Is Hannibal Buress a one-trick pony?

Hannibal Buress is tired of talking about Bill Cosby. In fact, his publicity team prescreens questions with the intention of preventing this from happening.  

Although it has been more than a year since his Bill Cosby joke went viral, it is still the only way Buress is introduced to readers by people interviewing him.

In a show during an American tour last year, Buress complained of Cosby having the “fucking smuggest old black male public persona that I hate”. In a mock Cosby persona, he shouts: “Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the Eighties. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.” 

Buress’s character then responds: “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple of notches.”  

As the joke winds down, Buress muses on his motives, saying: “I don’t know what I want you to do by telling you this. I guess I just wanted to make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.” 

Though he is over the joke he had been honing for about six months before it went viral about a year ago, it is quintessential Buress in its nonchalant delivery.  

When American music magazine Fader featured Buress on its April- May 2015 cover, it titled the piece “Comedy’s most respected slacker”. It is a characterisation the hardworking Buress has protested against, claiming to the Guardian: “I think people like to put certain labels on you because you don’t talk really fast.” 

Before the Cosby saga, Buress had already put in short stints as a comedy writer for shows such as Saturday Night Live (as far back as 2009), 30 Rock (for six months from September 2010) and he had enjoyed successful supporting roles in The Eric Andre Show and Broad City. He had already put out two comedy albums (My Name is Hannibal and Animal Furnace) and an hour-long Comedy Central show called Hannibal Buress Live from Chicago

Full of everyman, deadpan, almost anti-funny humour, Buress’ stand-up was supposed to set up a successful career as a TV comedian, which has so far eluded him.  

His recent one-man show Why? With Hannibal Buress (which aired earlier this year) was widely panned, with saying the show needed to decide what it wanted to say. “One problem may actually have to do with Buress’s strength,” the website wrote. “He has a track record of being one of the best things on other people’s shows — Broad City, High Maintenance, The Eric Andre Show — in part because of his hilariously chill nonreaction reactions. His Zen unflappability … is the special sauce that cuts the acid note running under much of his comedy.” 

In fact, most aspects of Why?… were panned by critics, from its monologues to its street interviews and the dodgy decision to interview children in one segment. Buress, it seemed, still had to find a way of translating his relaxed style to make it palatable for a TV audience.  

Expanding on the idea of his stand-up strength being his TV persona’s undoing, Bryan Moylan wrote in the Guardian: “Thanks to his ability to question anything, he hasn’t been able to home in on anything.”  

When not appearing fatigued, Buress was deprecating about the prospects of the show, once on set, telling his guest Eric Andre: “We’re gonna get cancelled man.” 

He recounts the experience of ?the show (which was pulled after one season) as the proverbial learning curve. “I had some good moments and I was learning,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles. “The schedule was tough. We’d film on Tuesday, edit and get the show to air on Wednesday. There was always something to do and I stayed busy.” 

Although Buress would be the first to admit that few people get good at comedy right away, some comedy veterans, such as Damon Wayans, have gone as far as to call his fame premature. “Right now they are putting him out there because he’s the guy that outed Bill Cosby, but he wasn’t ready for prime time,” said Wayans to New York’s 105.1 Breakfast Club radio show. “Hopefully, maybe he’ll catch it, but I don’t feel it right now.” Wayans, though, has publicly supported  Bill Cosby (“until proven guilty”) while also offering support to the women Cosby allegedly raped. 

Buress though, for all his ubiquity, remains something of an enigma. On stage, his point of view is often so hard to ascertain, that all he ends up sounding like is some nonthreatening black guy, who deviates from the “comedy-out-of-necessity” lineage that informs black comedy. 

The added obstacle on Buress’s road to maturity is the double-edged bane of every comedian’s existence: the creeping need for political correctness and the smartphone. Over the past few years, comedians have come up with all manner of gimmicks to stave off the negative impact portable technology is having on their art.  

Chris Rock, who has been a supporter of Buress, outlines the comics’ dilemma in New York magazine: “It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get on stage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy.” 

Rock added that he had stopped playing in colleges because they were conservative, not in their ?political views “but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody”. 

But by having unwittingly helped alter the legacy of one of the United States’s most-loved comics, Buress proves that he is at once a comedian of the times and a man of his own.  

Read more from Kwanele Sosibo


Hannibal Buress performs as part of the Comedy Central International Festival at Silverstar Casino in Mogale City until December 5.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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