In the premiere of his new show 'Why?,' America’s most laid-back comedian dips into try-hard sketch comedy.
The quintessential Hannibal Buress joke appeared on his first album, My Name is Hannibal, released in 2010 when he was 27. The set-up involves the difficulties of living with women. His girlfriend berates him for coming home drunk at 3 AM (Aside: "You realize I can do bad shit and make it home at seven o'clock, right?") and then asks what he would do if she came home at three. "Me, I would play video games," he responds, with his standard squint and laid-back register, "and celebrate your absence."
Stoicism and honesty typify his comedy, to the extent that it almost eschews irony. This may be why (by his own admission) he didn't fit in on the writing staffs of the camp-heavy 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, which thrived on inside jokes and a hollow archness.
Last night Comedy Central debuted Why? With Hannibal Buress, the eponymous comedian's first solo show. Although expectations were high, no one—not even the comedian himself—really knew what it would be like. Buress told Entertainment Weekly in June that he had "no idea" what the show would be about, and screeners were unavailable because the show is shot just one day in advance to keep the material fresh.
Buress came to much of America's attention last fall, through video footage of a stand-up set in which Buress brought up Bill Cosby's sexual assault allegations. "'Pull your pants up, black people! I can talk town down to you because I had a successful sitcom,'" he says in the video, deepening his voice, but not really sounding at all like Cosby. "Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby, so that brings you down a couple of notches." Jibes at Cosby's self-righteousness are not new. There's a long bit in Eddie Murphy's Raw in which Murphy, in his vinyl catsuit, does a high-energy imitation of Cosby calling him to tell him to clean up his act. But this isn't the 80s, and I'd like to think the strength of Buress's attack is the same strength of his comedy—it's low-key. Buress just casually reminded people of a fact. Then encouraged them to google it.
Buress's stand-up attitude serves him well as the sidekick on The Eric Andre Show, a Larry Sanders-meets-Jackass by way of Tim and Eric back-flip that so deconstructs the talk show it begins every episode with Andre literally destroying his desk, couch, and house band. Buress is in the Ed McMahon/Andy Richter role, which means that, for this show, instead of laughing at monologue jokes he'll often point out how bad they are: "That doesn't make any sense." "What the fuck are you talking about, man?" His deadpan is crucial to punctuating the show's insanity.
One episode actually has Andre and Buress switch roles, positing what a hypothetical Hannibal Buress Show might be like. During one celebrity interview in that episode, a white man claiming to be Buress's father walks out from backstage with a blur over his crotch and the Buress treatment goes into such effect that the new host actually just describes why the interruption is so ridiculous: "Dad, this is a bad time for us to reunite. If you are in fact my father, why would you step out now during the biggest interview of my life? That means you don't care about me as a son. You haven't been in my life at all and I'm interviewing Nick Cannon, a former R. Kelly collaborator... and stagehands let you walk out here with your dick out!"
These aren't even jokes, per se. Buress thrives when he is the world's straight man. He's sort of a bro, but mostly he's just amused, and sort of exhausted, by everything. The perfect comedian for today. He's not looking to add to our noise.
So when it comes to the first episode of Why?, it's a little jarring to see him in a higher-energy position, employing the kind of standard wit we're used to in monologues on every other show. It's not a bad joke to point out that Greece is the birthplace of philosophy and that "like philosophy majors everywhere, they're broke as shit." But it is a little uncanny to hear it from Buress, the man who in his stand-up confesses that he keeps empty jars of pickles for the pickle juice, which is still good for "flicking" onto sandwiches, and wonders aloud about the racism in YouPorn comments. Probably the best part of the premiere was a sketch in which he tracks down the IP address of a Twitter troll and goes to her home to confront this person, who turns out to be a territorial Amy Schumer. "Comedy Central's my network," she spits. "No!" he responds. "Yes!" "It's owned by Viacom," Buress says sensibly. They get into the fact that it's possible some people could watch two TV shows. Buress offers that he watches Extreme Couponing and the (hopefully) fake Extreme Couponing: Dallas Edition. "There's a Dallas edition?" Schumer asks. "It's better?"
"It's just more specific, and localized," Buress says, half-muttering at peak Buress. "I like that part of it."
It's not fair to expect Buress to be able to flex his strong weird-sleepy-literalist game this way in every sketch. If the rest of the sketches fell occasionally flat, they did show a way forward. The execution on his fake audition tape for host of The Daily Show relied too heavily on the absurd ("In other news: Barack Obama addicted to edamame... that's more interesting than ISIS." Actually, it's really not at all). But there were other moments where he captured Jon Stewart's hunchy, self-serious body language perfectly. He ended that sketch saying, "Why am I even doing this? There's no chance you're going to give this show to a black dude." It's a nice reference to the fact that, with Trevor Noah incoming, almost all of Comedy Central's major shows at the moment are actually headed by minorities or women.
This is balanced out with a nice reality-check sketch in which Buress tries to tell cops that pull him over "I don't answer questions," the way one white civil rights activist does in YouTube videos. This is going to sound odd, but what makes it funny is just how quickly he gets shot. It feels like the best representation of his directness, in sketch form.
Sketches can be fun, but they involve planning, dressing up. They're not effortless; they're not cool. There's a reason Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright probably never attempted this. Here's hoping future episodes allow him to exhibit the weird, laid-back honesty that's made him so popular. Because it would be a real shame if he were simply absorbed into some kind of system when he's so deft at critiquing such things, as was the case at his spot at the roast of Justin Bieber this past spring.
"They say you should roast the ones you love," Buress told the singer, "but I don't like you at all, man. I'm just here because this is a real good opportunity for me. Actually you should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye. And I hope it doesn't work." Those aren't jokes! And yet it's so effective, to say nothing of the great way it manages to be sneakily critical of all parties involved: Bieber, Comedy Central, us, himself.
Buress went on to add that he dislikes Bieber's music four times in a row, without elaboration beyond variants of "I think it's bad" or "It's not good." He honestly might be a genius.
Why? With Hannibal Buress airs weekly on Comedy Central.
Dan Duray is on Twitter.