at Southern Illinois University, and not doing great at that. One open mic later he fell hook line and sinker for comedy, and the rest is history.
“As soon as I started doing comedy I fell in love with it and focused on it. I just kept doing it, trying to hone in on it and grow. In Carbondale, Illinois there weren’t many places to perform. I started hosting open mics, hosting rap shows, different performers would come do shows at my college and I would try to get gigs opening for them. I tried to perform anywhere I could.”
Having just shot his second hour-long comedy special for Comedy Central at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, his career is a far cry from the college open mics it started with. Buress did three shows in Chicago, two of which were edited together into 60 minutes of talk on topics people love dearly and hate passionately, like porn and grammar.
“I’ve been talking a lot about sex and sports and how sex relates to sports. Also grammar and money, and how money relates to grammar. I talk about cuckold porn a little bit. You know what cuckold porn is?”
Unlike your typical headlining comedian, Buress doesn’t waste his star power on exorbitant riders chalked full of tight black V-neck shirts and naked women to eat sushi off of. Instead he’s used his influence to support the ballet. Over the past couple years Buress has frequently ended shows performing his catchy yet confusing song “Gibberish Rap” accompanied by a fleet of local ballerinas and the occasional mascot. Burress says the ballerinas may have to be retired soon, but assures me he’s cooking up something new for shows to come. I tell him he should start bringing out tango dancers as a replacement. He tells me tango dancers will definitely not be making an appearance. I tell him Hannibal Buress Hates Tango Dancers is the new title of this article. He threatens my journalistic integrity.
“Then I’ll be misquoted. But that’s journalists! That’s how y’all do it sometimes you just take something and you or your editor will spin it into something else. I’ve been burned by it, I’ve been burned by the media before, it’s OK.” This comment is followed by a long pause. I try to lighten the conversation with a charming inquiry into every journalist’s favourite subject – comedic censorship.
“I don’t know man, it’s the person offended that’s offensive to me. It’s all about the approach, not the subject matter, it’s also about the person’s flexibility. Another big part of a joke going poorly is if that person is likable onstage. That’s where having a bit of notoriety can come into play, if people know certain things about your persona and you’ve built up goodwill through your work where you’ve set up precedence for having a certain vibe to your material, then you can get away with a bit more than a newer comic who’s just trying shit because the reaction will be ‘who’s this dude and why is he talking about this?’ As far as offensive jokes go maybe the execution is off or it needs some tweaking but it’s coming from a place of just trying to make people laugh. I think that’s what people need to understand before they really go off the deepend with outrage. It’s coming from a place of entertainment.”
Buress has been exploring new realms of the entertainment business with recurring roles on some of TV’s funniest programmes. He just finished shooting the second season of Broad City, and is in the process of working on upcoming material for The Eric Andre Show. As someone accustomed to the lone wolf vibes of stand-up, Buress is enjoying transitioning to the collaborative world of television.
“You’re working with directors, writers, and other actors so there’s lots of moving parts. You gotta try and create chemistry with another actor meanwhile you’re listening to directors trying to learn from them and figure out what they want to make the scene better. It’s different when you’re working with other people trying to make an overall piece successful, there’s more working as a team, it’s pretty fun.”
The Eric Andre Show is set up in the style of a low-budget public access television talk show, complete with a live band, famous guests, Andre as the deranged host and Buress as his deadpan sidekick. The show is created by combining pre written scripts with on set improv, Buress says there’s an emphasis on messing around and being loose. The show has given Buress a chance to exercise his inner journalist by interviewing and shooting the shit with guests.
“That’s my favourite part, when we have a guest that I know personally or somebody I’m a fan of and I get to interview them and fuck with them, even if it doesn’t get in it’s fun to do it. Wiz Khalifa was just on and I’ve listened to his music since like ‘08/‘09 when he was puttin’ out his earlier mixtapes. It was cool to ask him questions about that, I got to do a bit of a legitimate interview. We also had Lupe Fiasco come in and do a goofy bit on the show that I can’t disclose now, but to have somebody like that who I’ve been listening to for years come in because he’s a fan of what we’re doing and just do a goofy ass bit and hang out is pretty amazing.”
Buress will be making a brief detour from his life as a glamourous television star to get back to his bread and butter, performing stand-up during Vancouver’s Northwest Comedy Fest. With exorbitantly high rent, depressing weather, and an anxiety-inducing, ever-changing list of what’s cool and what’s not, sometimes our dear city can be a little devoid of humour. So in a town where people tend to block out the lighter side, I ask Buress why he thinks it’s important to get a dose of comedy. Why should we turn away from our troubles for the hour and some it takes to struggle finding parking downtown just to sit in a theatre and watch some guy talk about airport security?
“Are you assuming that I think stand-up comedians are important? I wouldn’t want to sell stand-up on someone that isn’t interested in it.” As I laugh uncomfortably over the phone I think about how Buress rarely goes for the easy jokes. He puts you in a corner with casual mentions of cuckold porn and blunt reactions until the laugh born from that awkward silence morphs to being in on the joke. When my giggling stops, he continues.
“That being said I think laughter is a good release, it’s good to hear different perspectives and hear different viewpoints put in a format that can make you laugh. Its good to laugh and it’s good to think and it’s good to have something that can take your mind off your troubles or have something that can help you reflect on your troubles in a different light. I think it’s a good thing, for people to enjoy.”
It’s a good thing, for people to enjoy. This statement seems to unconsciously be Buress’s life motto. He’s created a successful career for himself doing something he enjoys, which brings joy to others in the process. Though I’m sure in the beginning telling shitty jokes at dingy clubs wasn’t very glamourous, with each show he got better. This commitment to comedy has brought him into the world of TV, where he can enjoy acting like a goof with peers he respects and admires every day on set. These television roles have lead to movies with big name stars where he gets to play a more sarcastic version of himself and enjoy freshly made gourmet omelets every morning from craft services.
Just because you might’ve got a fungal infection from that sketchy foot massage you bought off groupon doesn’t mean you need to submit to life’s dreary side. Just because your mother-in-law hates you doesn’t mean you need to sit alone on your couch pitying yourself. Just because it seems like you have no say in what your country’s maniacal federal government is doing to perfectly good classic rock songs doesn’t mean you have to delete “Sweet Child O’ Mine” from your iPod. Instead you can listen to Buress call people out on their shit one minute and revert to complete and utter silliness the next. Because he’s one of these figures in society we call comedians, who have bravado to ask us to leave all that other stuff behind and simply enjoy an hour laughing with them.
In the next year Buress hopes to buy a lot of things: “Imma buy a new car, and imma get a house, and imma do some more movies, and imma do some stand-up shows, and I might do a TV show. And after that I’m gonna eat some food, and if a new version of Grand Theft Auto comes out ,imma buy that, and imma try to get tickets to the All-Star game,” Buress notes, and to polish off one successful year he is sure to add, “and imma watch pornography in between doing at least four to five of those things.”
In regards to the show he’ll be doing this month, he had a special note for the readers he was eager for me to include.
“Hey Vancouver, and surrounding boring suburbs of Vancouver, make sure you come to my show. Especially folks in Kelowna, I’ve never been to Kelowna and I don’t plan on it.”
Hannibal Buress performs at the Vogue Theatre on February 18.BC, British Columbia, Hannibal Buress, Northwest Comedy Fest, Vogue Theatre