The High Times Interview: Hannibal Buress

If you check out the website of comedian Hannibal Buress, this is what you’ll read on the bio page: “He’s appeared on television a lot. At least 10 times. Actually it’s way more than that. He’s the cohost of The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. He’s a cast member on Broad City on Comedy Central. He’s had failed TV show deals of his own. He tours regularly doing stand-up comedy. There’s other stuff on Google that you can find. Have a nice day.”

That modest blurb belies the comedian’s soaring stock. Currently in the midst of his “Comedy Camisado” tour, Buress is a fresh comic voice blessed with the ability to find humor in his own foibles and travails and then deliver it to the audience in what seem to be unplanned, completely impromptu stream-of-consciousness riffs. A budding celebrity without artifice, Buress is genuinely thankful to be where he is today—and as he discovers the ins and outs of being a star, he continues to mine even more nuggets of absurdity for laughs.

I know of two Hannibals—Hannibal Lecter and the Hannibal who nearly conquered Rome riding elephants. How did you get your name?

I’m named after the guy who nearly conquered Rome.

Why did your parents name you Hannibal?

’Cause it’s a great name and they expected great things for me.

Where did you grow up?

The west side of Chicago. It was good, man. It was, uh … a horrible neighborhood, but it was okay—nothing too crazy. Overall, I had a pretty solid upbringing.

Were you known as a funny kid?

Yeah. What I mean is, people goof off in high school and grade school, but I didn’t know that I wanted to do comedy. You act funny for your own personal gain. I wasn’t the funniest in my group—in high school, I had friends that were definitely funnier. We always talked about each other’s clothes or just talked trash to each other. You had to be funny, because if you had no acumen for humor at all, you would just get crushed. People gonna roast you, so you had to have some jokes.

So when did comedy become a serious thing for you?

I started doing it in 2002. I started going to the open-mic things in college. I went and watched and decided to try it out and got into it from there. It was a lot of fun. It was intoxicating. I just really enjoyed performing—I enjoyed having that outlet to send out my ideas and be creative.

Is the process discouraging, having to wait around for time slots? Sometimes you have no audience. Is it hard to stay optimistic and driven?

No, ’cause I just really wanted do it. So if it means being 35th on the open mic, what else do I have to do that’s better than trying to pursue my dreams, even if I had to wait two or three hours? I was in my early 20s. I can’t think of what I’d rather have been doing. Yeah, some of the time, it wasn’t ideal—but if you’re trying to do what you wanna do, you go through that.

There’s a certain naïve truth to your standup; you reveal the comedy of a situation almost unknowingly. Did you develop that style over time?

It’s just what I know. There’s not really “development” to it—it’s just what I really think about things and how I see the world. For the most part, the stuff that I do onstage is pretty close to what I think. Every now and then I’ll exaggerate, say something kind of crazy. But 95 percent is how I really feel about stuff. It’s not a façade—it’s not a character or anything. It’s what I think.

But as a comedian, you’re certainly aware of the rhythms in the delivery of a joke. Woody Allen said that sometimes he could take a whole day constructing the rhythm for a single joke.

No, I don’t spend a whole day working on a goddamn joke. I mean, I’ll work it out onstage—but as I was saying, I know how to present ideas to an audience to make them work. You can’t just say it onstage like some random asshole; there has to be some art to it, some presentation. That just comes with time and comfort and repetition.

Does pot figure into your creative process at all?

I smoke occasionally, but it’s not a part of my routine. I mean, I don’t need it—I do smoke occasionally, though. I don’t like it that much when I’m out and about; I like smoking at home. I like it to be one of the last things I do that day. I don’t wake and bake at all; I couldn’t do that. If I’m waking and baking, then I’m staying inside my place the rest of the day. I can’t start my day off high.

I used to smoke more in high school and college. But I still enjoy weed. I‘ll smoke and write some jokes sometimes—I’ve written some good stuff on weed. But sometimes it has my mind blown so much that it’s tough to catch what you’re thinkin’ of, your mind is just firing so fast.

What’s your reaction as America becomes more favorable to pot?

I think it’s good, man. It’s good that it’s being decriminalized; it makes sense. People shouldn’t be in jail for years for it. It’s all out there—the research and different studies about weed versus alcohol. Alcohol is legal but more dangerous; it causes violence. I mean, that’s all out there. What’s so funny to me is that different states can have their own thing. One state can say, “This is what we do here.” But another state can say, “If you did that there, that’s okay—but we don’t fuck with that shit here.” It’s pretty goofy and arbitrary.

People of color have far higher arrest rates for pot than white people. What’s your reaction to that?

That’s not shocking—it’s true for all arrests. People of color are profiled by the police more overall. The police have been doing that for years now, and they might continue to do it for a long time. Certain individuals and certain groups aren’t in a great place in this country, so there’s a lot of progress that needs to be made.

You seem pretty laid-back. What really pisses you off?

People who aren’t reasonable … you know, when you try to be logical and intelligent, and they just have a wall up and don’t wanna help you out at all. It’s when people use the rules as a way to be an asshole. My example is, I lost my ID while traveling a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t have ID, but you can fly without ID—they just really search you. Like I had insurance cards and copies of my ID; I had emails, prescriptions … so if you can prove your name and address, you can fly. But they give you a full pat-down and look through your bag.

So, like, I’ve been touring: three days, three different cities—I was doing three one-day flights back-to-back. It was awful and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I’d been traveling without ID for about two weeks ’cause I wasn’t able to get a license. Then I flew into LA—I was going to work on this movie called A Band of Robbers. We were filming south of LA, outside of Downey.

So I’m checking into the hotel. I have an insurance card, I have copies of my passport, I have all this stuff that proves that I am who I say I am. But the desk clerk checking me in says, “No, you have to have a government ID. I don’t know if this is you.”

I say, “Okay, that’s the rule. Have a look at my website. I have a website with my name on it.”

She says, “That could be, but you could have made that up. You could have made that website.” Oh, for real? I could have made a website—this elaborate fraud scheme—just to try to fucking sneak into the Embassy Suites in Downey, CA? I’m showing her stuff with my name on it, my face on it. I’m like: “Can’t we do a Google search? If I gotta prove who I am, if you wanna prove identity, why don’t we just look up my name on the Internet?” She wasn’t willing to do any of that stuff; she was just behind the fact that “Yo, you gotta have a government-issued ID.” Okay, that’s the rule—but it’s obvious in this day and age that if somebody doesn’t have ID with them, there’s ways that you can prove who they are without it. But if you wanna be an asshole, you just say, “No, it’s the rules.”

I was a bit hung-over, and I got so angry that I just started shaking. I kept trying to use logic, like: “Look at me … look at me in my eyes like a fucking human being! If I was committing fraud and trying to check into this hotel room for bad purposes, don’t you think I would have just left and went to another hotel instead of being here and talking to you for this long?”

A lot of your comedy seems to involve narrating things like this that happen to you.

Yeah. But that’s the thing that really bothers me, that really gets me—people won’t use logic.

So what makes you laugh?

Funny jokes, man. No particular subject matter. Good jokes—well-delivered, thought-out stuff. Yeah.

Who are the comedians that inspired you?

I like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Louis C.K. Those guys are awesome.

You were a writer for Saturday Night Live. How was that experience?

It wasn’t ideal, but it was still good. It allowed me to meet people that I still keep in contact with today. I got opportunities and advice. I didn’t get a lot of sketches on—I would have liked to have had more on-camera opportunities. But that job really shoved me on the path to what I’m doing right now, so I don’t regret my time there. I appreciate the opportunity and what it did then—and what it’s still doing for me.

Sometimes success breeds paranoia or neurotic behavior. How is success working out for you?

It’s different, man. It’s good and stuff, working more—you can help people out with opportunities or be able to pay your parents’ bills … things like that. But it’s crazy, too. You do start to question people’s motives, why they’re being nice to you. But it’s not really that bad a thing.

But weird things do happen. I got to LAX this morning, and I walked over to check in and TMZ was there—and TMZ has never been there when I’m about to fly. I don’t know if they were waiting for me or somebody else, but they were just like, “Oh, let’s talk to Hannibal!”

So when I’m done, I go back to check-in and I’m about to pass the lady who looks at your bag to see if it’s the right size. I travel carry-on all the time, every time—it’s my regular bag. I’ve been flying with it for the past year. So all the cameras are on me, and she’s like: “Oh, your bag is too big.” She made me put it in the sizer, which I never have to do. I never have to size that bag … and it didn’t fit in the sizer. Because of that, I missed my flight—because the cameras were right there and this woman wanted to show off for the cameras. That was a pretty interesting morning situation.

After Robin Williams’s death, many comedians said that depression isn’t unusual for comics. Any insights into that?

Nah. I don’t suffer any depression on the job; I enjoy what I do a lot. When I have to write commission checks to managers—that’s my depression.

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