Pop Culture
5:18 am
Thu September 12, 2013

Hannibal Buress And The Comedy Of The Unexpected

Originally published on Mon September 23, 2013 11:22 am

With Hannibal Buress, sometimes you don't even know why you're laughing. Take the bit he does about having a surplus of pickle juice: how it came to be, what he's doing about it, what the consequences might be if you mess with it.

It's ... unexpected.

Or take the answer we got when Buress — a former writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, a touring stand-up comic and host of a weekly comedy night at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory — stopped by our New York studios, and NPR's David Greene asked him how he got into comedy in the first place.

"My regular answer is that I started doing open mics in college," he says. "It's true, but that's not — that's boring to me. And so when people say, how did you start in comedy, I say my family was kidnapped by ninjas when I was very young, and to get them released I had to do a killer five-minute set. And even after I did that, you know, I started doing comedy under tough circumstances, I still kept at it, because I enjoyed it."

When A Drop-In Doesn't Go As Planned

The truth — at least we think — is that Buress did start at an open-mic night. And it was in college, at Southern Illinois University. But his college career was brief. After tasting comedy onstage, he dropped out and moved to New York, hoping to get some gigs and live with his sister.

She wasn't exactly on board. And within a few weeks, he found himself sleeping on the subway.

"Well it's just 'cause I popped up. I didn't even hit her up — 'Hey, can I stay?' I just popped up, 'Hey, whassup, I'm here. I got $200 and dreams, let's do this thing.' Nothing else to offer, no job set up. ... My niece, she was about to turn 1. So I was just poppin' in on this family without even asking. Know what I mean? It was obnoxious. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was one of the most obnoxious things I've ever done."

He'd stay in hostels when he could get work, or crash with a friend.

"But yeah, there were some nights when I wouldn't have the money for a hostel, or a friend wasn't able to let me stay, so I would crash out on the train.

"It was just really goofy on my part," he admits, in retrospect. " 'Cause I didn't have to do that. I could have — one, I could have made up with my sister and apologized for popping in on her place like that. But I was too cocky. And two, I could have just gone back home to Chicago. So it was just goofiness on my part. I don't glamorize it, like, 'Oh, I was living on the train for my dream. It wasn't; I don't look at it like that at all."

Apple Juice And Race

One of Buress' singularly strange routines involves a whole lot of on-sale apple juice, a fellow shopper who gives Buress and his (white) girlfriend a sideways look, and a misunderstanding. Easier if we just embed it here:

"That happened pretty much verbatim," Buress says. "The whole thing — up until me and my girl stepped out of the store, I thought he was upset about the apple juice."

It was his girlfriend who picked up on the other possible interpretation for the man's disapproval. But then Buress says commentary on racial issues isn't a big thing in his act.

"I'm doin' something different," he says. "I mean, I talk a little bit about race and interracial dating, but it's not the heart of my act. I just try to do what I think is funny; there's no huge message or through line."

Whether Buress is trying to send a message or not, part of his act is never seeming like he's trying too hard. He like to dabble in hip-hop, for instance — though you couldn't say he really labors over the lyrics.

The Genesis Of The 'Gibberish Rap'

"Gibberish rap is — I freestyle all the time, just hangin' out with friends," he says. "And sometimes when I'm freestyling, I'll lose my flow, you know, but I'll still wanna — I don't wanna just stop rapping because I lose my flow. So I'll just put in nonsense words till I can bring in regular words again.

"So that was a freestyle, but I was scared to just perform it. 'Cause I think the song is pretty dumb, kinda bad. So I don't wanna perform it without some type of production. Or stage spectacle."

Enter ballerinas, a Mario brother, and more.

"It's just me takin' a goofy freestyle to the limit," Buress grins. "Havin' fun, and puttin' on a huge spectacle for nothin'."

And no, the ballerinas don't travel with Buress. They're jobbed in at each stop on the tour, from among local talent. Who might just be glad to pick up a little easy work that doesn't involve sugar plums and nutcrackers.

"It's not your normal performance, but I think they like doing something different," he says. "How often do you have some comedian come through the town and say, 'Hey, I need eight ballerinas to dance while I do this rap song?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's meet a comedian who's written for some of the best-known shows on TV, but ultimately found his comfort zone writing for himself. Hannibal Buress worked for "Saturday Night Live," and the NBC sitcom "30 Rock."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Then he realized his true love was behind the mic, on stage, delivering his own material - doing stand-up. Hannibal Buress recently signed a contract with Comedy Central to develop some new projects.

MONTAGNE: And he's on tour this month with the comic Dave Chapelle, as part of the "Oddball Comedy Festival." Let's hear his conversation with our own David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Sometimes with Hannibal Buress, you don't even know why you're laughing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT)

HANNIBAL BURESS: So I have a situation in my apartment right now - I have a surplus of pickle juice in my apartment...

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

BURESS: There's too much pickle juice 'cause after the pickles are gone, I don't like throwing out the pickle juice; it just feels wasteful.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

BURESS: So lately, I've been dipping my fingers in the pickle juice, and I flick it on my sandwiches for flavor, ladies and gentlemen...

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

GREENE: When Buress stopped by our New York studios, I asked him how he got into comedy in the first place

BURESS: My regular answer is that I started doing open mics in college.

GREENE: Uh-huh. That's not true?

BURESS: It's true, but that's boring to me. And so I just say that my family was kidnapped by ninjas when I was very young; and to get them released, I had to do a killer five-minute set. And even after I did that, even though I started doing comedy under tough circumstances, I still kept at it 'cause I enjoyed it.

GREENE: The truth - at least, we think - is that Buress did start at an open mic night. And it was in college, at Southern Illinois University. That college career was brief. After tasting comedy on stage, he dropped out and moved to New York City, hoping to get some gigs,and live with his sister. She was not exactly on board and within a few weeks, he found himself sleeping on the subway.

BURESS: Well, it's just 'cause I popped up. I didn't even hit her up - hey, can I stay? I just popped up - hey. What's up, I'm here. I've got $200 and dreams, let's do this thing!

Nothing else to offer, no job set up. They had - my niece, she was 1, or about to turn 1. So I was just popping in on this family without even asking, you know what I mean?

GREENE: Uh-huh.

BURESS: It was obnoxious. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was one of the most obnoxious things I've ever done.

GREENE: All right, so you're not staying with your sister, after a few weeks. And you're honestly sleeping on subway trains?

BURESS: Occasionally. I mean, there would be times when I would get a little bit of work; you know, I stayed in hostels, or I would crash with people I met. But yeah, there were some nights where I didn't have the money for a hostel, or a friend wasn't able to let me stay. So I would, yeah, crash out on the train.

GREENE: How do you think of those days now, when you look back?

BURESS: It was just really goofy, on my part, 'cause I didn't have to do that. I could have - one, I could have made up with my sister and apologized for popping in on her place like that. But I was too cocky. And two, I could have just gone back home to Chicago. So it was just goofiness, on my part. I don't glamorize it like, oh, I was living on a train for my dream. And it wasn't - I don't look at it like that at all. I just look at it as a goofy moment in my life.

GREENE: Have you apologized to her since then?

BURESS: I have. I apologized to her and her husband, yeah.

GREENE: One of my favorite bits that I've watched, in getting ready to chat with you - I need to set it up a little bit. It's you and your girlfriend at the store, buying apple juice - a lot of apple juice because it's on sale for $1.79 for a half-gallon.

BURESS: Yeah.

GREENE: And you're in line, and there's a guy staring at you with all this apple juice.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT)

BURESS: Now, what's wrong, old man? You mad 'cause we have all this apple juice? You could go get some, too. It's over there in Aisle 4. But if not, stop judging us. Hell yeah, we are hoarding apple juice, taking advantage of this sale before this store realizes what a horrible mistake they've made.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

BURESS: And you know what? We're back here happy with our apple juice. So you're up there lonely with your chili and your beans - you lonely, chili-and-your-beans-eating-old man.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

BURESS: But it took me a minute to realize he wasn't shaking his head 'cause of the apple juice. He was shaking his head 'cause my girlfriend was white, and he didn't agree with that. But I was so caught up in the euphoria of having all that apple juice...

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

BURESS: ...that for a minute, I lived in this world where racism didn't exist.

That happened pretty much verbatim, the whole thing. Up until me and my girl stepped out of the store, I thought he was upset about the apple juice - why is he looking at us like that? And then she told me afterward - oh! What?

GREENE: Your girlfriend had picked it up.

BURESS: She picked it up, yeah.

GREENE: I think of some comedians - like Chris Rock - who's, you know, pretty well-known for tackling race issues head-on in his stand-up. Do you place yourself in a category like his, or are you doing something different?

BURESS: I'm doing something different 'cause that just really happened. You know what I mean? I don't know that - I mean, I talk a little bit about race and interracial dating, but it's not the heart of my act. I just try to do what I think is funny. There's no huge message or through line.

GREENE: Whether Buress is trying to send a deep message or not, part of his act is never seeming like he's trying too hard. He likes to dabble in hip-hop, though he doesn't really labor over the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIBBERISH RAP")

BURESS: (Rapping) Rap a rap-rap-rapping. I'm rap a rap-rap-rapping. In my socks rapping. Got on my jeans. Jeans, Degree - put on deodorant. Soda (BLEEP) whodepsit. (Rapping gibberish). Gibberish rap...

BURESS: (Laughing)

GREENE: This is "Gibberish Rap"? What are we seeing and listening to?

BURESS: "Gibberish Rap" is - I freestyle all the time, just hanging' out with my friends. And sometimes when I'm freestyling, I'll lose my flow, you know, but I'll still want to - I don't want to just stop rapping 'cause I lose my flow. So I'll just put in nonsense words until I can bring in regular words again. And so that was a freestyle. But I was scared to just perform it, 'cause I - you know, I still think the song is pretty dumb, and kind of bad. So I don't want to perform it without some type of production or stage spectacle.

GREENE: Oh, and there's production. I mean, there's ballerinas around.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: There these characters dressed in all sorts of mascot-type suits and...

BURESS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BURESS: It's just me wanting to do a goo - it's just taking a goofy freestyle to the limit - having fun and putting on a huge spectacle, for nothing.

GREENE: Do the ballerinas come on tour with you? Is this a touring entourage?

BURESS: No. No. I just have - my management, we just hire local every time.

GREENE: What do they tell ballerinas locally? This is not your normal performance...

BURESS: Yeah, it's not your normal performance. But I think they like doing something different. You know, it's not "The Nutcracker." It's just something fun. They're only on stage for about five minutes. You know, how often do you have some comedian come through the town and say, I need eight ballerinas to dance while I do this rap song?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIBBERISH RAP")

BURESS: (Rapping gibberish)

MONTAGNE: With David Greene, that's comedian Hannibal Buress. He's currently on tour with the "Oddball Comedy Festival." It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.