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Hannibal Buress: interview

The Chicago-bred comedian talks to us about Method Man, opening for musicians and comedy coverage.

Photograph: Courtesy Forest Casey

Comedian Hannibal Buress returns to his hometown this week to tape his second Comedy Central special, Nonsense, at the Vic Theatre. (Two shows on Saturday, January 25, sold out quickly, and a Thursday show was recently added). It has been a couple years since we caught up with the Chicago native, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check in with the ever-rising star and pickle juice connoisseur.

What's your process of getting ready for a taping? Do you have certain things you do or is your prep just performing?
I haven't been listening to my stuff as much as I should, feeling out the stuff that works. I will the week of. But I've just been performing and touring this material for a while, so it's really ready to go. Then I can start working on a new set.

So you put this material to bed after taping the comedy special?
Not quite to bed. I might drop in a joke or two from my last set, but for the most part, I don't want to lean on it. Especially after it airs, I want to move on to new stuff.

You said in another interview at the point of the special, if people don't like your jokes, then they don't like your comedy because that's you at your most polished.

Yeah, I was just saying that at that point, they just don't like the jokes, because there's nothing technical wrong with it; it has been worked out and I've done [the set] all over the place. It's fine if people don't like it.

Your 31st birthday is coming up in a couple weeks. How has age 30 been for you?
It's been my most productive year. I've been filming and touring and working on a lot of projects and with a lot of people I didn't expect to work with. Right now I'm out in L.A. doing promotion for the TCAs for this show Chozen on FX. Method Man is on the show, but I'd never really met him. I've been listening to his music since I was 11, in Wu-Tang and stuff, but when you do voiceover, you're in the booth by yourself—at least for this show, you're not working with people. So we met at this party yesterday, and he said he'd watched my comedy and liked it. And later at the party, RZA was there because he's promoting this other show, so Method Man was explaining to RZA why he likes my comedy. That was such a weird moment for me as a 30-year-old hip-hop fan, watching Method Man and RZA talking about me in front of me.

Were you like, "What exactly do you like about it again? Can you repeat that slowly while I record it?"
[Laughs] He was explaining my comedic persona, and it was pretty accurate.

What did he say?
He described me as a smart dude that hung out with kinda street cats early on, but when they would go off and do street shit, I would stay back. It's true. In high school [at Steinmetz] I had my group of friends who'd get into a lot of trouble. I'd do some stuff with them, but then when the trouble got to a higher level, I wouldn't get into that.

Do you still have a lot of ties to Chicago?
Yeah. People are always saying, "When are you coming back home?" And I'm like, "I'm in Chicago pretty much every month!" At most, I'll go six weeks without being home. My parents are still there. I have nieces and nephews, so I come back and see them.

Tell me about the web series you're working on, Interviews With Strangers.
That's in flux.

I was reading about it on your website.
I gotta take that shit down! 

Well, my point in bringing it up it is because with that and other projects of yours involve music. Has that always been the case? Have you always been into hip hop?
Yeah, that's kind of where I started. When I lived in Carbondale [attending Southern Illinois University], I started doing open mics that featured musicians, rappers and poets. That when I came [back] to Chicago, I hosted this rap open mic and I'd be the only comedian. I found that musicians were a better audience. I also talk a lot about music in my actandgo to shows all the time and try to learn from musicians about the pace of the show and lighting effects and the different things you can do technically to make the performance more of an experience. 

Do you still like performing before music audiences?
It depends on how it's set up. I remember years ago in DeKalb, I was asked to open for that band Umphrey's McGee. And so they drop the lights and just kind of put me onstage, and the crowd thinks that Umphrey's McGee is coming on. They're not there for comedy and they're very angry. Even though I went on 15 minutes before the show was supposed to start, they just started yelling, "UMPHREY'S! WE WANT UMPHREY'S MCGEE! WE WANT UMPHREY'S!" So the way to not have that happen is, even offstage, to have someone from the band on the mic, someone with a recognizable voice, say, "Hey, this is me from Umphrey's McGee. We've got a comedian opening up." The audience hears that familiar voice and it calms them down. I've done shows opening for Louis [C. K.] and Aziz [Ansari] and Demetri Martin, and they do that from the side of the stage. It gives you a leg up.

It seems like it's a good time to be a comedian. Many comedians I've spoken with have a lot of projects going on—whether it's web series, podcasts, touring, comedy specials, books, TV shows, voiceover work, et cetera. You're no exception. Do you intentionally pursue a lot of avenues?
I've just been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities pop up around the same time. I'm working on four shows and have one in development, plus movies and touring. They're projects I'm excited about, and I'm getting to work with people I like.

A New York Times piece about you that came out in 2011 stated how comedy isn't represented or covered as much in the media.Do you think that was true then? Is it true now?
I don't know. I guess maybe they meant in mainstream, big newspapers like The New York Times, and now they have that regular [comedy] column. I don't know that at the time I noticed a lack of coverage. I know comedy is written about and reviewed differently in the UK and Australia. It's reviewed like a play and goes deep into somebody's act, which is just a different way of approaching it. But I think comedy is doing well right now, and as you said, there are a lot of different avenues to get exposed. I mean, people get writing jobs now for having a good Twitter feed.

Since you've written for SNL, I wondered if you have an opinion of the show recently hiring a black actress [after a seven-year absence of black female performers]. How do you think they handled that?
I think they handled it pretty well. Sasheer [Zamata] is very talented, and they asked Leslie Jones to write. She's very funny, and her stand-up is great. I forget the other girl's name [LaKendra Tookes], but it's a good group. I'm excited to see what they do.

Buress performs at the Vic Theatre Jan 23 and 25.

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