Fresh off an NBA All-Star Celebrity Game victory, comedian Hannibal Buress is keeping busy. He has the upcoming release of his comedy special Miami Nights; the second edition of Isolafest, a comedy and music festival hosted in his grandmother’s rural home town; and his philanthropy work in Chicago. While Buress might still refer to himself as a “mildly popular comedian,” he’s remarkably ambitious and as absurd as ever.
Ahead of his free pop-up performance tonight, February 24, at Denver Comedy Works, Buress spoke with Westword about his 2020 plans, the evolution of his standup style since the early 2000s, and the perils of tweeting unfiltered political opinions.
Westword: You’re a very busy man.
Hannibal Buress: A little bit. I try to stay active. We sell good stuff! I’m trying to do a handful of different projects while having fun.
What was it like playing in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game?
It was really fun, but I wish I’d spent more time training under the assumption that I knew I’d be playing in the game. I didn’t find out I was playing until the end of December [the game was in mid-February], but I should’ve assumed I had a good shot to do it, being from Chicago. But it was fun to lock in and work with different coaches and trainers like Jordan Lawley and Brandon Payne. I’ve always been a fan, but working on the fundamentals gave me a new respect for the game. Training and playing full-court games, you get into shape pretty quickly.
Did you work with Guy Fieri?
No, he was the assistant coach on the opposing team. He was the enemy. He’s a nice guy, though. Do you hoop at all?
Do I play basketball?
No. Not since middle school, when I was thirteen.
It’s fun. Play some games at the Y. In pickup games, it’s an interesting cross-section of people. You got folks out there who obviously play college ball, athletes from other sports, a 55-year-old dude out there just trying to have some fun.
Congrats on the win.
Speaking of Chicago, you’re doing a lot of philanthropic work there recently. Is it a maker space that you just opened there?
It’s more of a tech and art space. There’s different programming for kids in the North Austin neighborhood, which is where I grew up. I got that building a couple of years ago, and I’ve been putting stuff in the works to get it going. We just did our first pitch competition, and that was dope. A lot of very new companies and ideas, and it was cool to hear the founders talk about how prepping for the competition made them think more critically about their businesses.
It’s interesting you’re doing nonprofit work in Chicago at the same time you’re throwing these huge comedy and music festivals where your mom lives and where your grandma grew up in rural Mississippi. It must be gratifying to bring your success and love into these places that you and your family are tied to.
It’s where I know, so it's easier to work like that. I know these spots because I’ve been there a bunch of times, and I know what they need. It’s easier to operate when you know the lay of the land, but Chicago has its own special set of challenges. But we’re going to get there.
You’re throwing the second Isolafest over Memorial Day weekend this year. How was the first one?
It was a lot of fun. We did it on short notice, but I like to go for it. It was a great experience. T-Pain closed out the night and killed it. There are only so many acts I can bring on one of my headlining shows on tour. One thing that’s dope about doing a three-day festival is that you can have as many acts as you like, and some folks from different genres who wouldn’t work well as a companion act can perform. The vibe was good; people were super appreciative. Fans in smaller markets are usually appreciative, but imagine what it’s like to play in Isola, Mississippi, population 800! One of the biggest promotional challenges was getting people to believe I was actually performing there in the first place.
Your comedy special Miami Nights is coming out soon. Can you give me any details on that other than the fact that it’s screening at South by Southwest on March 18?
Um...no. I can’t quite say the outlet, but they do have a rainforest named after it.
As an artist, is it frustrating to be human and honest publicly when we’re living in an environment where almost any opinion can be viewed as controversial?
What do you mean, specifically?
You calling Bernie Sanders “old” in a tweet and the whole “landlord” reaction online. It upset and animated a lot of people.
Listen, man. It’s more of a niche Internet thing. It’s wild to see people make the connection of, “You don’t want him to be president because you own buildings.” To see people reach like that and run with that when the only thing I said was that he was old — that was wild. Engaging people on Twitter about it didn’t help. You don’t like my stuff? At eighteen years in, that’s fine. But when people started calling me “landlord,” you can’t explain yourself to folks who just want to get their thoughts off now. It’s what it is now. It doesn’t hold real-life weight. I haven’t had an antagonistic conversation about it in public. No one’s come up to me and said, “You fucking landlord.” [Laughs.] So, is it real, then? You’re not that passionate about the subject if you don’t want to have a conversation about it in person.
How has your comedy evolved since you started in the early 2000s?
One of my editors, Shaliek, was cutting up some clips from my album Animal Furnace. And the delivery was like [fast-paced gibberish]. It’s like, hey, slow down, kiddo. That was the technique I was using. Now I’m more patient with stuff. There’s more skill and time. More storytelling. On the fly, I can change it up and elevate stuff.
What do you want to accomplish in comedy that you haven’t yet? You embrace your understated “mildly popular” status, but is there a way to retain that persona and get somewhere you haven’t gotten to yet as a comedian?
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I think the Miami Nights special will hit in a way my other four specials haven’t. It’ll allow me to produce for other people and get some other projects going. I’m itching to put it out and have it open up the door for some other things coming out.
Anything you want to say about your pop-up Denver show?
It’s [at] a club: Comedy Works. It’s free. I want to set up a big show in town down the line at the Paramount. Maybe Red Rocks in a year and a half or something. So check out my ambitious Red Rocks date...coming soon!
Hannibal Buress performs at Denver Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street, at 10:15 p.m. on Monday, February 24. Tickets are free and available at his website.
Correction, February 24, 2020: Buress's editor Shaliek's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.