How Hannibal Buress Deals with Fame

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Three years ago I interviewed Hannibal Buress for a Pittsburgh alt weekly and asked him how he defines success. He said, “There are levels of success. It’s not one thing. I’m successful. I’m doing pretty well. Like Mr. Smalls [a modest Pittsburgh concert venue], that seats 300. It’s a nice sized venue. But next time I come to Pittsburgh I would like to do the 800 seat theater, or something like that.” When he came back the following year, he performed at the Carnegie Music Hall Library, a 1,000 seat venue.

Buress’ professional timeline has been dotted with some pretty sizable benchmarks over the past decade, including multiple late night appearances, various film and TV roles, three comedy albums, and most recently his Netflix special Comedy Camisado, which premieres tonight. Oh, also that whole Cosby thing. I talked to Buress about the new special, how he handles his growing popularity, and what it’s like to be interviewed by a dog.

Happy birthday! Do you have any celebration plans?

Yeah, we’re screening the special at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I want to give people in the area where I live a chance to see it with a big group and have fun. It’s also dual purpose as a birthday party for me. Even if people hate it they surely wouldn’t tell me on my birthday.

In the special you talk about 32 being a dumb age. You’re turning 33 now. Do you feel any different about 33?

It’s not a milestone. I guess 33 is when Jesus died, allegedly. Were they even counting years the same then? But this age is one of those, “Hey, Happy Birthday I guess, motherfucker. Want a drink?” It’s nothing big. If I didn’t have my special coming out around it, which I asked them to do… maybe I’m trying to force significance on my birthday. You just want your birthday to mean something.

You filmed the special in Minneapolis and open up with the acknowledgement that the crowd might be wondering why you chose that place to shoot your special. But as you pointed out, comics who do the road know that Minneapolis is an amazing place to perform. What are some other cities — other than New York and LA — that you find to be the best to perform in?

There are only a handful in that category with Minneapolis where I started going in 2007-2008. So these are places I’ve been going to off and on for eight or nine years. Austin is one of those. Great comedy crowds in Austin. Portland. San Francisco is really great. Atlanta is really fun. The crowds are really good in Milwaukee. My first gig back after the special airs, where I’m trying to figure out my next show, is at the Comedy Attic in Bloomington, which is a really good club. It’s the ideal gig for me to start tinkering with the new material. Hopefully people there are okay with paying money to see me fail a little bit.

You mentioned jumping into new material. Do you have a plan for your next release? Another special or an album?

I’m trying to build to tour. Whenever I get it together at its best I’ll deal with that. For now it’s about developing some killer new material and getting back on the road for a bit. I’ll probably get back on the road in late April or May.

You also brought up the whole Cosby thing in the special. Maybe you felt you had to. Has there ever been an attempt from anyone in his camp to reach out to you?

No. No one has tried to reach out.

If Cosby wanted to sit down and talk to you, would you accept?

Sure.

It’s always amazing to me how we live in a world where we can have odd interactions with celebrities through things like Twitter or a YouTube clip of a one-off joke in a standup set. The access that people have to celebrities now is crazy. That’s something that you probably have to deal with a good bit now. I saw an article that asked you how sex on the road has changed for you. You said you have to watch when girls bring their phones into the hotel room and try to take pictures. Do you feel that you have to watch your back more and protect your image a bit?

Well, the thing about that is, maybe I should have asked her to leave when we were done. It’s just that I’d rather not have a picture of me sleeping get out. That looks worse on her than it does on me. ‘Cause I’m just sleeping. It’s not so much an image thing in that specific case. I’d just rather she not do that. I don’t even like when my friends take pictures of me sleeping and post them online. Like, “Jesus Christ. A motherfucker can’t just nod out real quick?” I’m not too overly concerned with the image aspect of it. It’s just more of a personal thing where you shouldn’t do that without asking somebody. And that’s a weird thing to ask of somebody. “Hey, uh, when you fall asleep can I take a selfie with you in the background?” The answer is usually no.

In watching this special I was thinking about how your material has developed over the years. When I first saw you ten years ago you were doing the pigeon kicking thing and the burn everything in the room bit. That was you then. Now you’re talking about the the life you’re living now, the Cosby situation, references to your fans and fame. Do you ever worry that by getting more famous you’ll become less accessible?

No. I think that outside of a couple things I talk about most of it is relatable. Beyond that, people want to hear your perspective on stuff as long it’s funny and not talking about the experience in an obnoxious way. Sometimes you can even be obnoxious about a certain thing as long as there’s stuff that’s funny. People have stories about meeting the President. Most of us have never met the President. Most of us will never meet the President. But it’s interesting to listen to. I don’t really worry about it. I work out the stuff and if it works… some stories might not be for standup. They might be better suited for talk shows or interview sets. I have unrelatable weird-ass shit that I don’t address in standup, but the stuff I do is the stuff I feel that works.

Do you think the life you’re living now in terms of exposure and success is giving you more opportunities to find material in your day-to-day?

Yeah. There are situations I would never be in. I did an interview with a dog the other day. Obviously the dog wasn’t talking, but it was me and a dog. This dog has an incredible social media following so I was like, “Well, gotta push this special. Time to talk to Frenchie the Bulldog.” I did it because it’s silly and people like dogs on the internet. It’s goofy and I might have a fun story from it. It’s about never taking yourself too seriously, having fun and being open to doing different shit. Also, the next time I get offered an interview with a dog I’ll be more seasoned.

Speaking of different shit, the 3rd Season of Broad City premieres February 17th. Did you know Abbi and Ilana before you started doing the show?

I worked with them on the web series. They had me on as a guy messing around with Ilana. When they got the pilot deal they asked me to be a part of it. The pilot deal was initially with FX. I don’t think people remember that. I met them years ago doing shows and stuff and then they asked me to do the web series and the pilot. It’s awesome to watch it grow. People love that show.

You took over the In Residence series on Spotify for 6 episodes. You’re a big hip-hop head. You’ve done verses and spoken word on rappers’ tracks. You did Gibberish Rap. You show up at shows at lot. You’re kind of on the fringe of hip-hop culture without actually being a rapper. Have you ever thought of releasing a rap EP or album of your own?

I thought about it for a while. I would really have to focus for a couple of weeks. Get in the studio for two weeks, not do any comedy shit and just focus on making something. That’s kind of tough to do because it’s not my job and not where my instincts really lie. I would like to. I’ve been talking about and flirting with the idea for the past few years, but I just haven’t gotten it done. It’s not a high priority right now.

With all of the acting work and side projects you’ve been doing, is there ever a concern that those things are taking away from your time onstage doing standup or do you treat it as all part of the package?

None of it really takes away. Depending on the project it might take away from touring. I might not be able to tour during the time I’m working on something, but I’m usually able to go up at night still. Also I take nights off of standup even without me shooting shit. I’ll just be like, “I haven’t done standup in four nights. I’ve just been hanging out and going to shit.”

Photo by Marcus Price.

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