How Hannibal Buress Got Started
April 8 2016 · Mark Mann
Hannibal Buress had no plans to get into comedy until he actually started doing it. The first time he saw anyone perform stand-up was at an open mic in the student center at Southern Illinois University, where he was studying business. There were less than a dozen people in the room that night, and almost all of them were performing. “They were horrible,” he remembers.
But that was a good thing, because it gave him the courage to try it out himself. It’s hard to feel intimidated about going on stage when everyone else is so bad. Buress thought it over for a month or two, and then went back to the same open mic with a few jokes prepared, mostly riffs about campus life, professional sports, and the absurdity of rap lyrics. “I got chuckles and stuff, but it wasn’t a high-stress performance situation,” he told comedian Brandon Wetherbee. “It got me excited enough that I wanted to do it again.”
Even though he never had any plans to become a comic, Buress says he started to learn comedy from making smart-ass comments and roasting his friends as a teenager in Chicago. “They were fuckups,” he said in an interview with Chicago Magazine. “They were cutting class, smoking weed, stealing, flipping the desk—a lot of crazy stuff.” In some ways, not much has changed: Buress still finds a lot of inspiration for his stand-up from getting drunk and finding himself in messed-up situations. (He doesn’t like smoking too much weed, though, and definitely not when he’s performing.)
Buress wasn’t a cliché delinquent, however. He also joined the debate team in high school, where he got his first taste of performing on stage. Based on that experience, he joined a campus performance group called OOPS! Entertainment when he went to university, but he quit the group after he discovered comedy. At first, his opportunities for doing stand-up were limited. One of the open mics where he performed regularly was hosted in a friend’s bedroom. “When we got big, we moved to the living room,” he joked on Marc Maron’s podcast.
Buress’s commitment to stand-up grew stronger as he started getting positive feedback and attention from other students at his school. “I remember after my second time on stage, the next day people were walking up to me on campus and repeating stuff I said.” It wasn’t long before he began making the four-hour trip back to Chicago to perform at comedy clubs, where the standard was a lot higher than his campus open-mics. He quickly realized he wasn’t as funny as his college fans had led him to believe; he remembers bombing sets so badly that clubs would turn the music on only a few minutes into his routine. But Buress was fearless about bombing. When asked about being a bad comic, he says, “Wasn’t everyone? I was just 21.”
Despite the struggles, Buress was so focused on comedy that he eventually dropped out of college in order focus on stand-up. He began performing every single night, and by the time he first went on stage at the Lincoln Lodge in 2004, just two years after his first open mic, he was already drawing a big crowd. The show went so well they made him a regular.
Buress credits comedian Mitch Hedberg for his first real break. On his Reddit AMA, he tells a story about going backstage to Hedberg’s green room at Zanies comedy club in Chicago in 2005 and asking to open for him. It was a desperate move, but Hedberg let Buress go up for five minutes the following night, even though he was a complete unknown. “That’s unheard of,” Buress says. “Comedians just don’t do that type of shit. I won’t do that shit now. I can be in the greatest mood ever and I won’t let a stranger on my show.”
Sadly, Hedberg passed away only a month or two later. But Buress kept going to Zanies to watch the shows, until one day a headliner’s opener didn’t show up, so the club let him up on stage, because they’d seen him open for Hedberg. “I went on and it went well and the club started booking me regularly,” says Buress. “I started working my home club because he put me on.”
As he grew more successful, Buress started making trips to New York, and in 2006, he tried to move there full-time. “I took Amtrak into New York in January and went straight to a daytime open-mic with my luggage,” he told Howard Stern.
But he didn’t prepare at all for the trip. “I was going to take New York by storm with my jokes about pigeons,” he jokes. Buress went to two more open mic shows the night he arrived, and then went over to his sister’s place unannounced, to tell her that he was moving in. After two weeks, she kicked him out.
Buress spent the next four months staying in hostels, crashing with friends, and sleeping on the subway, while still performing multiple shows a night. He doesn’t blame his sister for his bout of homelessness, though; he admits he was being inconsiderate: “I was that focused on comedy that I just expected her to accommodate my dreams.”
He never did find a place of his own, and eventually he was forced to quit New York and move back in with his parents in Chicago. There wasn’t much time to feel defeated, however, because shortly after returning home, he was invited to do Just for Laughs in Montreal, the biggest comedy festival in the world. That show earned him a manager and an invitation to participate in a televised Comedy Factory show in Amsterdam.
From there, Buress started booking better shows, and in 2008 he was finally able to afford his own place in New York and do comedy full-time. One night he met the comedy writer A.D. Miles, who offered him a last-minute spot on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. That set drew a lot of attention for Buress, including from comedian Seth Meyers, who asked to meet with him. Buress almost skipped the meeting rather than miss a plane, but when he showed up, Meyers offered him a job writing on Saturday Night Live.
Buress wrote for SNL for one year, but it didn’t work out that well. In all his time there, only one of his sketches actually made it onto the show. He eventually moved over to 30 Rock, but ultimately found that writing wasn’t a good fit for him, at least at the time. He preferred stand-up, so he returned to touring.
Since then, Buress’s career has continued to be choppy. He’s performed on all the big late night shows, played popular roles in Broad City and The Eric Andre Show, and released four comedy specials, including Comedy Comisado on Netflix in 2015. But his first pilot for Comedy Central, Unemployable, wasn’t picked up, and when he did get the chance to do his own late-night show, called Why? with Hannibal Buress, it was dropped after one season.
Even though it’s been a roller-coaster of success and failure, Buress has never doubted that he would make it as a funnyman. “I always felt confident that I would make some sort of good living in comedy. From a couple years in, I felt confident that I would make six figures, whether from writing, stand-up, or voice-over work,” he says. Buress’s straightforward, hardworking approach to creating a career in comedy is evident in his advice to aspiring comics: “If you want to do stand-up, just do it.”