'The First Non-Almost Billionaire Comic': Q&A With Hannibal Buress

The stand-up talks about doing the 'Tonight Show' and how hip-hop influenced his new Comedy Central special

Hannibal Buress
Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Hannibal Buress
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Hannibal Buress is having a bit of a he's-everywhere moment right now. The former Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer can be found as the sidekick on Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show and as love interest Lincoln on Comedy Central’s Broad City, in addition to providing voices for two animated series: FX's Chozen and Adult Swim's China, IL. New Yorkers can see Buress hosting his own weekly stand-up show most Sunday nights at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and in May, he’ll appear as a cop in the Seth Rogen film Neighbors. The 31-year-old comic also might be getting his own show on Comedy Central, and the channel os hosting his new one-hour special, Live From Chicago, which premieres March 29. Over cocktails, ribs, and a hamburger at an Austin hotel during SXSW, Buress discussed taking elements from rap shows for his stand-up, improvising on television, and the one real-world job he could maybe do. 

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In your new special, you play with the form of stand-up – there’s music cues and pre-recorded bits. Where did that come from?
I go to a lot of rap shows and sometimes take what they do from a performer's aspect, how they interact with the crowd. I always have a DJ with me on the road, as well as some dancers. There’s a lot more music stuff that I do in my set that we weren't able to do on the special, because we can't clear it. 

That sounds way more glamorous than most stand-up comedy. 
It ain't glamorous, it's just me trying to put a lot of energy in the show. I want my show to feel different, plus it breaks up the monotony for me. Because I could easily just go on the road solo and talk for an hour and 15 minutes, and it would do well most of the time. But it gets boring for me, so when I have a DJ to play some songs or I add certain sound cues to the act, it gives me something to react to.

And you were the first stand-up guest on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, right? 
[Shakes head] Seinfeld was. 

Well, I guess technically that’s true. I think of you as the first comic.
I was the first non-almost billionaire comic. The first comic under 50. The first of a lot of different comics. [Laughs

You’ve done pretty much all the late night shows. Did this spot feel any different?
It did, because the show is still new. That was the second week of the show, so way more people were watching. I had done Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, so to have him progress like that, and I've progressed a lot over the past few years – coming back and doing the show, it was awesome. 

I was happy doing a focused set on late night, just about one subject. I think it got more traction than it normally would have gotten if I did just bits about various things. It was like, "It's a New Orleans set!" And somebody told me it was on the front page of the paper in New Orleans. And The Roots – you can't see it on the YouTube clip, but The Roots did my song, Gibberish Rap as my walk-on song, which was insane. That was amazing. 

 

You were a staff writer for years before you started focusing more on acting. Do you think you’ll ever do any more writing?
For other people? It'd have to be a good friend, a good good friend. [Laughs] You gotta be a good friend that needs a favor, but as far as being a staff writer on something, I'm done on that for awhile. It's not for me anymore. I'd rather write for myself or spend time putting my comedic energy into my own projects. 

How much do you guys improvise on Broad City
I get to improvise a lot. Does it show? 

A little. You all look like you’re having fun.
There's a lot of improv on there. We get to riff a little bit and just try different stuff. Even before we starting filming, I met with the writers and we talked about how we wanted to work the character. Lincoln really isn't that far from me, tonally. It's just me, in a dentist's office, put in this situation where I'm really liking this girl and she's fucking around. But beyond that, it's pretty much me. 

What about on The Eric Andre Show? as well?
That's mostly just goofing off. Improv is way more encouraged there, because we don't need as much for the show. The weirder, the better. 

Did you ever do improv?
I took an improv class in 2005 in Chicago at ComedySportz, which was short-form, more of a games-based improv. I remember it being real fun, and helping with my stand-up. If I did an improv class and then I did stand-up later, I felt looser on stage and more comfortable.  

Actually, the reason I took improv – I remember I started out around the same time in Chicago as Nick Vatterott and T.J. Miller, and they were doing some weird stuff on stage back then, just real weird. They were trying to do something different, and I knew that they were heavy in sketch and improv at the time, so that's the reason I took an improv class back then. 

 

Can you tell me about your Comedy Central pilot?
It's called Unemployable, and it's me doing different jobs. I'm not good at working, like regular work. At least, I choose not to be. I think maybe I just don't want to be good at regular work anymore. So the idea is that I've been doing comedy so long, I'm not good at work, so let me go try these jobs and see what happens, and we splice in stand-up. I feel good about it. 

What kind of jobs did you do?
I worked on a goat farm. I coached a kids’ basketball team. I worked as a fortuneteller or tarot card reader, and I worked at a diner in New Orleans.

What was your favorite?
My favorite was coaching the kids’ basketball team. It was fun. I was really into. We don't even know if that's funny or not, because I really was into the game. 

And you could maybe actually do that job.
I could maybe coach kids’ basketball. I know enough about basketball where I feel like I could coach 12-year-olds pretty effectively.