Chances are if you don’t already know the name Hannibal Buress, you’ve at least heard about Bill Cosby. There’s also an even bigger chance you’ll be hearing that name a lot more before the year is over.
The Chicago native has been steadily building his comedy resume since starting his stand-up career during open mics at the Longbranch Coffee House in Carbondale, IL, while studying at Southern Illinois University in the early 2000s. He decided to move to New York to further his stand-up routine, eventually landing sought-after jobs as a writer on both Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.
Buress has expanded his visibility in pop culture, scoring a re-occurring role as the mild-mannered dentist Lincoln Rice on the hit Comedy Central sitcom Broad City, as well as a sidekick on the amazingly bizarre comedy series The Eric Andre Show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
But the moment that helped catapult Buress into the spotlight was a stand-up routine he performed at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia last October in which he called out Bill Cosby for previous rape allegations. A fan in the crowd recorded the set with their iPhone, posted it to YouTube, and it went viral, helping to re-spark the debate whether Cosby is a serial rapist.
Not wanting to rest his career on helping to bring down a legendary comedian, Buress has scored some of his own prime comedy gigs, including a spot on the recently aired Roast of Justin Bieber on Comedy Central, in which he stood out among the team of roasters like Shaquille O’Neal, Snoop Dogg and Kevin Hart. His third Comedy Central special is also in the works.
He’s also currently starring on his own Comedy Central series, Why? with Hannibal Burress, which debuted last week and is shown on Wednesday nights.
I caught up with Buress in early March by phone in California, just a few days before he was set to take the stage of the Bieber roast. We talked about everything from the time he snuck in to see Dave Chappelle perform in Chicago, his love of gambling and the role of social media on comedy.
Michael Yoder: Any nerves going into the Justin Bieber roast?
Hannibal Buress: A little bit. I think I’m prepped for people to say foul things about me. Yesterday I was watching old roasts. I’ve got my jokes together and everything, but I was looking at different rhythms and different ways to approach it, so I was checking that out. But it’s a little nerve racking just because there’s a lot of people up there who I’ve been a big fan of – like Shaq. I watched Shaq since I was in grade school. I’m a big fan of Ludacris, and there are other comedians I’m friends with. So it’s weird to think of the idea that you’re thinking of horrible things to say about people who you know personally. Like Natasha [Leggero] and Chris [D’Elia] – I’ve known them for years and worked with them, and we’re all cool. Bu we’re writing horrible things about each other. Like I’ve heard that Jeff [Ross] was at The Comedy Club last night practicing his jokes about me and shit. [laughs] And of course he’s supposed to. I know he’s writing jokes about me. I know he’s going to do jokes about me. But it’s still like, “Holy shit! He’s talking about me at The Comedy Club right now.” [laughs] Even though I understand what our roles require and that he has to practice these jokes – he has to do jokes about everybody – part of me was like, “This motherfucker is out at The Comedy Club talking shit.” Also, I was a little bit salty because I was back at home watching TV and relaxing and ate food and shit, and I get a text like, “Yea, Jeff Ross is trying his jokes about you.” I’m like, “What!?” The ideal situation would be him trying jokes about me, and then I walk into The Comedy Club without him knowing and shit and go, “Oh, wow! Really, Jeff?”
MY: That’s what I was just going to say. You should have gone down there and confronted him to sabotage it.
HB: I mean, it would be a funny moment for people to watch. So, I’m not too nervous about it, man. I’ve got some heaters, so it’s going to be interesting. I think it’s definitely the youngest person to get roasted. And I hope it works for him as the PR move that it is to make him seem more likeable. [laughs]
MY: Have you ever met Justin Bieber before?
HB: I have met him, yeah. It was a weird situation – well, not a weird situation, but it wasn’t like I met him in a way where we sat down and had coffee or something. It was in a green room. I was doing a show with [Dave] Chappelle, and he came through with a bunch of other people there, so it wasn’t like a thing where I could kind of get a gauge of who he is as a person. I do think he has done some dumb shit, but also it’s probably really weird to be him.
MY: It seems like there’s a lot of low hanging fruit that would be easy to pick from to roast Bieber.
HB: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of stuff for everybody. That’s the thing, too. You’ve got to hopefully have a different angle than everybody else, because you’ve got seven or eight people roasting – plus the roastmaster. That can kind of make it that there might be some overlap, so it’s about trying to have a different way of approaching a similar topic.
MY: You’re obviously going to tell jokes about Shaq at the roast. Being from Chicago, do you have any Michael Jordan jokes that you tell?
HB: Noooo. Do I have any Jordan jokes? No. Oh, I have one – I haven’t done it on stage – but it was about how Chicagoans just really defend Michael Jordan no matter what. [laughs] Somebody talked about how Jordan – and it may be some story that I’m fucking up the details a little bit – but he won six-figures, like high six-figures, at the black jack table and then didn’t tip the dealer. They were like, “Yea, he didn’t tip.” And I was like, “Yea, it’s a gamble, you know?” [laughs] “It’s just gambling.”
MY: What’s the craziest sporting even you’ve ever bet on?
HB: I don’t really bet on anything crazy. I’ve bet on tennis matches that I knew nothing about.
MY: Men’s or women’s?
HB: Definitely men’s, but I’ve probably bet on both. Yea, nothing too crazy – really – that I can thing of. I’m mostly basketball and football. Occasionally I’ll delve into some hockey bets, but I’m a basketball dude, mostly.
MY: You’ve said you like to use fake names when meeting strangers because you don’t want to use “Hannibal.” What are some of the fake names you’ve used?
HB: I use James, David, Gregory. I don’t use that many, though. Every now and then, I’ll use my middle name, which I don’t want to disclose right now, even though I’ve disclosed it in interviews before. [laughs] There’s a few of them. David’s my brother’s name, so I use that. I have to switch it up soon. I have to switch up a lot of stuff soon. I have to get some fake names, and I have to get maybe a new phone number. I had some weirdos call my phone the other day from a Canada number. They texted and said, “Hey! What’s up, man?” I was like, “Who is this?” And they kept calling and Facetiming. I was like, “Oh, Jesus Christ.” These dudes kept texting, so I blocked their numbers. And then they redirected it to look like they were calling from my mom’s house. It kind of pissed me off that day, but they haven’t bothered me since then.
MY: Do you know how they got your number?
HB: I don’t know how they got my number at all. Or maybe it’s easy to look up. Maybe it’s easier to find out than I realize.
MY: Are you still working on new jokes for your upcoming comedy special?
HB: Yea. We’re supposed to film in April – I’m not sure where yet. It’s still kind of either coming up with a couple new things or refining the things that I have and just figuring it out. I was saying I should do it in April, but I don’t even know if I should necessarily do April. I’m wondering if I should wait a little bit and let the material cook some more – give it some time to cook instead of putting it out just to put it out. But we’ll see. There’s definitely one being recorded over the next three months or so at the most.
MY: Do you have an ideal venue you’d like to record a comedy special in?
HB: No. I’d just like a theater that has a good energy. Sometimes it’s a theater that feels like a club – it’s 1,000 seats and the energy is up there. The theater where I shot my last [special] had that feeling – more so on the night that I wasn’t shooting, though. There’s just something about when the lights are on all the people, where there as lit as I am lit. It’s just different. But as far as shooting, I’ve only shot two [specials], and the first one I didn’t have control over the venue. So this one I’ll have the most control over it. I’m playing the Chicago Theatre – it’s my first time headlining there – and I was thinking about doing it there. But it’s a bigger venue and I didn’t know if I wanted to shoot a special in a place that holds 3,000 seats. I think it’s going to be fun wherever I shoot it and excited to get it out.
MY: Is the Chicago Theatre the place you snuck in to see Dave Chappelle?
HB: No. I snuck in to see Dave Chappelle at the Congress Theatre, which is closed, actually. It was an old-school theater.
MY: How pivotal was that moment for your own stand-up career to sneak in and see Chappelle at that time in your life?
HB: It was really cool to see at the time. That was at the height of Chappelle Show. It was packed out. It was just awesome. I think I had only been doing stand-up for two years then, so it was just exciting to see that level of stand-up. And it made it cooler to work with him years later and do shows with him. That’s what was kind of awesome about it – just to sneak into somebody’s show in 2004, and then go on a tour with him nine years later.
MY: Since you started your stand-up career, how much have you seen the Internet and social media change the way comedians interact with their fans?
HB: I think it’s mostly beneficial. There’s aspects of it that suck, but the thing with the Internet and social media is that it’s so immediate – especially with people’s smart phones. With Twitter, you’re able to try out jokes or put out ideas or put out information or communicate with fans. For one, I can put on a last-minute show with Twitter. And I’ve done it a lot of times where it will be 5 o’clock in Chicago, and I’ll decide to do a last-minute show at this place called The Tonic Room. So I’ll hit up the tonic room and go, “Can we do a show tonight,” and they’ll say, “Yeah.” I’ll Tweet out, “Hey, we’re going a show at Tonic Room tonight, trying out some new material.” Boom. There’s a show happening then that wasn’t happening before. That really wasn’t possible earlier. You could do last-minute stuff before with email or going on the radio to promote it. So things like that where you’re able to grow a fanbase. Say I Tweet a joke or something, and if people like it, they’ll re-Tweet it. So they re-Tweet it to somebody, and somebody else sees it on their timeline and go, “Oh, that’s funny. Who is this dude?” They click on it and find out who I am – “Oh, he’s coming to Baltimore. I’ll check him out.” So it’s a way to grow fans. Potentially you have a life-long fan based on something you thought of while you were on the toilet. So it’s beneficial in that aspect. And with YouTube, people have been able to grow audiences and make six-figures, up into the millions of dollars, off of their own YouTube channels – just catering to their specific audiences and building their subscribers.
MY: What about the downside of social media?
HB: The downside is people can write you at any time, so people can say, “Oh, I didn’t like this particular joke and this thing.” I find myself trying to explain a joke to people, which is a losing battle. There’s a percentage of people now who think they have to like everything that’s presented to them. They’re like, “I like all of that, but that one thing you said about that…” I’m like, “It wasn’t for you, because a lot of the crowd enjoyed it. So don’t think just because you didn’t enjoy this part or you felt this way about a part that it’s not good. It’s not good to you, but it’s all subjective.” This one woman emailed me like a week after a show I did. I have a joke about not liking hotel housekeepers who are dudes – I genuinely don’t like that. [laughs] Honestly, I don’t care if it makes me sexist. I don’t like when it’s a dude. So she writes me like, “Whoa, come on you fool! You can’t say stuff like that. What if I said, ‘I don’t care if it makes me racist, but what if I don’t want a white person cleaning my room?’” First of all, that’s a very interesting premise. [laughs] I wouldn’t stop them there. I was thinking, “Where are they going with this? I’ve never heard this before. This is some fresh comedy.” Also, it’s a joke. She was like, “You’re just devaluing all women.” I’m like, “Don’t think you’re speaking for all women just because you’re the one that sent this flawed-ass email to me – a week later. You’ve been sitting on this joke about a dude housekeeper for a week, and you email me?” But I didn’t say that right away. She wrote this whole thing, and I just said, “Thank you. You’ve changed my mind. Keep fighting the good fight.” And then she was like, “Thank you! I knew I’d be able to get through to you.” So that infuriated me – that she didn’t read that I was being sarcastic – and then I just lit her ass up. I was like, “You are insulting. What is wrong with you? I still hate dude housekeepers.” [laughs] So it’s indicative of not everybody, but of people who think just because an artist says something that they don’t enjoy, they can respond like that. There are all types of people who I like that say things that I don’t enjoy. I would never go up to Jay-Z and say, “I don’t like track 3 off of your third album.” [laughs] I would never say that. I would say, “Man, the fucking Blueprint is amazing!”
Why? with Hannibal Buress can be seen on Comedy Central on Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. And be sure to catch Buress if he’s around performing his stand-up routine.