Hannibal Buress talks 'Why?,' Acting and His Comic Ambitions

Hannibal Buress talks 'Why?,' Acting and His Comic Ambitions
Photo: Jason Nocito
Hannibal Buress is indeed, as he says, "killing it." In the past year alone, he delivered a set at The Roast of Justin Bieber that was so brutal that most of it was cut to protect Bieber's image, he did stand-up at theatres across North America, and he got his own show on Comedy Central called Why? With Hannibal Buress.
"After the first episode, I was like 'How do we make it feel more like my own? What can we add?'" Buress tells Exclaim! about Why?, which opens with things like fire jugglers or Buress running through a banner in every episode. "I said 'I'll have a DJ. We need to have a musical guest.' [The opening gag] is a fun way to add this new energy."
Buress is very familiar with this sort of ridiculous randomness from being on The Eric Andre Show, the Adult Swim series that surreally satirizes late night talk shows and pushes guests' limits for brilliantly subversive entertainment. However, he is also completely comfortable with being serious. Throughout the interview, he took his time as he thoughtfully constructed his answers, and he analyzed his craft with precision.
"With Why?, you have to figure out what type of monologue you want to do. I write my stuff and then I look at the writer's stuff too. The interesting thing is that just because a joke is good, like structurally sound, doesn't mean I should be doing it. It's like if you see a shirt and you're like 'It's a nice shirt, but that would look good on someone else. Mike would wear it.' So it's taken a few episodes to figure out that I want — to make it a little bit more conversational than setup-punch line."
Buress also compared his own show with some of his other projects. "With The Eric Andre Show, they shoot a lot, so there are a lot of opportunities to get in there. It's a lot of just reacting. On Broad City, I'm like a nice, sweet guy trying to connect. Mostly I'm on those shows to act. On my show, I'm casting, I'm part of the editing, deciding the musical guest, so it's a lot more responsibility.
"I started in Chicago with a lot of great comics," many of whom are also featured at the JFL42 festival in Toronto this year. "TJ Miller, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani were all at open mics I went to," he continues. "It's a good city. I'd perform multiple times, multiple open mics in a night. Chicago's a great place to perform without the pressure of show business around you. There's some radio and theatre, but it's a good place to grow before moving to another place to establish yourself."
Digging below the glossy surface of the industry, I ask about the trope of the sad comedian. "It is a weird job, you're around a lot of alcohol... there's a lot of truth in it," he said before pausing. "We're complex people, but also people are complex people."
Although Buress is most famous for commentary that spurred dozens of rape allegations against Bill Cosby, he is equally adept at being funny as he is at comic truth-telling. Given the scope of his material and the variety of his comedic outlets, one might expect him to have a complicated explanation of what the purpose of comedy is. However, Buress provided a surprisingly succinct answer: "The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh."
Simple as that?
"Yeah!" Buress replies cheerfully.