An Interview with Hannibal Buress
According to the biography on his own website, Hannibal Buress is a “mildly popular comedian.” It’s the perfect understated encapsulation of Buress, who has built a career on deadpan, canny observations, frequently about himself. On Walmart.com, you can purchase a laminated printout of a quote by Buress that reads: “Comedy is basically self-deprecation,” and he once showed up for a Late Night with Seth Meyers appearance wearing a jumpsuit with his own face on it. Then there was the time he told Chicago magazine that he had skipped kindergarten because he was reading at a high level, and then after a moment said: “That’s a weird and cocky thing to say.”
Buress got his start on the Midwestern stand-up circuit while he was still in college, regularly performing at an open mic held in a friend’s bedroom. “When we got big, we moved to the living room,” he joked on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. He moved from his hometown of Chicago to New York in 2008, performing anywhere that would have him. He finally caught a break when Seth Meyers saw his second-ever late-night appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Meyers liked what he heard and helped get Buress through the door at Saturday Night Live. Buress wrote at SNL for a year—including a shrewd bit about Charles Barkley’s golf swing—before leaving to write for 30 Rock. His career arguably really took off, though, when he left 30 Rock to find his own voice on the road, touring around the country and perfecting his storytelling style of jokes, which eventually led to his first Comedy Central special, Animal Furnace.
Since then, Buress has embarked on a career as an actor. He had a starring role in Comedy Central’s hit series Broad City, co-hosted Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show, and launched a successful podcast Handsome Rambler. He’s played roles in films like Tag, Neighbors, Daddy’s Home, Spider-Man: Homecoming and animated features (The Secret Life of Pets and Angry Birds). He’s hosted three stand-up specials and one of his jokes sparked a movement that helped bring Bill Cosby to justice. He’s also finding time (and now has the money) to give back to his hometown of Chicago, and has purchased a building to create an arts center for the community.
Despite his busy schedule, which includes acting, tech investing, philanthropy, and comedy writing, he was early for our interview, calling exactly ten minutes ahead of schedule and leaving me scrambling to catch up. Talking to Buress on the phone is a lot like listening to one of his sets: he’s subdued until something catches his interest and then his enthusiasm for the topic builds, his energy rises, and soon enough he is cracking up at his own joke.
I. WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE ARGUE
THE BELIEVER: So is timeliness next to godliness?
HANNIBAL BURESS: No! No! I’m just trying to be better about being late all the time. I think it’s a mixture of ADD and disorganization, but I don’t wanna use that as a crutch. Sometimes I just oversleep! In high school I probably showed up at every different period of the day at some point. I’d get there on time, or I’d get there during second period or third. I’d get to school sometimes at one thirty. What was I doing during the day? Nothing that important! It couldn’t have been. When you’re fifteen with no money, the world isn’t your oyster at all. So I dunno. But now I try to be on time. I try to get to the airport earlier, so I have extra time to argue with TSA.
BLVR: Do you argue with TSA a lot?
HB: Their policies are not streamlined and consistent as a government agency, so that bothers me. There are different individuals making judgment calls and asking questions that somebody else at another airport doesn’t ask. So when I go through the line and hand the guy my boarding pass and he says, “Where are you flying to?,” I just looked at him like, Are you doing this for real? He didn’t do that for the person right ahead of me; he didn’t ask them where they were flying to. I look at him like, Are you fuckin’ serious? And he just repeats that shit: “Where are you flying to?” I’m like, “Los Angeles” or whatever. I was tight on time and I really needed to get through and make the flight, but if I had given myself more time, if I had gotten to the airport earlier, I would’ve said, Yo, that’s a stupid question, bro.
BLVR: That’s so risky.
HB: They might hold you up, but they’re not gonna keep you from flying. Like the corner of my ID is off because Illinois licenses were made so flimsy. They used to not break at all, but I guess in an attempt to save plastic or something, they’ve made them thin and terrible. So the corner of my ID is off, and I think in Illinois if your ID is voided they punch a hole in the corner, so it looks like it had a punch hole in it and I cut it off. I had a TSA lady ask me, “What happened to your ID?” and I said, “You see, it’s broken.” She said, “Who you talking to?” And I just said, “Youuu.” And then I just kept going. ’Cause I had time that day. I was there early.
BLVR: [Laughs] So part of your whole plan to be early to the airport is just so that you can say what you gotta say to the TSA agents.
HB: Yeah! I give myself a twenty-minute confrontation buffer.
BLVR: I read in an earlier interview that you’re working on being nicer?
HB: I am!
BLVR: So now you only have a twenty-minute confrontation window instead of a forty-minute one?
HB: No, I mean, that’s the buffer for my confrontation. Listen, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but they can be annoying. And most of my interactions with TSA go smoothly. It’s just that the ones that don’t—and they’re very short, usually—they’re kind of annoying.
BLVR: Oh, I hear you. Last week I had to take all my little energy bars out of my suitcase because the TSA agent told me to, and then when I flew back three days later, I took all my energy bars out and the person yelled at me for taking them out. So I understand.
HB: Yeah, see?! No consistency!
BLVR: Going back to this being nicer thing—is that working?
HB: I think it’s going good. I think I’m overall pretty nice, but if somebody is rude, I don’t handle that smoothly.
BLVR: Do you get into arguments on the internet?
HB: No, not anymore.
BLVR: Is that part of your plan to be nicer?
HB: Nah, it’s just a plan of trying to save time and be more productive. It’s not really ever productive to argue with a stranger on the internet, so I don’t really get into that. One reply at most, but no going back and forth. You ever heard Lil Duval’s song “Smile Bitch”? [sings] “I ain’t goin’ back and forth!”
BLVR: You did debate in high school, right?
HB: I did.
BLVR: So do you enjoy picking apart arguments?
HB: I enjoy constructing arguments. It’s a fun exercise and it kinda informs my stand-up. It’s easy to do and almost anything can set it off, and that’s why you have to kind of turn it off. Now I’m able to kind of look at stuff and just say, “Don’t. Don’t engage. You don’t have to get in there.” Instead I’ll watch other people argue. I’ve just watched strangers and wondered, Who is this person [who’s] so angry? Who is that? Why are they attacking this person? Why has this person been writing mean things to somebody for six months? Why are they doing that? Who is that? Are they perfectly normal in real life and [this is] therapeutic for them? Who is it?
II. “UP, DOWN, RIGHT, LEFT, B, A”
BLVR: I know you have been doing a lot of work in your hometown of Chicago. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
HB: I haven’t done a lot of work yet, but I got this building on the west side of Chicago that I’m deep in the process of turning into an arts center called Melvina Masterminds. I just wanted to create a good space in the neighborhood I grew up in for people to be able to take classes or have some job training or coding programs and music and a bunch of different things like that. It’s a really exciting project. I haven’t really done anything like this before, but I got a good team working with me getting people together and getting the nonprofit set up. It’s a lot of work, but I’m super excited about it.
BLVR: What made you want to start an arts center?
HB: I have been involved in some Chicago charities in a kind of passive, check-writing way, so I was just thinking, What can I do that is a little more substantial? And that didn’t really exist in my neighborhood. I didn’t know of any place like that, so I just wanted to do it. And fortunately, real estate on the west side of Chicago is relatively cheap compared with a lot of places. If you have an idea, you can make it happen with the right team. I’m really happy about it. It’s right by where I grew up, and even just to buy that type of property in my old neighborhood feels great.
BLVR: Do you wish you’d had a place like this when you were growing up?
HB: It would have been nice to have had the option. I’m sure there’s more of it [now] than when I was in high school or grade school. I went to high school in the ’90s, and the internet wasn’t as big back then, so if you wanted to find something you really had to dig or go to the library or something. But just to be able to have a place like this and the things we want to offer, we get to open up some eyes and show different options. I would’ve liked to have had it. In my later years in high school I got into some after-school activities, but in my first couple years of high school, the time between when school ended and going home was mischief.
BLVR: What kind of mischief?
HB: Just some bullshit! I don’t want to get into the particulars, but if I’d had the option to do something fun and learn a new skill or about a new technology, I would’ve taken that, probably.
BLVR: Do you remember what your first email address was?
HB: It was firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLVR: Do you think it’s still operational?
HB: I don’t think so.
BLVR: I mean, Hotmail still exists. It’s possible.
HB: Hotmail does still exist. I wonder if I missed any gigs? Carnegie Hall! Host of Family Feud?
BLVR: And did you ever have a blog or a Geocities account or something?
HB: I had a blog. I had, like, two posts on a blog back in maybe 2007 or something like that.
BLVR: Do you think they’ve aged well?
HB: Uh, are you leading up to you finding my blog?
BLVR: No, but now I want to.
HB: It’s up there. I talked about it on my podcast and then somebody sent us the link to it. So it’s still out there. My writing style is still very me at whatever age I was. I remember, though, in high school everybody didn’t have the internet, but my buddy Scotty had it at his house and we would say, “Oh, we gonna go to Scotty’s house and get on the internet,” and it would be, like, six of us crowded around one computer, just looking at stuff, like, “Go over here, go over here,” and that’s what the internet was; everybody didn’t have it. It was a luxury.
BLVR: Do you remember what some of the websites were that you’d go to?
HB: What did we go to? I mean, it was just stuff about video games; we probably looked at porn. You didn’t really have a goal. Or you looked up cheat codes to video games: Up, down, right, left, B, A—you get that shit off of different websites. We would also look up lyrics to rap songs. I used to go to lyrics websites a lot. But then Napster started poppin’ in the early 2000s.
BLVR: Do you remember what songs you were downloading from Napster?
HB: Uh, I mean, I wasn’t downloading them ’cause I didn’t have a laptop yet.
BLVR: So Scotty would have to do it?
HB: Well, Scotty didn’t go to my college. So you would write down the songs you wanted and you would give a few people at the school [who] had laptops with CD-ROMs the list of songs and they would download them on Napster and you’d give them three dollars or five dollars and they’d make you a mix CD. Ludacris was really hot around then. I remember getting, like, the “What Means the World to You” remix on a mixtape, Ying Yang Twins, Atmosphere, and Jean Grae. I was hearing a lot of Nelly ’cause Nelly is from St. Louis and my college was in Carbondale, Illinois, which is an hour and a half from St. Louis, so a lot of people were really hyped when he popped. So there were a lot of mix CDs, and probably if I could play them I’d be like, Whoa, this has no flow at all. These songs do not go together. Oh, The College Dropout by Kanye West dropped while I was in college, and then I was like, Maybe I should drop out…
BLVR: Well, it worked for Kanye.
HB: Yeah. Not for everybody, though.
BLVR: No, definitely not.
HB: To be fair, it doesn’t work for graduates, either.
BLVR: Do you think that college worked out for you?
HB: Absolutely! I didn’t get the degree, but I started doing stand-up comedy, and that led me to being kinda rich and doing what I love to do, and that’s kinda what you go to college to do. You go to college to figure out what you want to do, to get a good job, and then life is perfect after that, right?
III. THE PERFECT BOYFRIEND
BLVR: When did you start doing comedy?
HB: Sophomore year of college. I was nineteen.
BLVR: When was your first paying gig?
HB: Probably that year, to the tune of twenty dollars or something like that.
BLVR: So when did you decide to make the jump to leave school and do comedy full-time?
HB: I really didn’t leave school. I just started diving into stand-up and learning about stand-up, and I really just didn’t give a shit about school anymore, even though I was not working that much as a stand-up to justify not going to any classes. I just mentally checked out and basically flunked myself out of school, because I just liked stand-up that much. It’s not the most rational decision. I absolutely could’ve been a good student and still pursued stand-up on the side [laughs], but that’s what happened.
BLVR: When your arts center opens, when you’re sculpting the minds of young people in Chicago, what will you say about college? Are you going to encourage them to go to college, or do you think you’re gonna be more like “Follow your dreams”?
HB: I think it’s good to just show all angles. I mean, my experience isn’t the typical one, and it’s not the path for everybody. I think it’s good to just tell a lot of stories, you know what I mean? We’ll have people come in and you can hear a lot of different outlooks.
BLVR: What is your joke-writing process? Or script-writing process? Do you just wait for inspiration to strike, or do you turn it into a day job where you sit at your desk for three hours a day?
HB: I just write down ideas or I’ll overhear a piece of conversation from somebody walking past and that’ll kind of strike a thought and then it’ll lead to something else. It’s usually something that sticks with me and that I can’t stop talking about. You ever have something that happens and then you just keep telling different friends about it separately? Where you’ve had a bunch of other shit happen that day or whatever, that to an objective outsider watching, there might have been other stuff that was more interesting or even more significant, but you just focus on this one thing? When I really want to talk about something and it’s burning in my mind, that’s what I bring to the stage. Then either you take an idea onstage and it might be fully formed, or the rhythm and wave of the crowd can guide you and really energize you and you develop the joke like that. Or it’s just genuinely talking shit with friends, and something—a turn of phrase—comes up and then somebody might say, You need to try that in the act. That’s funny!
BLVR: Do you have certain friends whom you trust more when they say, “That’s really funny”?
HB: Yeah, it’s a handful of people I’ve known the longest, [who] know my voice and have seen me a bunch onstage and know what kind of bits work for me.
BLVR: Most of your stuff is taken from real life, but do you ever find something that you’re reading or other things that inspire you?
HB: There’s other stuff that I get into, but then you have to really research. It’s easier to talk about your life, because you’re like, “I know this; this is me!” I don’t do deep dives into a subject in stand-up. On the internet I go into some wormholes, but they’re not necessarily productive; they’re just for my own pleasure.
BLVR: What’s your most recent wormhole?
HB: I’ma look at my YouTube right now. Ohhhhhh. There’s this Korean reality series I watched.
BLVR: Did you just look at your internet history?
HB: Yeah! There’s a show called The Return of Superman, and I watched it on the plane ’cause I was on Korean Air and I just checked out this show at one point. I was awake more than I would’ve liked to be on this flight ’cause I had lost my Xanax and I didn’t get melatonin, so I had to watch something. Their selection wasn’t great, so I ended up on this Korean reality show, The Return of Superman. Their editing style is bananas and just gives so much information, graphics and subtitles and sound effects and laugh tracks. It’s amazing and sensory overload and kinda soothing to the brain. I’ve been putting a lot of friends on to that.
BLVR: What kind of reading do you like?
HB: I read a lot of business books. I did this show, Thrift Haul, that is hosted by the rapper Fat Tony, and they shot it in LA at this big Goodwill. The store has a book section, and their books are one dollar, which is great. I got this book by Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit[: Learn It and Use It for Life]. And Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!)[: How to Unleash Your Creative Potential by America’s Master Communicator] by George Lois. I got a book written about Enterprise Rental Car, Exceeding Customer Expectations: What Enterprise, America’s #1 Car Rental Company, Can Teach You about Creating Lifetime Customers. I try to read a lot. I wanna start finishing the books, writing what I get from them, maybe write while I read them, really dig in, and then get rid of them, donate them, because I don’t wanna do the books-for-furniture thing anymore. Like, Look at what I’m thinking about! I wanna get done with it and get it out. Donate it, you know what I mean? ’Cause are you really revisiting books that often? You have a couple you might go back into, but for the most part the shit is one-and-done, right?
BLVR: Oh, I get that. I understand that you’re kind of a tech investor. Do some of the business books give you ideas for what to invest in?
HB: Nah, the business books help with just overall business, which I have to know about with negotiating my deals and dealing with stand-up and, y’know, trying to run my personal business, which is merchandising-podcasting-standup-TV-film–real estate. It’s a lot, so I like to just take in information and learn, and see how I can apply it.
BLVR: Did you send a look-alike to your Spider-Man: Homecoming premiere?
HB: Yeah. What do you wanna know?
BLVR: How did you find a look-alike?
HB: I tweeted that I needed somebody to go to an event. I set up an email address, I tweeted it out, and then one of the people [who] replied was somebody [who] was my stand-in for another shoot before, and I sent him.
BLVR: How much did he look like you?
HB: He didn’t look like me at all.
BLVR: So why didn’t you want to go?
HB: I did want to go! But I was on set in Atlanta and the premiere was in LA. I really wanted to go; that’s why I sent somebody else.
BLVR: Did the person have fun?
HB: Absolutely. It was just a fun way to be involved without being there. It was all in fun. Not that Spider-Man needed the press, but it got a good amount of press.
BLVR: You’re doing real estate and tech and building this arts center and your stand-up and your movies. Are you worried that you’re spreading yourself too thin?
HB: I’m just now trying to figure out the time-management aspect of it. But yeah, I was producing this pilot here in Chicago and also my special and it kinda hit me the other day and I said, “Holy shit. I got a lot going on. Is this too much shit going on?” It is a lot!
BLVR: How do you keep up with it all?
HB: You have to be decisive. I am decisive, but I want to be consistently decisive. You ideally want things to be perfect, but they’re not gonna be perfect all the time, so it’s just really about taking action, not holding other people up, and going from there.
BLVR: Do you have any other secrets, like you never sleep, you drink tons of coffee, you have a drug habit?
HB: It’s not really physically demanding; it’s just organizationally demanding and a time-management challenge. The physical stuff: I try to keep myself in good shape these days, so my mind is clearer, and I come up with different ideas and solutions when I’m working out. It kinda clears the cobwebs and I’m able to come up with stuff. But it’s really just the time-management thing I haven’t really cracked yet. When shit just needs to be done, the procrastination is what can really get you. I have to get over that. I’ll get better at it next year or the year after, I’ll create better systems, but I was thinking the other day, Should I get a coach? I was thinking, like, even LeBron James has a coach. He’s the best basketball player in the world, and he still has a coach! So I should have a coach. I mean, people have life coaches, so I’m considering someone to stand on the sidelines and yell, “Finish those documents!” I think that’ll help, but I have to weigh the cost. Like, what does a full-time coach cost? And let’s just throw out a number: $60,000 a year for a full-time coach. Will that coach increase my productivity overall for the year by at least double that, $120,000? Then it’s worth it!
BLVR: It sounds like those business books are paying off.
HB: I’ve been clearheaded since I haven’t been drinking at all this year, so I’ve already started making my plans for next year. I want six-pack abs. That’s the plan.
BLVR: It sounds like you might need a physical coach as well as a life coach.
HB: Well, I’ve lost some weight; I’m in good shape. I’m in probably the best shape of my life since college or high school. I’ve been working out a lot too. I did some kickboxing in Thailand. But the abs themselves—the gut—the gut is its own obstacle. It takes incredible focus to get a gut gone. So that’s my main focus for 2019. I feel like once I get abs, everything else will just work out. Like when you put one thing in your calendar and then you start putting other stuff around it to build your day. That’s what it’s gonna be with abs. Once I get abs, everything else is gonna come together. ’Cause if you can get abs, what’s a business deal? Anybody can do a business deal.
BLVR: I feel like there’s a teenage rom-com with a very similar premise, where it’s like, if she gets a boyfriend by a certain date, she knows everything else will go well.
HB: That’s terrible. Her logic is really flawed, I think.
BLVR: No, she’d get the perfect boyfriend and get to become the prom queen!
HB: The perfect boyfriend! Oh, OK, the perfect boyfriend.
BLVR: The perfect one, and then she’d get to be the prom queen, which would look good on her college applications, setting her up for good college, good career, perfect life.
HB: But how are her grades? Does she have a good GPA? Is prom queen really helping out with a college application? I guess that’s with a state school’s, probably.
BLVR: So what is your abs plan, though? Are you cutting out alcohol, carbs, sugar, stuff like that?
HB: Not cutting out carbs or sugar, but I cut down on sugar. I don’t really drink, so this is mostly just working out a little bit more. I’m gonna just start doing a bunch of ab exercises during downtime, lying around, just doing it in different spurts throughout the day. Two minutes here, two minutes there. In between stuff. Once I get into a rhythm, I’ll try to do five hundred or something a day. I set reminders in my phone calendar.
BLVR: Like “Do crunches now”?
HB: Yeah, or it says, “Abs: did you work on them? If not, then do it.” Then I have one that says, “Write something that comes in every day,” and then another one that says, “Work on the gambling show.” For this show about sports gambling, I’ve been trying to push forward. So I got a handful of calendar things that come through that I try to use to motivate myself. Can we schedule a follow-up interview for April, just to make sure I got abs?