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Talking to Strangers

Stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress talks Chris Rock and 30 Rock

Before Hannibal Buress started doing stand-up comedy at 19 in Chicago, he wanted to be the “black Howard Stern.” Since then he’s written for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock and has appeared on Louie, Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live! In 2012, he released his first Comedy Central special “Animal Furnace,” and now he’s working on his new web series Talking to Strangers, in which he interviews musicians like The Root’s Questlove. Just don’t ask him when it premieres, because, well, he has no idea. 

You’re fresh off SXSW. What’s it like doing comedy at SXSW?

It’s crazy being down there because it’s so many shows happening at once … You walk down 6th Street, the main street of Austin, and there’s just music blaring from every bar, people are just packed in the streets … Got to see Prince live, which was just crazy. He did six encores, which sounds like a lot, but it’s true.

There’s also a ton of buzz swirling around that one night at New York’s Comedy Cellar [Feb. 27] where it was you, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Marlon Wayans and Questlove. How did that night come about?

It worked out that a lot of people were in town at the same time. Chapelle and Chris Rock the night before that, they did a set where it was the both of them riffing on stage. So I was just coming to watch, you know, and hopefully they’d do something like that again. I come there, I make it in time for the second show; Kevin Hart is on because Kevin Hart was hosting SNL that week so he’s popping in the clubs to do stand up in New York and then Chris Rock does a set after Kevin Hart. Then the second show is over and then the third show starts and they ask me if I want to go on. I’m not booked for that show. I’m thinking, wait, Chapelle is going on but they want me to go up? If Chapelle is going on then that means they need less comics, they don’t need more comics. 

It turned out Rock had asked the managers to put me on. So I went on and then Chapelle went on and did a great 45-minute set. Then Kevin Hart yelled about having a story about Jay-Z, so Dave Chapelle brings Kevin up to tell the story and then everyone starts coming up out of the wing; Bill Bellamy, Chris Rock. It was just a real crazy thing to watch. I don’t know how long it went, maybe an hour and a half, two hours of them just joking on each other, telling stories and passing the mic. It was a real cool night to be a part of.

I watched the mini documentary leading up to your Comedy Central special. There’s a scene where you play a voicemail from Chris Rock. It’s pretty hilarious. I was wondering, what role does mentorship play in the world of comedy?

He gives advice. I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily a mentor in that way. But I mean that was my first Comedy Central special so I was asking for advice. If I wonder about something, I’ll run it by him and ask his advice. But for the most part he’s just a cool dude that I can talk with sometimes. I’m sure some other guys, they have mentors, and it varies for comedians — or it might just be an older comedian you ask for advice. It’s not like, a Karate Kid/Mr. Miyagi situation. [Laughs]. I wouldn’t describe it as that but he is somebody that does have good insight.

What advice did he end up giving you?

He was just saying, I mean obviously you’re supposed to run your set a bunch of times and work it over and over and just really try to make it a good show. He said, “It’s a special, so make it a special, not a normal. It shouldn’t be a normal show.” So that was great advice. He also told me to watch Rocky, but I didn’t end up watching Rocky.

In that documentary, you talked about doing stand up seven nights a week in Chicago. You seem kind of like Louis C.K. in that way, to be a very much a working comedian. You’ve written for television, you’re on The Eric Andre Show, you’re starting this new web series [Talking with Strangers]. It makes me think of what Mitch Hedberg said:

“When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, ‘OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?’”

Is this a new trend for comedians, that they have to juggle so many different roles, or is it a personal choice?

No, it’s a personal choice. Just, what you want to do as an individual and just as far as opportunities. I feel like if I only did stand up right now, if I just only did stand up and nothing else, I would be bored as hell. I like to do other things to mix it up and just to challenge myself. It makes it more fun. It gives you different experiences too. If you’re doing other stuff that gives you more to talk about on stage and that keeps your mind fresh. I like stand-up but it does get boring sometimes.

You’ve written for SNL and 30 Rock. What’s the difference between writing for stand up and writing with a team of comedians?

If you’re collaborating with people, you can start out with a small nugget or idea and then, you say it, you bounce it off somebody, you add it, they make it better. Somebody else says something and then you have a fully formed idea. That’s more how the 30 Rock writing style was, as far as pitching jokes for a script. Whereas stand up, you’re on your own so you have an idea and you can try it on stage, and you decide or the audience decides, based on the audience’s reaction, what you want to do with it. Then on 30 Rock, you’re writing for characters that have been established already that have their own voice. So you’re thinking of a joke that Jack Donaghy would say, or Liz Lemon.

Do you prefer one over the other?

Yeah, writing for myself. [Laughs.] It’s way more fun to write for myself. When I write for myself I know it’s going to get on. 

Speaking of 30 Rock, I found something that kind of made me laugh last night. I was looking at your IMDb acting credits. On 30 Rock you’re listed as playing a bum four times and a homeless guy once. I was wondering what that distinction was and how you made that distinction in your acting choices?

Yeah. [Laughs]. I have no idea about that. I don’t even know who handles that stuff. But the difference between a bum and homeless guy is that the bum is just a bum, you know? You’ve made him into a character. You’ve almost dehumanized him. Whereas homeless guy is, you know, he’s a guy, he’s still a man, he’s just homeless. He might just be homeless for that day. He could have been the stoner guy the day before or the pizza delivery guy, but today he’s homeless guy. So that’s the difference right there.

What can you tell me about your new web series Talking to Strangers?

It hasn’t started yet. We got a bunch of episodes in the can. I wanted to interview people and see how it goes. I interviewed a few musicians. The first episode is with Questlove and then I went to SXSW and interviewed a few people. I have to look at the footage and see if it’s good, to see if I even want to do that, even put it out. Hopefully it’s good. It’s a different skill to work on. I was really bad at interviewing the first time.

With Questlove?

Yes. It’s because I’m used to being interviewed so when I would ask him a question he’d answer, I’d just say my experience with the thing I just asked about. You know how people give Tyra Banks shit for how she would do her show. She would say, "In my life..." I did that a few times. But I guess it’s different when you’re a performer and you’re interviewing another performer, I think it might be a different sort of interview style. That may be me overthinking it. So I gotta just get comfortable with my interview style, being a more interviewer/entertainer.

Maybe I’ll get the new slot that’s opening up after Fallon, when Fallon gets The Tonight Show, maybe I’ll get the slot following it.

I heard that was going to Howard Stern.

Really?

Mmhmm.

I could beat him out. A young upstart. No, I don’t want that job. I like to travel. Good for Howard Stern! Did you ever watch his show when it was on E! Do you remember it being on E!? How old are you?

I’m 29.

So yeah ok, you were around then. It was good, it was really good. Before I wanted to do standup, I wanted to be the black Howard Stern. I just thought, that seems fun. I remember being 12 or 13 and thinking, “Oh man, I want to do that.” I want to be a black version of that.

Who really makes you laugh? Who are your favorite comedians?

Barbara Bush, Kanye West, Katie Couric, Suzie Orman, Chris Hanson, Waka Flocka and Dave Chapelle.

Hannibal Buress performs 9 pm Friday, March 29, at WOW Hall; $18.