One Bowl of Ramen and Three Dumplings with Hannibal Buress

You often don't know what comedian Hannibal Buress is going to say next, but you know that it will be incisive, startling, and true.

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Mar 16 2016, 2:00pm

Photos by Elizabeth Renstrom

This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

In the age of on-demand-all-streaming-instant everything, we all have our comedy cures, the clips we have bookmarked for when the mid-afternoon melancholy rolls in and we need an injection of joy straight into our bloodstream. Here's my prescription for a blue funk: a GIF of Hannibal Buress dancing down the rampway at Grand Central Station in a suit and tie, doing a jerky cabbage patch motion with his arms and a wobbly shuffle with his feet. Even though the clip lasts only a few seconds, Buress's daffy strut (which comes from a scene in Broad City, when the gang rushes to get to a destination wedding) has brought me near endless delight. This has much to do with the element of surprise: Buress's character, a typically restrained dentist named Lincoln—Broad City's one and only straight man, in all senses of the phrase—rarely breaks the goofball barrier. If Abbi and Ilana are always turned up to ten, Buress keeps Lincoln simmering at a constant three; seeing him cut loose is so rare it's like a shock when it happens. Some of the most generous comedy comes out of deep restraint, and Buress knows this—he keeps so much to himself that when he finally does give something more, it feels cathartic.

I felt this same slow-burning generosity when I met Buress for lunch at Ramen Yebisu in Williamsburg, where he lives, on a recent gray afternoon. On the kind of day that zaps you of your life force just by walking around in it, both Buress and I arrived at the ramen place chilly and low-energy. But then, the break: We sat down, and my recorder immediately stopped working. That sickly pall of "oh shit, this is a nightmare" broke across my face. Buress, sensing the panic, did the kind thing. He laughed. And when Buress laughs, as he does often during his own stand-up sets, he does it with his whole face and a full-throated cackle. We were going to be OK.

However, as I learned throughout our lunch, the clouds I felt hanging over Buress extend a bit beyond just a touch of seasonal-affective disorder. On the one hand, he has reached a point in his life, and in his career, where things are going better than ever: On February 5, the day after his 33rd birthday, Netflix released Comedy Camisado, Buress's new hour-long stand-up special. For a comedian, a Netflix release is the new Big Dream: thousands of comedy fans streaming in glorious unison, all within reach of their bongs and bags of Doritos. As far as stand-up goes, Buress, who started out in his native Chicago, has reached the upper echelon—the only thing he has left to do is play Madison Square Garden (a goal he intends to achieve, by the way).

Almost overnight Buress became the face of comic vigilante justice, a role he never asked to play.

Then, there's his television work. He is one of the best parts of Broad City—a show full of best parts—and he chews up every scene of the absurdist Eric Andre Show as the laconic sidekick who will put up with anything. Last year, he debuted Why? with Hannibal Buress, his own show on Comedy Central, a major victory after four previous television development deals had not panned out. He is also making the transition to film; in December, he killed in Daddy's Home, and he appeared in the indie action flick Band of Robbers, which saw wide release in January. And he has more IMDb credits coming: He has a role in the Baywatch film, starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, but he told me he doesn't take his shirt off. He travels everywhere with a DJ and a roving posse of friends and musicians, packs big rooms across the country, and sometimes uses "an Uber for jets" to get from place to place should he miss a flight (which he does, a lot: "I miss like, two out of every five flights I am scheduled for," he told me). When we met, he had just come back from Tokyo, where he played a last-minute show that sold out in less than a day.

And yet, there's always the other hand. As Buress fiddled with his chopsticks and tried to spear slippery dumplings ("Man, I'm really struggling with these. Might have to call in a fork."), I asked him how excited he feels on the eve of so many big developments—and was surprised when he admitted to feeling less happy than he had been in a while. "I think I was my happiest right before my other special [Live from Chicago] came out," he said, a bit wistfully. " I just remember being in good spirits. I did this podcast called Champs with Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher, and I just remember being in such a good mood when I did that. I think it was fewer responsibilities, a lighter time."

What he didn't mention in this spiel, and what I am even loathe to mention here, because Buress seems so keen on moving past it, is that March 2014, when Live in Chicago came out, was also seven months B.C.: Before Cosby. If you haven't heard about the connection between Hannibal Buress and Bill Cosby (and have been living in a cave... in which case, are you OK?), here it is in brief: In late October 2014, grainy footage of a joke Buress had been telling on the road about Cosby's history of sexual assault hit YouTube. The bit began with Buress chastising Cosby for telling young black men how to behave when he has no real moral ground to do so: "Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby... You leave here and google 'Bill Cosby rape.' It's not funny. That shit has more results than 'Hannibal Buress.'" The internet circulated the footage in a frenzy until cable news picked it up, at which point the story tipped into actual real-world results. Women began coming forward. Cosby lost an NBC show, and Cosby Show reruns disappeared from cable. Almost overnight Buress became the face of comic vigilante justice, a role he never asked to play. He certainly has more Google results now.

When I asked him about googling himself, he pulled out his phone and clicked one of the results, an article claiming he has a secret Zionist agenda. "I did a gig for the Young Jewish Leadership in Chicago last month," he said, referring to a performance for the Jewish United Fund's Young Leadership Division. "And here is one of those goofy-ass conspiracy sites that thinks I'm some secret agent."

All the conspiracy theories that sprang up in the wake of the Cosby affair still amuse and shock Buress. "People think I got my TV show because of that," he said. "But that would be impossible. The TV deal was locked in July 2014 and that came out in October. But after that, I almost didn't want to do my show anymore."

Buress pressed ahead despite his reservations with Why?, a half-hour showcase that was part man-on-the-street interviews, part variety show—but admitted that his heart wasn't fully in the eight episodes he made. He decided against returning for a second season. "It was uneven, unfocused," he said of the show. "I was having angst. It was just having this weird media attention that I didn't like."

This is the catch-22 of having a bit go viral in the era of modern stand-up. The way the business is set up, it only has room for a handful of stars at any given time. There are the working comedians you've heard of—Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Chris Rock—and then there is everybody else. It's a profession full of hoofers and grinders, playing showcases and guesting on podcasts and trying to fill a room and get on a marquee until they break big. Buress, because of his extremely rare stand-up talent, was already on the brink before any of the headlines happened. But it's understandable how the attention can affect a person on the road to success.

As he slurped down his miso ramen, Buress reflected on the fact that he almost quit doing comedy altogether in the wake of Cosbygate. He worried that the notice he was getting was more about the web traffic than his actual act. "People interject it unnecessarily," he told me. "I remember seeing a review of Daddy's Home that called me 'Cosby outer Hannibal Buress,' and I was like, really? But it is what it is." So Buress is moving on. As with his gleeful little jig in Grand Central, he keeps finding new ways to harness the electric power of abrupt surprise; he'll be soft-spoken, low-key, and measured during a set, ambling slowly across the stage, and then all of a sudden, he'll explode, delighting his audience. In that wedding episode of Broad City, Buress's character stops inside the train station, looks up at the celestial ceiling paintings, and says, "Holy shit, this place really is majestic." He is a vessel for unexpected revelations; you often don't know what he is going to say next, but you know that it will be incisive, startling, and true.

Of course, Buress still nods to the strange turn his life took in late 2014, and likely will for a while. He knows it has become funny. His Netflix set includes a bit in which he talks about how distrustful he is of strangers. He punctuates this riff with, "Did Cosby send you?"

His other new material, which contains his trademark mixture of incisive social observations and absurdist revelations, focuses more on his fears about aging and moving past his hard-partying 20s (though he told me he still goes out until 3 or 4 AM every night when he is out on the road). His main criticism of his own act now is that he appears too sweaty doing it—"I don't know why I look particularly sweaty in this special," he said. "Watch me get older and sweatier."

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