Hannibal Buress on His Tour DJ, Edinburgh and the End of "Why?"

Hannibal Buress headlines the Paramount Theatre on April 24.
Hannibal Buress headlines the Paramount Theatre on April 24.
Courtesy of Comedy Central

Since inauspiciously starting out by habitually bombing at Chicago open mikes (a developmental stage every comedian must endure in their own city) and continuing through to the heights of his current fame, Hannibal Buress's jokes have had a rhythm and sensibility unlike anyone else's in comedy. After gaining a foothold in the industry as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, where he occasionally popped up on screen in the role of a befuddled hobo, Buress made a number of memorable film and television appearances before landing his signature roles on Broad City and The Eric Andre Show. Within the space of a few short years, he's released three classic standup specials — Animal Furnace, Live From Chicago and Comedy Camisado — achieving full command over his incomparable comedic voice and emerging as one of the most prolific and distinctive joke writers working today. Before he came to town to perform a new hour, Westword caught up with Buress to discuss the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, his role in the upcoming Tommy Wiseau biopic The Disaster Artist, and his decision not to pursue a second season of Why? With Hannibal Buress.

Westword: The last time you were in Colorado, you were on the Comedy Camisado tour, putting the finishing touches on an hour that Netflix put out a few months ago. Are you already working on a new hour?

Hannibal Buress: Yeah, I have a bunch of new jokes, man. 

How do you manage to stay so prolific?

Well, listen, man, I spend the money very fast. Once you spend the money super-fast, you have to get back on the road. I mean, it's just necessity when you book the dates. Once I started booking shows to start working out on this new stuff —when you get on stage, you have to do the stuff you've written day-of, because that's all you got, you know what I mean? Once you put yourself in the situation where you have no choice but to do something, then you just do it. The set has grown from there. I started out with a couple small shows in Chicago, and then I booked this small club called Goonies in Rochester, Minnesota, and I did three nights at Goonies. At the end of that run, I felt like it was going a little better, so I decided to go to Minneapolis. Minneapolis is only an hour and a half away, so I booked some shows in there and started kind of getting into the rhythm where the set got better faster than I thought it would. I thought it would take a few months — and it will take a few months to get it to peak form — but it's workable now. I feel good about it; I got some fun stuff in there. But it really just comes from putting myself in the situation where I have to write new stuff and figure it out, and then listen to the material so I figure out where to switch it and work it. So that's been helpful. And I like doing standup and touring anyway.

Where are your favorite cities to perform?

Minneapolis is great, New Orleans is outstanding — always a fun time — obviously, my home town of Chicago. That's an easy, dumb answer. San Francisco's great, so is Miami.  D.C. is a lot of fun. I enjoy going to Austin, Texas, a lot. Denver was really fun, except for — and I know it's cliché, but that altitude fucked me up last time. I have asthma, so it was rough. I gotta start working out before I get there this time. 

Do you still tour with a DJ? You had one in the Live From Chicago special, but not Comedy Camisado.

The DJ was there for that special, and we did a couple bits with him, but we found that if we wanted to use some of those songs in the special, it would cost $100,000. We use a lot of song clips, and depending on the artist, especially if a lot of people have rights to the song that you're trying to get, it's a real headache to make it happen, and it gets worse the more people you have involved. Usually to use a quick clip of a song costs upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 for like a three-to-five-second sound byte. And we didn't expect to get any kind of discount, because I was making fun of them, so we didn't use any of that stuff in there, but I still tour with him. He plays before the show, and we do after-parties sometimes when we travel. 

Do you typically bring an opener with you, or just work with whoever the venue chooses?

Yeah, a lot of the time I do bring an opener. 

Who do you like to have open for you these days? 

There's a few people I use. Last time I did Denver, my buddy Al Jackson came through with me. Super-funny dude; he's a headliner in his own right, but he'll come through with me. Byron Bowers is a live wire, crazy guy, and he's super-funny too. Good guy to be around. Joyelle Johnson — she's out of Atlanta but lives in New York now. Oh, Atlanta is another city with a good comedy scene. 

After the pair of Colorado shows, the next date listed on your website is in Tel Aviv. How did that come together? Have you ever been to Israel before?

No, I've never been. Yeah, man, I think it came together because they just reached out. Do you want to play Tel Aviv? And I said, "Sure, I'll go up there." That's pretty much it, man. I wish there was a cooler story. I'm excited to do it; I'm excited to check Israel out. My ex-girlfriend is from Israel, so maybe this will bring us back together. 

Netflix just released the festival documentary Hannibal Takes Edinburgh. What were your impressions of the Fringe Festival?

That was my second time doing the festival. It's a lot of fun, but it can get exhausting. It's not just that you're doing the same set every day, but you're doing the same set in the same room every day for like a month, you know? There's something about doing it that way that drives you a little bit crazy. So the experience itself is fun — being a part of something so massive with so many different shows, getting to watch all these different acts and hanging out and party. You're doing all your shows, but you go do these extra shows; it's amazing, but the length of it is a bit much. I did the full festival two years in a row, and then in 2013 I found my happy spot with Fringe: I went for four or five days, did two headlining shows and just chilled the other two days, going around and watching shows or dropping in for short sets, and that was it.

So I think the sweet spot for me and a lot of other people with Edinburgh is finding a length in between four days up to two weeks, maybe. But a month is rough. I'm sure some handle it better than others, because there are people that do that every year. But I'm glad we documented it, and the people seem to be enjoying it, enjoying seeing that different side of comedy. There are a handful of American comics that go there every year, but for the most part, American comedians don't know much about it. I didn't know about it until I did Australia a few years back, and then from doing well in Australia had some promoters reach out to me about doing Edinburgh. And I was like, "What's Edinburgh?" And they told me, "It's a festival where you perform your show every night for a month. So I talked to other comics and decided to go because it sounded interesting. I think the documentary is an interesting look at the festival from my perspective, and you get to see me working on some older material from the other specials, but there's also some stuff that wasn't on them. There's some behind-the-scenes shit, and you get to see me be natural and see if I'm an asshole or a decent person or somewhere in between. 

Do you find that there’s much of a difference between Scottish and American audiences?

Yeah, there's definitely a drier sense of humor. But the difference there, especially in the festival, is that you'll have some people who are just coming to see you because you're there. You might have some fans, but you might have random people just walking up to the box office like, "Let's see, what's on at 9:30 that hasn't sold out yet?" And the ticket person says, "We got Hannibal Buress, he was a writer on 30 Rock and etcetera." So you'll have these people who paid money to see you, but they don't know you. Can you gain new fans like that? Sometimes you might surprise people, and sometimes they'll sit there stone-faced. Most of the audiences were great; I had some weird shows, I had some amazing shows. Overall, when I do touring shows in Scotland or in England, there are some different subtleties — like different lines will hit big during certain jokes where they'll only get small chuckles in America. Certain lines just get huge laughs in Scotland, England and Ireland. There's a dryness. And for the most part, regular people over there are really funny. Just any average person is, I think, funnier in Scotland — if you can understand what they're saying. 

The film represents an interesting moment in time because it was filmed shortly before The Eric Andre Show and Broad City took off.

I think that was after season one of Eric Andre. This was 2012, so season one had just aired in May, so it was still very new. Animal Furnace and The Eric Andre show premiered on the same day in May, 2012. And this documentary was shot in August of 2012.

Oh, ok.

But it was brand-new.

I was just trying to segue into asking if the increased visibility from TV changed the composition of your audiences or even your approach to standup at all?

No, it's the same energy. I haven't changed my approach. I had a decent draw the second year at Fringe just because I did well the first year, and I got nominated for the best newcomer. So my shows were pretty much sold out for the entire run. But, yeah, I mean, my profile has risen and I've done a lot of things, so it's interesting to see how it is over there now. It's nice to have people into your stuff, whether they found out about it through acting or standup, but it's always fun when I do shows. Sometimes the energy is shocking when people really come through. It's fun to have people excited to hear you talk for an hour and change. I always appreciate that.

Do you know if Why? is going to get a second season?

No, we're not going to do that again. And that's on my end. It's not like it's canceled or something. We could've made more, but I didn't want to make it anymore.

What did you take away from the show-running experience? What worked and didn’t work?

It was a cool experience man. For one, when you run a show, there's always some shit to do. When you're only acting, there's an incredible amount of downtime where you're just sitting around waiting. The Eric Andre Show has lots of downtime. Broad City has less downtime because I usually only shoot like ten or twelve days, so if I'm there, I'm working. They're very efficient. Doing movies? Lots of downtime. But show-running has none. If not filming, there's either casting or wardrobe to look at, or a writer's meeting, approving scripts, doing press, editing, meeting with the network — so there's always something that needs to be done when you're running a show. You always have people asking you questions, and you have to be decisive, because you don't have to overthink things: You've got to shoot this right away because we're on the air tomorrow. It kind of taught me to be decisive and make choices that I can stand up for. If they work out, they work out. Sometimes I'm wrong. As far as the show itself, I think we winged it a little bit. We had somewhat of a plan, but we kind of went in and tried to find the show as we were doing it versus having a fully actualized vision of what we wanted going in. We just wanted to do funny stuff instead of having a distinct voice. Which was beneficial and detrimental at the same time, because the show was all over the place. But we did a couple cool sketches, and some of the man-on-the-street stuff was fun, we had some good musical guests and it was a cool time. It still is weird looking back like, "Oh shit, last year I had my own TV show." There's still some disbelief. "Did I really have my own show? Yeah, I did!" It's not something that's on my mind every moment, but every now and then I realize I had a TV show. I don't feel like I had a TV show, but I did. But it was cool, man, and I leaned a lot from it. And now, going forward, when I eventually have the right idea and the right people to work with, I'll be able to do a better job as a show-runner, actor and boss. 

You’ve got a role in The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s upcoming movie about Tommy Wiseau. Were you familiar with The Room phenomenon at all before signing on?

Very familiar. Very familiar Are you familiar with it? You seen it?

Yeah, I've been to a midnight screening.

I saw it first in '08 or '09. My girlfriend at the time played it for me, and I was like, "What the fuck is this?" Then I went to a couple screenings in New York where they would throw spoons every time they saw the picture of the spoon, and it was crazy. It had been a while since I'd seen it in the theater, probably five or six years, and then I heard about the movie, and they offered me this role and I said, "Yes! Yes, I will play the guy who rented him the studio even though it was certainly a white dude." Who cares! Lots of white people plays characters of color. White people have played Asian people and Native Americans.

Yeah, John Wayne played Genghis Khan.

Yeah! Finally, a black man is playing a white camera-equipment rental guy. I feel like that's progress, and I want to thank James Franco for the opportunity. I'm excited to see it, man. He's making a movie about a crazy guy making a movie. Have you read the book?

I have not read the book. 

I recommend the book. I'm almost finished with it.

Do you have anything else in the works that you want to mention before we wrap up?

Neighbors 2 comes out on May 20. I'll be reprising my role as Officer Watkins in that. Also, The Secret Life of Pets is coming out the same day, May 20. I do a voice in that. 

Hannibal Buress performed last night at the Paramount; at 8 p.m. Monday, April 25, he'll be at the Glenn Miller Ballroom at the University of Colorado Boulder — and tickets for the show have been reduced to $20; find information here. (Those who already purchased tickets will get premium seating.)

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