Keeping it mostly real
By Jess Righthand
Friday, February 22, 2013
Hannibal Buress has no trouble categorizing his style of comedy: “I’m the black Ellen DeGeneres,” he says without skipping a beat.
The 30-year-old former writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” is refreshingly void of shtick. He doesn’t rely on being overly offensive to any demographic. He has no alter ego. He has no trademark accessory, like “30 Rock” colleague Judah Friedlander’s famous collection of trucker hats.
Buress tells it as he sees it. And when he says with the utmost faux seriousness that he’s the black Ellen DeGeneres, as he did in a recent interview, it’s difficult not to laugh.
“That’s really why I wanted him [to be] part of the talk show,” says Eric Andre, star of Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show,” on which Buress plays his co-host. “I just pictured him in those argyle sweaters. Really, when I look at him, I can’t not see Ellen.”
Buress, a Chicago native based in New York, spreads his jokes across a range of quirky topics. When he performs to a sold-out crowd at the Hamilton on Friday, he may or may not discuss why he loves burritos more than Jesus; why he wants to kick a pigeon; why he has so much pickle juice; and what it would be like to bring Lil’ Kim home to mom.
“I would much rather hear Hannibal talk about pickle juice than hear someone talk about the usual nonsense stand-ups gravitate to,” comedian Aziz Ansari writes in an e-mail.
His phraseology includes such silly teardowns as “That’s for babies, man,” and “Step your life up!” He says he prefers to “establish different realities for every joke,” and whenever he acknowledges discrepancies in his stories it always gets a big laugh.
Every so often, Buress delivers a punch line that is so unexpected it causes the audience to come unglued. His delivery, says former “Parks and Recreation” writer Chelsea Peretti in an e-mail, is “slow and deliberate and whimsical with just a teeny, tiny pinch of cynicism.”
Buress’s name has given him years of material. His parents named him after the Carthaginian military commander, but he said he is plagued by people asking whether his name is “Hannibal? Like, Hannibal Lecter?” On “My Name Is Hannibal,” his first stand-up album, he rants: “Why can’t I just be Hannibal from ‘The A-Team’ sometimes?”
His career began informally as a student at Southern Illinois University, where he went to a comedy open mike and says he was unimpressed with the level of talent. “There were some people that were really bad,” he says, “so I kind of wanted to try it out and see how I was, and I had a lot of fun doing it.”
“The Eric Andre Show,” which is entering its second season, has helped raise Buress’s profile. Still, he has not yet achieved the level of name recognition of Ansari or Friedlander. His biggest national visibility has resulted from recurring cameos as a homeless man on “30 Rock” and his shorter sets on such talk shows as “Conan” and “Late Show With David Letterman.”
In addition to stand-up and his role on “The Eric Andre Show,” he also released a DVD last year titled “Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace.” But because he hasn’t yet scored his own prime-time television show, he remains just under the radar. Some Sunday nights he can be spotted as the host of a long-standing free comedy night at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.
This moment in his career may soon give way to broader exposure. In 2011, Jonah Hill teamed with Buress to write a show for Fox. That didn’t pan out, according to news reports, but in December, ABC purchased a sitcom starring Buress as a police officer. Whether this one makes it through the grueling selection process and onto the air remains to be seen, but Buress is not lacking for opportunities.
Until then, he has no complaints. “I mean, I’m good with where I’m at. I’m living doing stand-up,” Buress says. “I don’t need everyone to know my stuff, I just need a certain amount in each city.”
Judging by how quickly his show at the Hamilton sold out, Buress’s theory seems to be working just fine.