Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.
Though Hannibal Buress’ start in stand-up was as modest as any, he quickly rose from the college campus of Southern Illinois University to the writers’ room of Saturday Night Live. Since then, he’s turned up on 30 Rock, released a couple comedy albums, and is currently prepping the release of his third stand-up special, Hannibal Buress: Live From Chicago. In advance of Live From Chicago’s release, The A.V. Club spoke with Buress about his memorable firsts, ones that range from his first experiences with comedy, his adolescent anxiety about his name, to his first days working in the actual building 30 Rock.
First time onstage
Hannibal Buress: I was in this college program called Future Scholars where you go to SIU the summer after your senior year of high school or before freshman year of college, you go to this college program to kind of get acclimated to the campus and all that. They had a talent show and I put together this goofy dance routine with a friend of mine, Sylvester. We put together this choreographed dance routine to a Silkk The Shocker song, and I remember that just felt cool and people laughed. So I did have the performance bug, but I didn’t really know what to do with it at that time. But that’s where the seeds of it were probably planted right there.
First time doing stand-up
HB: I went to an open mic with my friend and watched it, and I saw that people weren’t that great. That kind of made me want to do it. I thought, “I’m normally as funny as that with my friends,” so I just wanted to try it because of that. When I got onstage, it was fun. I mean, I was nervous—I was super nervous. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that nervous since then. Even on TV appearances or big shows, I don’t know if I’ve ever been as nervous as I was my first time doing stand-up. I just remember getting offstage and sitting down and my right knee was just shaking from the adrenaline.
First show in Chicago
HB: I remember I did a show, I forget where it was, but it was a show that Lil Rel had put me on and I was in the middle of a joke where I actually fell to the ground as part of the bit, and the DJ just played the music on me. That happens at black shows sometimes, where they just play the music so you stop doing comedy. [Laughs.] They’ll give you a hard out to keep that show moving and you take it.
That’s just a different type of bombing. If you bomb in a comedy club on the road you can kind of bomb on your own terms a little bit. You get to finish out the set and get to maybe try to recover from it or work the crowd or do something different with it, or you can just be weird and do weird material for yourself. But it’s really funny to have someone say, “Nope. We’re just going to play you out. We’re going to blast the music and get the host back up here.”
AVC: When did you realize that there were differences between those kinds of rooms?
HB: I don’t know, because some of the shows I would open on campus would be black comedians coming down, so it would be a mostly black audience and black students. I did all right for those crowds. And even when I started doing the shows in Chicago I would do all right sometimes. But I learned quickly that it is a different energy and a different level of expectations, and there’s no room for failure performing for a black audience. If you don’t get them right away it’s tough winning them back even if you’re doing top-notch material. If you didn’t win them right when you walked out there, it’s tough.
AVC: You talked about bombing for Jimmy Fallon’s show, but do you really remember the first time you nailed it and felt like the crowd was with you and what you were doing?
HB: The thing is, nailing it when you’re at that stage of the game—I had shows that I just felt good about and I was really happy about. In college, one of my first five times doing stand-up, I would say that I did all right with the audience, but if I watched that tape now, or if some of my fan base watched that tape now, they’d say, “This shit stinks.” [Laughs.] I would even say that the second time I was onstage they brought down a few comedians from Chicago, it was Lil Rel [Howery], WiLdcat, and somebody else. I knew the guys who were putting on the show so I just asked to open it. That’s the thing about being in college: there were no barriers to getting on shows. I had only done stand-up one other time, and I knew they were having a comedy show, so I just asked, “Can I open this one? Can I open this show?” And they were like, “Sure, you can open this show, dude whose done stand-up one other time. Get on.” [Laughs.] So I got on that, and I had a couple jokes that were about things that were going on around campus, just specific college humor and a couple jokes of my own, and it went well. It went well for where I was back then and what I was trying to do. I even remember walking on campus that next week and having a couple people come up to me and repeat things I had said onstage, which was bananas to me at the time. “What? That happens? People remember that?” But I think I really did benefit early on from starting on a college campus. It was maybe beneficial because I was able to start in such a supportive environment, to the point where it was easy to get press and people knew me in Carbondale as the comedian within the first year and a half of me doing comedy. I would walk to the grocery store and people would say, “Oh, you’re the comedian. You do comedy.” But also I think that, on the flip side, that made me think I was a way better comedian than I was. I would come to Chicago on breaks and then bomb it up.
First comedian he looked up to
HB: I think Dave Chappelle. My friend gave me the audio of his first special Killing Them Softly, and there were some jokes on there that I would just rewind over and over and over again. There’s a joke on there where he talks about being in the car with his white friend and the dude is driving and he’s drunk, and Dave’s high. They’re at a stoplight and Dave’s friend looks over and says, “Dave, I’m gonna race ’em!” And Dave says, “I knew it was a bad idea, but I was high! I tried to tell him it was a bad idea, but all that came out was, ‘Shit, sometimes you gotta race!’” [Laughs.] That line to me was just so funny.
AVC: You did the Oddball Comedy Tour with him, so what was it like getting open for him every night?
HB: I had met him a couple times prior to that, but it was definitely really awesome to work with him on that level. It was a huge comedy tour we were doing in outdoor amphitheaters with huge crowds, so it was cool to watch him do those huge crowds and just watch how people reacted to him, this being his first big tour back. It was amazing, man. He’s legit one of my idols, and he was a cool dude, so it was awesome just to have the privilege to watch him work that many nights in a row and travel the country.
First television appearance
HB: My first time on TV doing stand-up, I actually did this show in Holland called The Comedy Factory hosted by Jörgen Raymann. It was in 2006 in Holland. It was amazing. I had only been doing stand-up for four years and I booked that gig through the Just For Laughs Montreal festival, and they flew me out and put me up. I forget who else was out there. I think it was Morgan Murphy, Keith Robinson, and a few other comedians. It was legit amazing to have that happen, and it made me feel like I was doing the right thing to do comedy internationally right away. The set went well, I think. That was the reason I got my passport, was for that gig. In 2006, I don’t think you needed a passport to go to Canada yet. I hadn’t gone anywhere else, so that was a big trip for me, man. I went to Rotterdam, I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam. I was 23. I got real high and paranoid and did the whole thing.
First time he got high
HB: My first one I didn’t get high at all, but that’s not good print. [Laughs.] Yeah, the first time I don’t remember getting high. I do remember a lot of times I’d be high and I’d just think stuff was attacking me or something. I would get super paranoid and think I was getting attacked a lot of the time. It was not good. It’s always good when you have a mellow, creative high, but when your tolerance is down you might smoke something that’s out of your league and then you just ruined your day for about six hours. There have been times I’ve been in places and smoked and I’m like, “All right, I gotta leave here now. I gotta go home and be alone, because I won’t be able to be normal with anybody.” [Laughs.]
AVC: What was your first time through the audition process? Was it something you had to do for Saturday Night Live?
HB: I didn’t audition for SNL. I sent in a tape to SNL the year before I started writing there, but I got the job there through doing stand-up on Fallon. I’ve had some bad auditions, but just mostly bad because of my lack of preparation and not knowing the lines, or not putting any work into it. I can’t think of any specific instances, but with an audition you have to try to really make the most of it and I think there were some times where I didn’t do that at all.
I did a Last Comic Standing audition in 2006, where you’re just performing for three people in a comedy club, in a big comedy club, and I remember them cutting me off, asking about my name in the middle of one of my jokes. Yeah, it’s just real weird when you’re doing stand-up in that type of sterile, unnatural setting.
First day of work in the 30 Rock building
HB: I mean, it was weird. We started working early, before the show [SNL] went into production. We started working a couple weeks before to write commercial parodies. But it was different, man, because it was just all of a sudden. It was like, “Oh shit, I have an office job where I have the badge and I go past security, and I go downstairs and I get soup for lunch, and my co-workers are there, and we’ve got a water cooler.” [Laughs.] It was an interesting shift to go from doing stand-up to being on this show that I watched as a kid, this iconic show, so I was pretty nervous. But it was a fun time, man.
I learned how to pitch by just pitching sketches in the room. You pitch in the room with everybody in there: the other writers, the cast members, the host, Lorne Michaels, and a couple producers, and they’re all kind of cramped into this office. I was pretty nervous. I don’t remember what my first pitch was. I started learning how to do well at pitching just because everybody would be in a room and some people would sit on the couch, some people would be sitting Indian-style on the floor, so I made it a point to kind of stand up by the door and make it like a short stand-up bit where I’m doing a minute or two of stand-up, so that kind of worked for me. I became really good at pitching sketches, but not getting any on.
First time someone made fun of his name
AVC: Do you remember the first time someone got hung up on your name? It’s been a part of your past specials, but do you remember the moment when you know it would be part of your life forever?
HB: I kind of knew it right away. [Laughs.] Not right away, but I think when I moved to a new neighborhood when I was 7 and I didn’t even want to tell people my name was Hannibal. I had already had a life where people already knew my name was Hannibal, and then I was 7 and was like, “All right, I already had this life where people knew my name was Hannibal, and now I’m on this new block where I don’t know anybody and I have to tell them my name is Hannibal over and over.” And I didn’t want to deal with that, so I told a couple people my name was David at first.
AVC: So, later on, did you have tell them your name was actually Hannibal?
HB: My parents still live in that same house, so I don’t remember the exact situations where I had to say, “Actually, my name is Hannibal.” I didn’t do it that much, but at least two people that would say, “Oh yeah, that’s David!” Just because I didn’t want to deal with it.
Also, I use fake names at Starbucks, or my middle name at Starbucks, just so I don’t have to have them say, “Excuse me?” Also, the thing that gets annoying about it is that people don’t believe you. Strangers don’t believe it. And it’s like, I don’t know you, there’s no stakes for me to lie to you outside of being a dick. A new thing that happens is that when I see people and they recognize me and ask if I’m Hannibal Buress they’ll say, “Prove it!” And it’s like, “Motherfucker, you walked up to me!” I have had that happen on multiple instances, where people are like, “Can you do some comedy?” or “Let me see your ID?” And it’s like, what the fuck? I didn’t want anything from you. I didn’t come talk to you.
First time someone recognized him on the street
AVC: Do you remember the first time that happened? When someone came up to you because they recognized you from doing stand-up or TV?
HB: It was when I did Montreal in 2006. I did New Faces, and I saw Mark Curry from Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and I met him there and he was a nice dude. I think he saw my show and said some nice stuff, and then on the Sunday when the fest was over and almost everyone from the festival is in the airport, I ended up seeing him and sitting down and chatting with him at the airport. Then this woman walks up and is like, “Oh, Mark Curry, nice to meet you!” And then she looked at me and said, “Oh, Hannibal Buress!” And I was like, “Oh shit, she recognized me and Mark Curry at the same time.” That was pretty cool to get recognized sitting next to somebody like that and having somebody recognize both of you. And I was still pretty new at the time; I’d only been doing comedy for four years, so that was cool.
First time he was starstruck by someone he met
AVC: On the opposite end, did you ever go up to someone you recognized and make it awkward for them?
HB: You know what was a weird one? I’m trying to think if it was ’09, but I was in Manhattan somewhere coming from a meeting or an audition or some shit, and I saw the dude, I can’t think of his name, I think it’s John Slattery? He’s the white-haired dude on Mad Men? He was on a bike with his kids, and I don’t know why I did this, but I just pointed at him and said, “Mad Men!” [Laughs] He was with his kids, and he just kind of looked at me weird, and I felt like a real douche for that.
I’m trying to think who else I met, but sometimes I just don’t even want to bother people. Oh! Do you remember the CBA [Continental Basketball Association] team, the Chicago Rockers? I went to a Chicago Rockers game and Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were there. They were together, and you were able to walk through the stands and go up and take pictures with them, and I didn’t want to go talk to Mr. T because I was afraid he’d ask me what my name was, and then I’d say “Hannibal,” and he’d think I’m lying because of The A-Team. I was worried he’d think I’d be making it up because of The A-Team. I forget how old I was, maybe 11 or some shit, but that was my thought process.
HB: I was in seventh grade—it was seventh or eighth grade—and it was this girl Brandy, and we were broke kids, so the thing to do when you’re 13 we would just go to the Water Tower Place downtown and walk around. [Laughs.] That was it. You’d go to Water Tower, you’d go into Sharper Image and fuck with stuff and try out their weird devices, and mess with stuff, and sit in the massage chairs. You’d walk around, maybe get food if you had 10 bucks on you. And then you’d walk them to the train and they’d go home. [Laughs.] I think that was my first date-date.
HB: I did some door-to-door newspaper sales. Remember that job? When people would go door-to-door to try to get your to subscribe to the [Chicago] Tribune or Sun-Times. I wasn’t good at that. I worked at Burger King for a few weeks but then I ended up quitting because they wouldn’t let me get New Year’s Day off. [Laughs.] I was in high school and I wanted to party on New Year’s Eve and I was already that against work. I don’t know if I was 16 or 17, but looking back on that it was pretty bananas. I was like, “Yeah, I’m a teenager but I plan on going hard on New Year’s Eve so I won’t be able to make it in on New Year’s Day. I need that off. Oh, I can’t get that off? Oh, I quit.”
First time he put together an hour-long special
AVC: Was this a taxing process, or did it come together naturally?
HB: It would just come from being on the road and just constantly trying to come up with material and make it better. The process of it wasn’t really that tough because I knew I had a good hour or so of material, so it came just from working on the road and performing in front of different crowds and doing different material and working these bits. A big part of it too was going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and just doing an hour every day for a month. That kind of helped me tune up because if you’re doing an hour every day for a month with no opening act, that kind of really helps you. Especially when you do end up getting an opener or a warm crowd, then it makes it way easier if you’re used to performing without an opener.
The week leading up to it I made a documentary called A Week To Kill. It was just me kind of warming up, doing sets. I came out to Chicago for a few days, I did Zanies and a bunch of different spots just to try to stay loose and just work on the material. It’s just all about repetition with comedy and trying to make the bits better.
You can probably ask any comedian about a special they’ve done and, even if it was a killer special and the jokes fucking crushed, they would look at it and be able to find problems with it. “Oh, I could have done this bit like that.” “I could have added this part, or added this word.” There’s always ways to tinker with material.
First time working with Eric André
HB: He’s just a funny dude. He brought me on to shoot that bare bones pilot we did in New York that he funded himself. It was just a weird, fun thing to do. I didn’t really think much of it when we were doing it. I didn’t know it would be a TV show going into three seasons now. It was just a fun thing we shot. He was telling me it was going to be a TV show, but I didn’t expect anything of it because it’s so weird and wrong. But, I mean, he was funny and we just had good banter with each other, so it’s an easy gig for me because I just comment on what’s going on, just making faces or doing different things. He’s a funny dude, and he’s crazy, and I’m a funny dude who is slightly less crazy, so that kind of makes for a good dynamic.
First time mixing comedy with hip-hop
AVC: You did the Silkk The Shocker routine, but what was the first time you thought you could make hip-hop a part of your stand-up?
HB: It’s kind of always been a part of my comedy. Early on, one of my first jokes was about Nelly having the song where he said, “I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes.” And I was like, “No, Nelly, women get their toes pedicured.” I always talked about lyrics and I wanted to bring it in in a more dynamic way. I have a DJ onstage and I think it’s better to play the actual song that I’m talking about as opposed to. [Laughs.] I’m laughing because I’m at South By Southwest and these people are, this Asian family, this Asian woman and her kids, just rode past in a pedicab and they were waving at people like they were in a goddamn parade or some shit. They were blowing kisses and shit like they were prom queens, the prom queens of South By Southwest. But yeah, I kind of always knew that music and comedy kind of fit, and it’s just a fun way to bring different energies to the show. I always wanted to do it, and I enjoy doing it a lot.
First time directing
AVC: You got to direct a video for Chance The Rapper. Was that your first time directing?
HB: That was, and weirdly, I haven’t been offered any other opportunities since then. [Laughs.] My video-directing career has not taken off at all. Maybe I got one offer before that video came up. It was something different, and I jokingly say that video is a snapshot of a time where I was slightly more famous than Chance The Rapper. [Laughs.] He’s a cool kid and is super talented, and it helped me learn. It was just funny, because I would forget that I was directing. We were kind of shooting it on the fly so we would go to Hollywood Boulevard and say, “Let’s shoot these costumed characters here.” I saw a double-decker bus and said, “Let’s jump on the bus and shoot up there.” But there would be points where after we got a shot, and then I’m just chilling, and then everybody else starts looking at me, and then it’s, “Oh yeah, I’m the director. Uhh…” Then I’d have to act confident: “Shoot over there!” “Get that shot over there!” [Laughs.] It was a cool thing to do, and I’m happy to be a part of it.