Hannibal Buress has long been worshiped by comedy nerds and stand-up insiders, but only in the last few years has the Chicago native-turned-New Yorker started breaking through to the unwashed masses (I’m looking at you, Filthy McBlogreader. You need a bath).
That’s due in part to his writing for “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” two shows that have reliably churned out witty performers and writers since their inceptions. But since stand-up is largely a meritocracy, it’s also just because Buress is damn funny, winning praise from cohorts like Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia and late-night tastemakers Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien.
Buress was also one of the subjects of “The Awkward Comedy Show,” a documentary that chronicled black comedians joking about more stereotypically nerdy subjects than urban ones. He’ll also join one of his “Awkward” buddies, Eric André, on Adult Swim when André’s new self-titled show debuts there on May 20.
It’s good timing: the “Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace” special is also premiering in late May on Comedy Central. In light of all this, we caught up with Buress via e-mail in advance of his headlining dates at Comedy Works on Larimer Square today (Thursday, Feb. 16) through Sunday, Feb. 19.
What made you want to get into comedy, and how exactly did you get your start?
I got my start in stand-up in 2002 at Southern Illinois University. My friend Chidi was performing at an open mic and I went to watch and I saw that some of the people weren’t really good and I decided to try it.
What was your first time on stage like, and what made you want to come back?
The laughs and the energy were addicting. On top of that, I started out performing in a college town so I would get recognized on campus after I had only been on stage three times. After my second time onstage, I had people coming up to me on campus the next week saying lines from my stand up. It was crazy. This wasn’t happening because I was a good comedian, because I was far from it at that point. It was happening because it was such a small town and campus. Basically, there was a lot of positive energy around me early on in my career even though I was thoroughly mediocre.
Do you have a favorite “kind” of crowd? What are the best/worst shows you can remember having recently?
Recently I’ve started going to cities and doing one-night gigs at music venues. Whenever I do that, the audience is always great. They’re fans and are familiar with my comedy and the shows are always exciting. It’s always fun when the audience has heard my stand-up already, so they know my style and then I can just do new material for them. That’s the long answer. My short answer is, “My favorite kind of crowd is George Washington Carver enthusiasts.” I rock it with them every time.
The bad shows now aren’t as awful as they were early on in my career. I’ve been booed off stage and even carried off. Now, there are times where I don’t really connect with the audience. When that happens, I just do my time and finish the show. You can’t really dwell on it. You listen to the tape and try to figure out what went wrong.
When’s the last time you laughed so hard you cried, and why?
I laughed so hard when I realized I had to do an e-mail interview. It was hysterical laughter though. This feels like I’m writing an essay.
Last night I was at the Laugh Factory and Red Grant was really hilarious. He had some great stories about going to a Prince concert and meeting him. He’s just a really solid performer.
What’s the worst thing you ever felt bad laughing about?
What’s a joke you used to love to tell but now can’t stand?
I used to love doing this bit about kicking pigeons but now it doesn’t fit who I am as a person. I used to sell T-shirts that say “I kick pigeons.” I would sell lots of them. But I never kicked a pigeon before. The bit was popular and people would come up to me and tell me stories about how they hurt pigeons and I’m like “whoa,” I was just joking! This one lady told me about hitting a pigeon with her car. It weirds me out. But I guess I helped promote it even if I was just joking about it. I watched this Mike Tyson documentary about him racing pigeons and it made me think of them in a different way. That sounds corny, but I mean it.
What’s your favorite joke of the moment? (yours)
I have a story about shitting on a plane that will go down as one of the top 100 poop jokes of this decade.
What’s your favorite joke of the moment? (someone else’s)
I did a show last night in Santa Monica and the host Kevin Christy had a joke about wishing that MC Hammer sold hammers and I wish I wrote it.
What’s your biggest non-comedy influence, or your favorite thing to do outside of comedy?
My favorite thing to do outside of comedy is play video games. I only get to play when I’m home in NY, which is a rarity. I get to relax and shut off and immerse myself into that world. I wish I spent less time on the Internet. I’ve been distracted so much by it just while filling out these questions. Next time let’s do a phone interview so you can do all of the typing.
Having done all the major late-night talk shows, what was your favorite, and why?
I enjoyed Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a lot. He was cool and he came to my green room before and after the show to say what’s up. He was the only host that did that. I found out about that set the day before so I was looser than I’ve been on other shows because I didn’t have time to over-think it.
Letterman was fun. I got bumped the first time I went to do it because another segment went long. I came back to do the show a little over a week later and during that time I was able to improve one of the bits. They let you pick your own song for the band to play. I chose “Real Estates” by Curren$y featuring Dom Kennedy.
When and how did you get the “SNL” writing gig, and how long did it last? Same with “30 Rock”? What was the culture like in those writer’s rooms?
I got the writing gig at “SNL” a couple weeks after I performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The writer’s room was fun. On Mondays we would have our pitch meeting. You would pitch your idea in front of everyone. Writers, cast, producers, the host and Lorne. I would treat it like a short stand-up set. Most of the time it went really well and it was fun. Most weeks it was also the peak of my week because I wouldn’t get many sketches on. “SNL” is a legendary show and it was cool working there. I learned a lot and I got to work with some great people.
I went to “30 Rock” right after “SNL.” It was a different experience. The sitcom format is way more collaborative. One person writes a draft of a script and we all go through line-by-line and punch it up as a group. Whatever we would laugh at the most in the room would make it on the show. I feel like writing at “30 Rock” really helped me improve my stand-up because the show is extremely joke-heavy and it just gave me a better eye at finding spots in my act where I can add another laugh.
Were there any sketches or jokes you were particularly proud of getting on the air?
On “SNL” the only sketch that I got on was “Barkley Golf” on the Charles Barkley episode. I contributed jokes to other people’s sketches. I was especially proud when Rihanna said a line that I wrote in the “Shy Ronnie” Digital Short. It was always really exciting to get something on the air even if it was just one line or an edit. My favorite “30 Rock” line that I got on is when Jack Donaghy is telling a teacher to shut up and he says, “Quiet, chalk hands, a real man is talking.”
John Wenzel is an award-winning A&E reporter and digital media editor for The Denver Post and the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum). Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.