In the past year, stand-up comic Hannibal Buress has performed for just about every type of audience: straitlaced tourists on Late Show With David Letterman, skeptical indie-cred arbiters at the Pitchfork Music Festival, even hopped-up poop-hurlers at the Insane Clown Posseâ€™s annual Gathering of the Juggalos. In each case, Buress has emerged unscathed, even victorious. But on a late-winter night at New Yorkâ€™s Town Hall, he faced his most improbable demo yet.
â€œItâ€™s an older crowd. They donâ€™t go for the crass stuff,â€ notes one of the organizers of the Nightlife Awards, a highbrow variety show thatâ€™s studded with cabaret acts and lasts about four hours. Buress has been named Outstanding Comedian, and though the bespectacled 28-year-old is grateful, heâ€™s wondering if anyone here has actually seen his act, a flurry of absurdist logic and hyperexaggerated anecdotes, with a few masturbation jokes thrown in for good measureâ€”not the sort of material youâ€™d expect on a bill with Christine Ebersole. He sneaks out to get a look at the crowd: The first few rows are a bright, blinding tinsel of gray hair. Onstage is a preppy Âpiano-Âcomedy act that Buress describes, almost admiringly, as the whitest thing heâ€™s ever seen. â€œItâ€™s going to be a weird night,â€ he says.
Buress moved from Chicago to New York in 2008, and the next summer, Âafter a scheduled guest got sick, he landed a slot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. That led to a call from Saturday Night Live, where Buress spent a year as a writer, despite virtually no sketch-writing experience. â€œJust to write every week and not get on. It was rough, man,â€ says Buress. â€œBut that happens to a lot of people. Larry David only got one or two things on.â€ He lucked out when he pitched Tina Fey, who was hosting SNL; a few months later, he was hired as a writer for 30 Rock (where he sometimes cameos as a horny homeless guy). Other comedy-star boosters include Chris Rock (who frequently compares Buress to stoner-comic laureate Mitch Hedberg) and Louis C.K. (who cast him as one of his poker buddies on Louie). The hoi polloi can catch him at his weekly Sunday-night residency at Williamsburgâ€™s Knitting Factory, where he both performs and emcees to an inevitably packed house.
As Buress tells it, the comedy thing started as a lark, back when he was a student at Southern Illinois University in the early aughts. â€œI had a friend who was doing comedy,â€ Buress says over drinks one night, not far from his Williamsburg apartment. â€œI saw some other people, and I was like, â€˜These people are really bad. I can be really bad.â€™ So I went on to be bad for a few years.â€
It never got bad enough that he quit. In fact, he dropped out of school to work Chicagoâ€™s clubs, where heÂ Âdeveloped a sweetly comedic voice that is stylistically observational and sonically Âlaconicâ€”Seinfeld by way of Humpty Hump. The benign topics he chooses (roommates, apple juice) combined with his casual delivery mean youâ€™re well into his bizarro sensibility before you realize itâ€”as in a bit about how kicking a pigeon might turn into a national racial issue. (Much of his early work wound up on last yearâ€™s My Name Is ÂHannibal album, which would be a dorm-room insta-classic if people still bought comedy albums.)
Buress is aiming for an hour-long special of â€œmaybe angrier stuff, more personal,â€ he says. For the Town Hall gig, though, he stuck with what works. After taking the stage, a gap-toothed smile on his face, he unwinds with some harmless opening riffs, then dips into the stranger stuffâ€”like how he watches porn with a hoodie on, â€œso I feel creepier.â€ The whole thing is over in less than four minutes, and he exits on a gust of applause. â€œShow wasnâ€™t that horrible,â€ he texts afterward. Even the seniors love him.