Comic Hannibal Buress: Don’t You Dare “Mm-Hmm” Him
For such a relaxed guy, stand-up comic Hannibal Buress seems awfully preoccupied with details. But details make up the basis of a lot of his material. Take his 2012 comedy album, Animal Furnace; big chunks of it are just analyses of short interactions with people.
His ability to expound on minutiae makes him a funny performer, but it also makes him a natural curator. That may be why during his live shows, Buress focuses on the entire audience experience from entry to exit. It also could be why he noticed how many times I said "mm-hmm" during the course of our conversation—and called me out on it.
Washington City Paper: It seems like you have a definite appreciation for music because it shows up a lot in your comedy. I was wondering if that was ever something you thought of taking advantage of as a creative outlet.
Hannibal Buress: Well, I’d always freestyle rap around my friends, and I love music. When I was a kid, we used to just smoke weed and freestyle. I remember writing my first rap when I was like 12 years old. So, for almost 18 years, I’ve been rapping in some aspect. So, yeah, I enjoy rap a lot and listening to the lyrics and analyze them and I used to record dumb songs with my friends. I think even before I started doing stand-up I would record dumb songs with my friends. So, I like music a lot. I like rap a lot particularly, but I like all music.
WCP: You did a bit in Chicago, where—you mention you like to analyze songs—you took bits from current hip-hop songs and explained why one line or another was hilarious to you. Is that something that you still do?
HB: I’ll do it at the Hamilton. When I do music venues versus comedy clubs, I’ll put on a different type of show where I’ll have a DJ and I add some production value to it 'cause it allows me to do different things. So, when I’m at a space that allows for it, yeah, I’ll do it at the Hamilton where I’ll have my DJ and I’ll have some other surprises for people.
WCP: What do you appreciate about being in a big music venue but also being in a comedy club? What are the differences between the two that you appreciate?
HB: Well, for a comedy club, that’s what I really honestly started in. It’s more intimate usually, and you can kind of try out stuff and it’s a good vibe. It’s a good vibe to work on material sometimes if you want to work on something new to your set. An indie venue is usually going to be all people that are fans of you and excited. You can kind of produce the whole show on your own from what people walk in to—you run the place for the night. Where, at a comedy club, I love comedy clubs but they have...just all this nonsense... like, when I’m doing the Hamilton it’s not going to be [in radio announcer voice], “Welcome to the Hamilton, everybody!” or any of that idiot-ass shit. It’s just going to be what I want to have going on.
So, I’ll have my DJ play from doors until the show starts and all of that. So, I like the ability to just be able to curate the whole night and the whole experience and the vibe. Whereas with a comedy club, you have people there excited but it’s all this other stuff just because I’m nitpicky and neurotic and other stuff is just [in radio announcer voice], "Be sure you check out...!" ... I don’t want announcements for other shows or to hear about email lists or that part of it. It’s kind of jarring when I did double venues back to back. Like, I did a music venue—I did a show where I put it on and put my DJ on and then I went to the comedy club the next night.
WCP: It seems like recently you’ve done primarily tours either by yourself or with another comic. Would you do something like the "F Yeah Tour" ever again or is that more or less behind you?
HB: Well, I’d do something like that. My fee is way different than it was five years ago. So, if they could meet my fee, I’d do pretty much any type of tour, but I’m sure with touring bands it’s a lot of different hands in the pot, so it’s a a little bit tougher. If it was right, then I’d do it.
That’s the thing with stand-up vs. being in a band ... With a band, if you go see a band, and it’s five people, if they sell that shit out, they still split that money five ways. So, the band is doing well, but they might not be doing as good as you think and shit because they splitting it five ways. But are they splitting it five ways even or does the lead get a bigger cut? I wonder. Sometimes the lead starts the band and then he finds other people, you know what I mean? So, they might be hired guns, so who knows with some of these bands. Maybe the lead is heading a four-piece band and the lead is taking 40 percent, and the other three people, they split the other money. Who knows?
WCP: When you toured with these musicians or when you’ve performed at festivals where there are musicians present, have you ever had musicians come up to you and say anything to the effect of "Comedy is so hard. I could never do that"?
HB: Yeah, I’ve had musicians say that. They’re always talking about how they have more to lean back on. Like, if they’re fucking up, they’ve got the rest of the band to kind of back them up. And also, they’re playing for a reaction but not as much as we are where it’s success or failure every 30 or 45 seconds or whatever with stand-up.
But stand-up is pretty low stakes ... It’s tough, but it’s not that crazy. If it does go bad, so what? You know what I mean? If it goes bad, all right, on to the next show, everybody’s going to be all right. People might feel like they wasted their night, but it’s low stakes. It’s entertainment.
WCP: When you were writing for Saturday Night Live, did you get a chance to write any of the musical guests into your sketches?
HB: I didn’t work directly with her, but there was one sketch that the Lonely Island did called "Shy Ronnie." I wasn’t getting many sketches on, so I was in everybody’s room to try to pitch on whatever they were working on. I remember popping into their office and they were working on this song. So, I was just throwing in words and stuff, and there was just one line where I threw in the line and they ended up using it. Rihanna ended up singing this line that I used, so it was really cool to contribute. I forget what night of the week that was... I think it was Thursday night of the week, and then by Saturday, Rihanna was singing something that I wrote on television. So, it was really cool.
WCP: Hypothetically, if you were to take any popular musician and insert them in any kind of sketch that you write, what would be something interesting that people would laugh at?
HB: That’s a tough question—to conceive an artist and a sketch that I’d do on the spot during an interview. You should give me 10 minutes and then call me back!
Maybe Jay-Z as a UPS delivery person. But he’s still Jay-Z and he doesn’t understand why people are freaked out that he’s delivering for UPS. I don’t know. I had 10 seconds so that’s what I came up with. Or Jay-Z making sushi. And he keeps fucking up the dragon rolls. Kim Kardashian as a tennis referee— a tennis judge, a line judge. I don’t know. You put me back in that room again and now I’m pitching ideas and gasping for air and shit.
HB: Mm-hmm. When I was working at 30 Rock, we would have a script, but we could pitch a new joke. We would have to beat a joke and come up with a better joke in the script. So sometimes when we would pitch something that wasn’t funny, the head writer and executive producer Robert Carlock would acknowledge that we said something. So if I said, “What if Tracy [Morgan] said, ‘No, that’s a pineapple!’” and then nobody laughed, then Robert would just go, “Mm-hmm,” just to acknowledge that you said words. So, you’ve got three more mm-hmms and then I’m just ending the interview.
WCP: Three more mm-hmms?
HB: There you go. That’s two.
WCP: I know you’ve been through D.C. a couple of times before. You did Arlington Drafthouse a couple of years ago, and I know that you toured here with Aziz Ansari. You’ve probably been here before that. Is there anything that you’re looking forward to get to see again while you’re in town?
HB: Honestly, I probably won’t because I’m going to be coming in from New York and I’ll have to do sound check and tech stuff and then I’ll probably grab something to eat so I probably won’t be able to do much in D.C., unfortunately. I mean, I can make up an answer that sounds like I have an appreciation for the city. I want to go out on U Street and then I want to go hang out with Barack. Maybe if the Wizards are playing, I’ll check out a Wizards game next day or the day after. John Wall’s back, so that’s really exciting that he’s back because they were really sucking before that.
WCP: Is that how days on tour usually work, you get up, you do sound check, you get a bite to eat and that’s pretty much what you see of a city?
HB: Well, no, but it depends, and that’s the other difference between doing comedy shows versus doing it in a music theater. With a comedy show, if the show is at 8 p.m., I don’t go on til about 8:40 p.m. because of the opener and the middle act. But with a comedy show being at 8 p.m., I could come in at 7:59 or 8 p.m. on the dot at a comedy club because I have nothing to do with production. But at a music venue, I have to do sound and run through and make sure everything is right with the DJ and getting the lighting right.
That’s the one thing with a comedy club. You can just show up. You can just show up a minute before, because you don’t need to be there. I don’t need to make sure the mics are right or do any light stuff. They have all that set. But, at a music venue you have to make sure everything is good. But I like paying that much attention to the show because it’s training me to build for bigger venues and how to put on a higher quality production.
Hannibal Buress performs at 8:30 p.m. at The Hamilton. Sold out.