Entertainment

Hannibal Buress Wants to Blow Your Expectations of Socially Distant Standup

VICE spoke to Buress about the 'Let's See How This Goes' tour.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
September 21, 2020, 11:00am
Hannibal Buress talking and wearing loafers
Photo by Darius Griffin  
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The last show Hannibal Buress attended was a private performance held by his niece and nephew. They performed a medley of hip-hop instrumentals on the piano, and it got him psyched. Prior to this performance, he told VICE, the last production he attended was a car wash, which he also found exhilarating.

Given his own excitement at these events, the comedian is optimistic that his next set of shows will be "an opportunity to make a real mark," he said. Tomorrow, Buress, joined by rapper Open Mike Eagle, will begin the "Let's See How This Goes" tour, a five-stop drive-in theater run starting in Cleveland, Ohio, and concluding in Buress and Eagle's hometown of Chicago.

It's difficult to imagine Buress's earlier work—mellow, and hilariously sedate—scaling to a drive-in theater, as a socially distanced audience looks on from parked cars. But as his career progressed, Buress has become more animated, and is used to experimenting with the format. His last special, Miami Nights, presented by his new venture, Isola Man Media, included on-screen graphics, Auto-Tune, and other effects not usually seen in a standup special.

"I've shown that I can tell jokes and write jokes without sauce or production," Buress said, but the effects can "nudge" a bit, or have an additive property to the joke. The drive-in shows will also have this "sauce," but with new material.

VICE spoke to Buress about his upcoming tour, and performing comedy at a time when something as simple as a car wash feels like entertainment.

Hannibal Buress: Sorry I'm late. I started messing with this beat-making app and I got lost in it a little bit. And I looked at the time and I was like, "Oh shit!" [laughs]

VICE: What app?
It's Endlesss. With three S's. You heard of it?

VICE: No. You're not sneaking an ad read into the beginning, are you?
No I'm not sneaking one. I wouldn't sneak one; I'd tell you. I have no involvement. I just discovered it yesterday. But it's really dope. I was talking to some friends about it. You can make loops really quickly, in a way where for me, I'm easily distracted with shit, so working on the traditional stuff, like FruityLoops or Logic or Ableton, it's easy to get lost and start doing something else because it's tedious and there's a lot of tinkering you've gotta do with those types of programs.

When did you create Isola Man Media?
One of the people that works with me, an editor/producer, Shaliek Jenkins—we were working on Isola Fest, a festival in Isola, Mississippi, in December. He said there should be an Isola Man. We conceptualized him as almost a mascot of Isola Fest. My cousin Ron actually played Isola Man. That area of Mississippi is known for catfish. And so Isola Man, his enemy was [laughs] a giant catfish that was trying to destroy the festival. And Isola Man saved the Isola Fest from the catfish. It ended with them battling right before T-Pain went on stage to close out the festival.

So after that, I was thinking of how I wanted to move forward with production and everything, and thought about the name Isola Man media had a fun ring to it, and just started putting out stuff under that.

With the name "Let's See How This Goes," this tour sounds more like a test. How do you think it's going to go?
I think it's gonna go really well. I haven't performed for a while, or put on shows in a while, so it allows for a lot of time to think about ideas and how I want to approach the show and approach the audience experience when you're considering all the factors that people really haven't been going to shows that much—things are shut down. I would call myself re-sensitized.

In May, I was about to go to Arizona, and I went through a car wash. And the car wash was really dope, because I hadn't been to shit in a while. At that point, the last show I had seen, I saw Thundercat at the Wiltern [in Los Angeles.] When I drove into the carwash, I remember feeling, "Whoa!" Because I hadn't been to anything. And when you really think about it, a car wash is a small production. I think about the show like that. I think people [would] be appreciative of a normal standup show from me right now, and I'd be excited to do one. But there's a chance to really step it [up] from a production standpoint and blow people's expectations out of the water because they haven't been seeing things in a while.

People are really excited to do something that's not in their apartment. When I've gone to comedy shows, even in the park, there's an enthusiasm that wasn't there in the Before times.
Yeah man, you can't take that shit for granted. Actually, I drove to Arizona after that car wash, and I got to my sister's crib. My niece and nephew—they play piano. They were playing different hip-hop instrumentals on the piano, doing a medley, and I was probably more hyped about it and appreciative than I normally would've been. Because at that point, it had been a while since I'd seen a motherfucker play the keys live [laughs]. The carwash was the first production, and then my niece and nephew was my first concert in a while. And I'll remember it forever.

Can you explain how you know [tour mate] Open Mike Eagle?
Open Mike Eagle—we met in maybe 2001, 2002. He was my RA in college. I knew him a little bit before he was my RA. He was rapping—he was known as the best battle rapper on campus at the time.

I was a terrible host, by the way. I had no sense of flow and what the audience needed. I was stretching when there was no need to stretch, [and]  there would be hella acts waiting to go on. I'm a comic a year in, doing 10-12 minutes between people. Really bad. When I first started doing standup—I'll never forget—I had a VHS tape of [one of my earlier sets]. I got to perform in Peoria, [and] I went up to his spot and played him the tape. Which is also—just that mode of showing somebody your stuff back then is so [laughs] wild to think about. Now you send links: "Check this out, here's the link." But before, you really went to somebody's place, or they came to yours, like, "Yo. I'm about to put my shit in."

It's a vulnerable commitment.
[laughs] He watched it and he said, "You should check out Mitch Hedberg," because he thought my style was similar to Hedberg's. I hadn't heard of Hedberg at the time. He also gave me a bootleg audio of Dave Chappelle performing Killing Them Softly; he had the audio of that from Napster. So he passed some stuff for me to learn from when I first showed him I was working on standup.

How was he as an RA?
Pretty chill. He wasn't a noise-violation guy. He's more of a knock-on-the-door 'Hey, come on, man." That type of shit.

Kanye posted about how he'd have to re-record some of his masters if he wanted to get out of a contract. I know you've done that—can you talk a little bit about why artists opt to do it, and what that process is like?
I can't speak to it on a Kanye level [laughs]. That's a whole different game: [He's got] a lot more catalog and tunes and other stuff. For me, with My Name is Hannibal, I offered to buy back the rights from the label, just because, at this point, I'd rather have it. I don't think they're doing the best that can be done with it.

That deal was done at a time when the focus was on actual physical CD sales. There were physical CDs and iTunes purchases when I did that. I recorded it in 2008; it released in 2010. Somebody made your physical CDs, and then you have something to sell on the road after shows, and also on iTunes. Now the business has shifted in a completely different way, but the old deals that you have don't reflect it.

I found out that the option was to re-record it. The material was recorded when I was 25 or 26, but some of those bits were from the mind of a 20 year-old or a 21 year-old. It was a really fun, special show; the performance of it is another thing. I listened to some of it, I can tell that I'm reading it, and so that's why I've actually been hesitant to release it. I got into the overthinking mode of it: My audience is different than the My Name is Hannibal audience—is it too narrow? Or I may just have to drop that shit. Or do another one. Either shit or get off the pot. I got a lot of stuff I sit on.

Was there a moment for you, or a period of time, where you thought, “Wait. Standup as we know it might take a long time to come back.”
Early on—shit shut down March 12, 13—we were talking about the fall. Six months from now, Boom, we'll be back. We might have to play different cities, because everybody's trying to tour in the spring. We might have to play more secondary markets: Little Rock. Missoula, Montana. Savannah, Georgia. Because the main cities, those gigs are gonna be booked. That's how I was [thinking].

I think a lot, and I'm an optimist. A lot of time, shit would hit when I was going through old footage for Miami Nights stuff or just editing, looking through hard drives and then [seeing me] rocking a crowd—or afterparty shit, DJing with people, kicking it, and getting emotional at that footage. Like, Damn. Look at that: People having fun. And [then] Panicking. I've gotten over that part. I don't tear up when I look at party footage [laughs]; I just go, Oh yeah, that was a good time. But there was a time in LA when I was solo for a while, and would have a lot of moments like that.

Are you still thinking of spending some time In Ghana? [Buress told Joe Rogan on The Joe Rogan Experience that he was thinking about moving to Ghana.]
Yeah. I've been thinking about it for November. Let's see how the first few dates of this tour goes. There's a chance to add some shows, but I really don't want to add them until I do one or two, and then I'll know if I want to do more. This could be the only handful of shows, these five cities—and then I go do something else, chill out, go to an island or something, see which country we can go to. I know a lot of international travel is starting to open up, so go get into a different zone and work there. Maybe it's Ghana, maybe it's somewhere else. The rebellious part of me wants to—since I talked about going to Ghana on such a [laughs] public platform I wish I didn't say it. I didn't go into the interview planning on it, but Joe was talking about moving to Texas, and I was just talking, like, "Yeah, I'm thinking about going to Africa." He's like, "Yeah let's get into it!"

It's weird when people know your plans like that. The comedian and the writer in me almost wants to [say,] "Well, actually, Japan." [laughs]

What do you think about Joe Rogan hosting a debate between Biden and Trump?
It'd be something to see them go at it for three-to-four hours like that. It would be something. [laughs] I don't know if we need it, or what it would do at this point. Are there still undecideds? I guess so. That's the nature of elections: You are campaigning to the very end, and there are some folks that are still really thinking [between Biden and Trump.] It's wild to think about that [laughs].

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The "Let's See How This Goes" Drive-In Theater Tour begins tomorrow, September 22.