Hannibal Buress: interview
Former ‘30 Rock’ writer Hannibal Buress tells Ben Williams why stand-up is still his main focus
Hannibal Buress sounds sleepy down the phone from his New York home. The 29-year-old US stand-up, who made his UK debut at last August’s Edinburgh Fringe, is smooth, slick and elegantly sardonic on stage, and I find him equally laidback in conversation. Evidently his uber-relaxed character isn’t a stage persona.
Not that Buress is lazy. The Chicago-born comic started performing stand-up in 2002, while at university, and over the past ten years has performed on countless late-night chat shows, been name checked by Chris Rock, Louis CK and the like, and been part of the writing teams for ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’. I ask about the notoriously gruelling timetable of a ‘SNL’ writer and receive a characteristically relaxed answer. ‘You know what? I think people overplay the “Saturday Night Live” schedule,’ he says, in drawling tones. ‘I mean, yeah, it can be some late hours. But the late hours are usually only one or two nights out of the week. You might have a crazy six-day week, but you’ll work three weeks and then you get a week off work. I’d take most jobs if it was hard work and then I got a week off.’
Buress joined the writing team of ‘SNL’ in 2009, a year after moving to New York. He spent a year working on the programme before being poached by the executive producers of ‘30 Rock’, despite not getting a great deal of his sketches broadcast on ‘SNL’. So why didn’t his ideas get past the read-through? ‘Some people are better at it than others,’ he tells me. ‘Or it might take some people time to really learn the format and learn what works on the show. For me, I think if I’d been there another year
I would’ve got better at it, just as you do with anything.’ ‘30 Rock’ was much more of a group effort, says Buress, where even though a single writer pens the draft script, everyone contributes with story ideas and re-writes. He’s also acted in the sitcom, appearing briefly as a bum in seven episodes. He says acting is, ‘fun, you just come to work and they already have written words for you’, but he mainly likes the fact that the exposure attracts an audience to his live shows.
It’s clear that stand-up remains Buress’s main focus. He would perform most nights of the week while working at ‘SNL’, and has now left ‘30 Rock’ to devote more time to performing. Plus, with a quickly swelling fanbase in the US, why else would he play a sweltering attic room in Edinburgh for a month last year? ‘It definitely made me a better comedian,’ he says, of performing at the festival, ‘just doing [the show] over and over that much.’ How much did he know about the Fringe before he performed there? ‘I’d heard of it, I knew it was huge,’ he says, ‘but you can’t really explain something like that to somebody until they get there. It was cool, though, I liked it. That rain, though… I wish it was somewhere sunny, man.’
Maybe it’s down to the weather, but comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, and in the UK in general, is taken more seriously than in the US. In the States it’s rare to receive a critique from a major newspaper, whereas positive reviews are key to a show’s success at the festival. Buress, luckily, received a bunch of glowing reviews – ‘It’s funny looking at how people describe your stand-up. It’s like: “Oh, I’d never thought of it like that before…” ’ – and a nomination for the Best Newcomer category of the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Did he find it strange being a nominee for a newbie gong, having been on the comedy circuit for a decade? ‘Well, yeah, but I’m new in the UK,’ he explains. ‘And that’s what I like about doing stand-up; I’ve been doing it for ten years, but I’m still new to some people. I like getting introduced to people after I’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s not like they had to see me do open mics and be horrible. They get to see me after I’ve worked a lot, and worked really hard at it.’
And now it’s London’s turn to be introduced to Buress, as he brings his sharp, laidback observations to the Soho Theatre for ten nights. The Edinburgh Fringe forces many British comics to write a new hour of material every year, but Buress takes a more relaxed approach. ‘I think by the time I go to London I’ll be about half way away from the Edinburgh show,’ he says. ‘I’ll have a bunch of new material, but it’s not the full show. I’m trying to do it pretty fast, but you also don’t want to sacrifice quality by being hasty. You forget that sometimes comedy is just a big night out for people. Almost every show people come up to me and go, “This is the first comedy show I’ve ever seen!”, so you want to do well. If you do horribly at somebody’s first time seeing live stand-up, well, you’ve not only tainted yourself, you’ve tainted a whole art form.’