Special to AMFM Magazine by Carla Taylor
Sitting on a purple velvet couch at Pelon’s on Red River in the back of the “Kegs and Eggs” Comedy Central house party for SXSW 2014, Hannibal Buress seems like one of your favorite people you knew from college.
He’s in good spirits, despite the muggy Austin atmosphere and deafening, boisterous high jinks going on right outside the window.
His conversation, much like his comedy style is truthful and approachable, which creates an immediate camaraderie. In his stand up show, “Hannibal Buress Live From Chicago,” you feel like he is up there for you, representing all your pet peeves and observations about the world with a mellow, confident swagger. Because of that, you get the distinct impression that you are sitting in front of a person about to propel himself into comedy superstardom. You can say you knew him when…
The World Premiere of “Hannibal Buress Live From Chicago” debut on Comedy Central Saturday, March 29 at Midnight ET/PT
Would you say your entry into comedy was organic or did you take a more traditional, calculated route?
I’d say it was more organic because I didn’t know all along that I was meant to be a comic. I started going to open mics and watching people perform while I was in college. That’s when I knew that it was what I wanted to do. I had done other performance work before that, some theatre and I’d put on bits at goofy talent shows but never stand up until that point.
If you talk to some comedians they’ll tell you, “I knew I was gonna be a comedian when I was seven.” I didn’t really feel that way. Even though I was a funny kid and grew up around funny people, I didn’t know any comedians personally. I wasn’t around a lot of comedy so it didn’t seem like something you could do as a career.
So is your family funny?
My family’s very funny. My brother and father were always a source of comedy. My father is especially great. I think I get most of my vibe and wit from having been around him all of the time. He can sometimes be very short with people, say some slick shit (laughs).
All great comedy comes from an element of tragedy. In it you find an observation or an element of sadness…sometimes.
Maybe the word tragedy is a bit overextended?
Tragedy is a big term. I wouldn’t necessarily say that me getting annoyed by TSA is a tragedy.
I love that TSA bit, but when I listen to it, it’s obviously identifying a cultural irritation.
Is this how you process the scenarios that bother you or do you generally think in the language of comedy?
I don’t constantly think in comedy. I get annoyed sometimes with the way things are structured in life or just bothered in general by the way some people are. That all becomes a source for comedy. Even being carded at a spot now, say I forgot my ID at a club and I’m told, “We can’t let you in.” I think to myself, “Are you for real? Look at me in my face. I’m a motherfucking grown-up! I know there are rules but look at me in my eyes. You know that I’m over 21. I know you’re just out doing your job but let’s not be weirdos about this and acknowledge the fact that I’m several years over the age requirement.” Things like that get at me, people for the sake of doing their job and going by the book but they don’t let logic override. Use some logic please.
Your comedy special was filmed in your hometown of Chicago. Is there more pressure to perform in front of family, friends and a community that knows you?
I would say a little bit of friends, a little bit of family and then a bunch of strangers is more accurate. I have a fan base all around but Chicago is where I started out so there’s a different excitement about me there. Also there’s a different amount of press coverage.
Even if they don’t go to my shows, when you bring up my name, people know me in Chicago. It’s not an industry or an underground thing. If you talk to a sixty-year-old lady, she might not like my comedy but she knows my name. It’s just a different vibe even in just performing. People like seeing performers from their own town. I like Chicago rappers more because I know that motherfucker’s from the Chi. Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and motherfucking Kanye are good rappers and from the Chi. Their shows do better in their hometown.
Does music inspire or add during the creative process?
Music plays a part of that because I talk about music a lot in my act. I actually tour with a DJ. He plays a set before the show and during the show there are music cues that we play with. I like to mix it up and bring a different energy into the show, music to react to and talk about. I am a rap nerd and love all kinds of hip hop so that plays a big part in what goes into the comedy.
You’ve mentioned that in the earlier years you’ve bombed performances pretty badly. What kept you motivated during those times?
When you have a bad show, you just think to yourself, ‘They’re all wrong. This joke’s worked before and it will work again.’ It’s real stubbornness that gets you through. I will usually makes logic out of why a particular joke didn’t work. Maybe the audience didn’t like it because the sound was weird in the venue. So you try to blame it on other things even if it was your fault.
Sometimes you use the negativity in your favor. Even though you’re never going to see that particular crowd again, it becomes about proving them wrong. You may think, ‘I bombed Wednesday, but I’m about to rock this shit. They didn’t know what they were talking about.’ That’s what you have to do to get better.
Your comedy is really unique because it has an element of weirdness in its observation. Has it been hard holding on to that uniqueness when you’ve worked on more mainstream projects?
I don’t think it has. When I’m onstage, I try to entertain the audience, but it’s still genuinely coming from what I think is funny. The things I perform actually have happened to me, so I don’t feel the need to switch anything up.
My legit philosophy is this: if it’s something I find funny, I’m going to be able to make it work onstage. It may not work the first time but I know it will evolve as time goes by. If it doesn’t work in its original form, it might be an issue with the timing or structure.
Almost always, it’s not necessarily about the material or the idea, it’s about how I package it. The comedy aspect, the performance, it’s all about packaging. The wording, phrasing, timing is all important to how to it works on stage.