Despite all of the television work he's been doing lately -- which includes playing guest host for The Eric Andre Show, voiceover work for shows like Chozen and China, IL, and recurring bit parts on Comedy Central's Broad City -- comedian Hannibal Buress's first love is still standup. This Saturday, he hits the stage at Varsity for two shows. City Pages caught up with Buress to talk about his expanding career and unique approach to doing sets.
What were some of your best experiences of 2013?
I think the Oddball tour
. Touring with Dave Chapelle across the country, playing at 18,000 seat venues, was amazing. It was really cool to play with one of my idols, and perform in front of the largest crowds I've ever performed for. [Last year] was pretty smooth, man.
What was that experience like?
It was really fun, man. [I toured with] Flight of the Conchords, Kristen Schaal, Al Madrigal, Demetri Martin was on a few, [John] Mulaney was on a couple. It was just a cool time, man. Partied a lot. It was crazy to see that many people out there.
Is it different playing a set like that versus a smaller venue?
It's very different. For me, I just played it bigger and paced it differently. I don't really talk to the crowd when it's 18,000 people. You can't talk to an audience member the same way you would with a few hundred people. It's a different type of pace, different energy. I would do shorter, quicker jokes. Most of the crowd didn't know me, so I didn't have the comfort where I could just tell a long story. It was such a big crowd, so you try to make the set punchier.
You've opened for Dessa in the past, and wear her shirt in the promo photo. How did that connection happen initially?
I saw Dessa when I was playing San Francisco a few years ago. When I'm in a city, I read the local paper, the local arts weekly or whatever, just to see what's going on. I had a Thursday gig, and I only had one show, so I was done about 9:30, 10 o'clock, and I was looking for things to do. I hadn't really heard of Dessa, or who else she was playing with at the time, but I like to go see live hip-hop. So I went to where they were playing, watched the show, and had fun. There was a merch table, I liked the shirt, so I got the shirt. A lot of people like the shirt; they think it's Prince a lot of times, which is funny. I wore it in that photo, but I didn't plan wearing that shirt. I just happened to be wearing it that day.
You touch on music a lot in your standup, and have a connection with the music community more so than a lot of comedians. You've done jokes about Odd Future and Young Jeezy, and interviewed Danny Brown for Spin. Have you done shows alongside musicians in the past?
I started out in a music community when I first began doing standup. At Southern Illinois University, my first regular gig was an open mic with rappers and poets and musicians. So I started out in that world. From the very beginning, I was at these open mics, and I first started doing battle raps. I would battle rap at schools; it was just another way to get onstage. I would goof around and freestyle.
I go to concerts all the time, a lot of music stuff now is incorporated onstage, so there's that crossover there. I book bands and rappers at my show at the Knitting Factory. It's a good variety; you get music and comedy in one show. It's always good.
What's been the reception for your song "Gibberish Rap?"
"Gibberish Rap" was just a freestyle over my friend Tony Trim's mixtape Charcuteries and Champagne
. I was freestyling and goofing off, so that was just a 30-second freestyle. I listened back to it, and there was just something there. It was catchy and dumb, it was short, it wasn't too annoying. I said, 'Maybe we should add ad-libs to it.' So we added some ad-libs -- the 'Huh!' and 'Yeah!' and all that. I was like, 'Sounds kinda catchy. Let's put it online.' So I put it online, and got a response.
I started performing it live. I do it over and over. It's a joke about how when Kanye and Jay Z were touring, they'd do that song "Niggas In Paris" over and over as an encore. They'd just do that song eight times, and then they'd go to the next city and do it 10 times. Like, 'We're setting the record!' Yeah, you're setting the record for a thing that only you do.
How do you like doing television work versus standup?
I enjoy television work. It's a lot of fun. I've been fortunate to have friends that are working on TV projects ask me to be a part of them. The Eric Andre Show
is very fun. Broad City
, I did a part for their web series that they asked me to do. It's a real fun part. I get to improvise a lot of my dialogue. On the two episodes that have aired so far, a lot of my dialogue has been improvised. They've been really cool about letting me shape the vibe of the character.
The voiceover work has been real cool for Chozen. It's a real different experience seeing your voice come out of an animated character. A lot of times, I don't know the whole story; I just did my parts in the booth and I didn't get a chance to see the entire script. Even if I did, it's different with animation. I'm able to watch Chozen and China, IL, kind of like a fan. I don't know what's going on, I just know one of the characters has my voice. Also, I learned to not watch my animated work -- really any of my stuff, but especially animated stuff -- while high. It's real trippy to hear your own voice come out of a cartoon character high. So I won't do that again.
I enjoy all of that work, but I started out as a standup and I love standup. So it's fun to do these things and ultimately it will drive more people to my standup. It makes people even more excited when they come to my show, or they're more likely to come because they saw me on one of these programs.
Your standup style is a lot more laid-back than Eric Andre's, he always seems to end up naked or destroying part of the set. The contrast works well on the show. Are you involved with the writing on that show, or are you strictly an actor?
It's both. I'm involved with some of the writing and coming up with bits. A lot of it is improvised on set. We come in with a structure for what we wanna do, but with a lot of the interviews we have maybe a couple questions then we get into a flow. A lot of stuff that makes it on the show is just straight-up improvised. We have the benefit of being a 12-minute show. We'll shoot an interview with somebody, and shoot maybe 45 minutes, then use a minute of that, maybe. The editors really make that show. They find the funny and cut it down.
Who are some your early comedy influences that made you want to get into standup initially?
You know, nobody really. I didn't watch standup as a kid thinking, 'Wow! I wanna do that.' I kinda had a friend who was doing standup, and I saw him at an open mic. Everybody there was new, so it just made me think I could do it. When you see comedy at a low level, it demystifies it. Like, 'Oh wow! This is not hard.' But it is really hard for people who are new at it. So I got in there. I enjoyed it, and I got a couple laughs. It wasn't great, but I had a lot of fun. When I first started out, that's when I started picking up DVDs and books.
IF YOU GO:
7 and 10 p.m. Saturday, February 22