Mar 1, 2017
Fear and Loathing with Hannibal Buress
It’s the first Friday night of 2017, and Hannibal Buress is sitting in a mostly-empty green room—all that’s on a table is a bottle of Jameson and a veggie platter—inside the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel. He’s just performed a corporate-tailored version of his stand-up set (complete with jokes about 401k’s, incredulousness over Donald Trump, and a comparison of Hillary Clinton to a crouton) at a private event in which he opened for Sting. At this point, Hannibal is not as unlike the former frontman of The Police as you might think: his own DJ is constantly in tow (Tony Trimm, one of his best friends), he’s a star of stage and screen, he has a podcast, and he’s been featured in a handful of commercials. Buress, essentially, is a rock star in his own right.
The banter in the green room turns to music, as it plays from a bluetooth speaker on the table. “Is ‘No Problem’ by Chance [The Rapper] a banger?” Trimm asks Hannibal, in the midst of a spirited conversation about what exactly that term—a banger—constitutes in our present day musical vernacular. “It does go, mayne,” Hannibal responds definitively—pronouncing ‘man’ in the same fashion as the surname of rapper Gucci Mane, himself a frequent banger producer—nodding his head, vibing with the music filling the room. Sometimes, Hannibal likes to make a quiet exit. But late in Vegas? Nuh uh. He puts the speaker around his neck, and lets it blast—Migos, Solange, and more—as he walks out of the hotel, looking for a ride that will take him to the night’s next spot amidst the Las Vegas lights.
Different groups tend to recognize Hannibal from different places. He says that dudes in their 40s, maybe with a kid or two, might recognize him from the Will Ferrell film Daddy’s Home. Younger guys, maybe just out of college, might know him as the wickedly sardonic sidekick in the absurdist-satirical take on late night talk shows, The Eric Andre Show. Or maybe a person might recognize him generally, but not know quite where from. Recently, he says, a fan outside Madison Square Garden just pointed at him and yelled “Comedy!”
Hannibal and Eric Andre—his collaborator in the avant-garde Adult Swim show—have been friends since Hannibal bought a one-way ticket from Chicago to New York to take a stab at the business. At one point, Buress was sleeping on subway trains, and Andre was crashing on couches and occasionally sleeping in the park. They first shot the show in an abandoned Brooklyn bodega in 2009, before eventually shooting a pilot for Adult Swim in 2011 and the first season in 2012. It’s remarkable, says Andre, to have seen Buress back then, and to see him now—“a voice of a generation.”
Between Andre’s prodigious energy and Hannibal’s low-key nature, the two have a perfect odd couple dynamic. As Chris Rock told Andre the first time he did the show, “The reason your show works so well is because there are no two black guys that have less in common than you and Hannibal Buress.” Andre points out one bit where Buress comes out dressed as Morpheus from The Matrix and nonsensically raps. “It was the role he was born to play, and I remember dying laughing,” he says. “It’s very exciting when you see something you write come to life, especially when it’s very stupid, and you think it’s so stupid it might not work. But it worked perfectly.”
I ask if they plan to make another season (they’ve done four so far), and Buress hints at another trajectory: a movie. He and Andre have talked about making a full-length project, but neither wants to delve too deeply into details. They want to make sure it really happens first.
Before the corporate gig, we’re in the back room of the Westgate Casino, dubbed the ‘largest sports book’ in the world, where even a seasoned Vegas veteran like Hannibal finds it a little overwhelming. He looks up at the massive screens that line the super-high ceilings, trying to figure out who to place his bets on.
While still in awe of the video displays, someone not very far away shouts something indistinct about Bill Cosby. Hannibal looks up, his expression staring lasers in the remark’s general direction. “Sorry,” the voice quickly shouts back, with regret. “I didn’t hear what you said, man,” Hannibal says, still looking.
If there’s one thing the 34-year-old comedian doesn’t want to talk about—seriously, don’t ask him about this—it’s that subject. While Buress’s career was well on its way toward mainstream recognition in late 2014, he was thrust directly into the spotlight with one throwaway joke about the now-maligned comedian’s heinous crimes. “‘Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the 80s!’” he said initially, mocking Cosby’s holier-than-thou persona, before continuing. “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, that brings you down a couple notches.” The audience reacted, unbelieving. “If you didn’t know about it, trust me. You leave here, and Google ‘Bill Cosby rape,’” Hannibal said. “It’s not funny. That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
As we start to leave the back area of the sports book, the guy who had shouted at Hannibal walks over and attempts to explain himself. He’s wearing a Russell Wilson Seattle Seahawks jersey, and in any other circumstance, Hannibal—who in my observation never ever shuts down a sports conversation—might have engaged. But not this time.
When we finally broke away from the man in the Seahawks jersey, I follow up. I say I really didn’t want to ask him about that, yet it seems to never really go away. He barely responds at all, just shrugs and makes some semblance of a “meh.” That brief episode has proven difficult for Hannibal to escape, despite his rapidly expanding resumé of comedic successes.
Of those, perhaps Hannibal’s most prominent role is as Lincoln, dentist and friend-with-benefits to Ilana on Comedy Central’s hit Broad City. Outside of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the stars and creative force behind the series, Hannibal is the most recurring actor. He’s headed to film upcoming season four in a few weeks.
“It’s cool to just see the progression with the show, and how it’s connecting,” he tells me in the back of an Uber between hotels on The Strip. “It’s connecting in different ways than anything I’ve been a part of before. It just has emotionally… I don’t know if it’s emotion, but… I guess women connect themselves to one character, Abbi or Ilana, so you just get into the show in a different way.” And I agree—Broad City has a ‘Which Friend Are You?’ kind of vibe. Are you an Abbi or an Ilana?
Starring on the show has done something else for Buress: “It’s affected my nightlife in a very positive way.”
Following the show at the Hard Rock Hotel, a cab is filled with music blasting from the speaker that hangs around Buress’s neck, and it takes us over to the Westgate for more gambling. Craps is Hannibal’s game of choice—I see this earlier, as I watch him shooting by himself, and attempt to figure the game out. He also talks about it in his Vegas-tailored live set. “It’s the only game where you can openly bet against people,” he says, workshopping a joke from his Comedy Camisado special. “I don’t like him for $30… I don’t like the cut of his jib.”
It’s starting to get rowdy in the lobby, which feels like the Vegas you see in movies and on TV. And, it’s technically late. But Buress is ready for more fun. An infectious excitement fills his voice when he looks me in the eye.
“How you feelin’, man?”
Who could say no to that?
When it comes time to meet back up with Buress before his headlining show in downtown Las Vegas the following night, he’s already been hanging out in Al Jackson’s hotel room in the Golden Nugget for a few hours. Jackson, a former teacher, is often Buress’s opening act, and a great friend. Last night, after I left the casino, Hannibal and company headed further down the strip to Mandalay Bay to check out a Nas show, where, afterward, they wound up kicking it with the legendary rapper from Queens himself.
It’s been two weeks since Hannibal’s last full set. “I’m itching,” he says, sitting on the hotel room bed. “Sometimes I’m like… [downtrodden voice] ‘I gotta do a show’… but today I’m like….” he doesn’t finish the sentence, but a huge grin forms across his face, and he nods jubilantly.
Since his career jump-started in New York City, Buress has been a mainstay of Brooklyn’s comedy scene, formerly hosting a weekly Knitting Factory show in his home neighborhood of Williamsburg. Though he no longer does, he’ll still stop in for a quick set whenever he’s around.
He also stays connected to Brooklyn through the web-turned-HBO weed delivery series, High Maintenance. Buress, as with The Eric Andre Show, plays a version of himself. Creators Katja Blichfield, who worked in casting for 30 Rock while Hannibal was a writer there, and Ben Sinclair, who stars, love his ongoing presence on the show. “Hannibal is just so thoroughly himself,” Blichfeld says in an e-mail. “He really understands what’s funny about the human condition and knows how to translate it.”
“He literally doesn’t have to lift a finger and he entertains,” Sinclair adds. The husband-and-wife team plan to work him into the series again in the future.
That night, before the show, Buress is hungry, and leads the charge for food. We end up in the back room of a questionable diner embedded in a casino on Fremont Street where the split pea soup looks like applesauce, and the $3.99 shrimp cocktail—which gets mistaken visually for a strawberry parfait—is selling like wildfire.
Entering the back room of the diner, Hannibal sees an elderly couple minding their own business, and requests to sit near the front to avoid disrupting their meal. “We’re going to be loud and shit,” he tells the hostess. Not long after sitting down, Al Jackson drops a joke that I’m not sure can be printed here. The old man from the other side of the room shouts over to us, seemingly yearning to join the banter: “We heard that!” he says playfully, as our table explodes in laughter.
About 20 minutes later, the same man plops down next to Hannibal in our circular booth. “What’s left over for dinner?” he says into Hannibal’s ear, having no idea who he’s talking to. Buress dives straight into interview mode.
OLD MAN: I was born in 1926. I was in World War I. [He meant WWII; we let it slide.]
HB: You got any confirmed kills?
OLD MAN: Huh?
HB: You got any confirmed kills?
OLD MAN: Pills? [He pauses, realizing what Hannibal was actually asking.]
OLD MAN: Kills? [He stares into space, like he’s deep in a flashback.] Oh, no.
With three specials already filmed, Hannibal is working on his next, and expects it will come out this year. He’s toyed with the idea of shooting it in Hannibal, Missouri (“Just for that joke,” he says). Even without the special, 2017 is slated to be his most prolific on-screen year yet. In addition to his role on Broad City, he’ll appear in James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau flick The Disaster Artist, Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and the comedy reboot of Baywatch.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
“Honestly, I just took it to do a movie with The Rock,” the always understated performer told me about Baywatch. “The Rock, you know? So we’ll see.”
Others around Baywatch, however, think differently. Director Seth Gordon said that they were so pleased with Buress’s performance in the film that they wrote new scenes just so they could have more of him. “He brings a whole different energy, and it’s just so honest and real,” Gordon said. “Everything that he says feels like the cold, hard, straight truth.” Buress shares a lot of scenes in the film with actor Jon Bass, who talked about how much fun he had riffing with Hannibal, and how it just kept making the scenes better and the moments funnier. It’s the kind of humor that makes you feel like he’s your friend right away. “But not like best friends,” Bass says, laughing. “It’s like, friends that have known each other since childhood, and haven’t talked in a couple years.”
As his set time approaches at Fremont Country Club—not quite the resort it sounds like, but a standing-room-only music venue—he gathers his entourage, which now includes five girls he met earlier in the casino lobby, along with Trimm, Jackson, and his real-life Uncle Kelven (who proudly and repeatedly states how he’s believed in Hannibal from the start). The line for the show is already around the corner, but Buress decides there’s plenty of time for some pre-show craps. He enters the El Cortez right across the street and throws a few crisp $100 bills down on the table.
When it’s finally time to head over to the set, Hannibal asks everyone for some space in the green room. A short time later, Tony Trimm is on stage with his DJ setup, spinning a combination of hip-hop jams with video montages. Jackson comes on next with 25 minutes of opening material. And then, at last, it’s time for Buress. Backed by Trimm’s DJ stylings and video cues (one segment shows hypothetical messages from a newly-deceased Hannibal), it’s hard to imagine a show that goes better. He tailored his joke repertoire with local material (“I gamble within reason. I don’t gamble like ‘Oh shit, what am I going to do?’ I gamble like, ‘Well, I guess I’ve got to take that gig in Topeka, Kansas now.’”); he roasted another Cosby heckler with style and grace (“If you’re wearing a short-sleeve Polo on a Saturday, shit ain’t poppin’ off,” he deflected). And as the set ends, Trimm blasts Chance the Rapper’s “All The Way,” a song Hannibal himself is featured on, as the comedian walks off the stage.
Afterward, Buress and I sit alone in his green room. He’s gassed, but his underlying energy is still impressively high. I tell him he’d just done a 90-minute set, beating his intended time by 20 minutes. Whereas a lot of other comedians are bound to this joke or that, this length or that, Buress is not. “I was just feeling it, man,” he says. This is typical, I realize, of every other thing I’d seen him do—just riding the wave, taking all of it as it comes, wanting to have fun. And usually, if you see him out and about, he’ll be doing just that.
Photos by Jesse Dittmar
Stylist Savannah White | Makeup Sarah Graalman using NARS
Shot at Bar Below Rye
Button Up Shirt- Saturday’s NYC, Jeans – J Brand, Sneakers – K Swiss
Button Up Shirt, Matiere, Jeans- 3×1
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