Hannibal Buress Wants to Be Rich (and Known for More Than Just Conquering Cosby)

Winter TCA Portrait Session 2014
Hannibal Buress. Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Hannibal Buress is about to improvise the hell out of this trip to Trader Joe’s. A man of risks, he’s rolling without a grocery list and letting a reporter he’s never met tag along, which definitely was not on the agenda. But work ran long prepping for his new Comedy Central variety show, Why? With Hannibal Buress, which, as we meet, is two days away from its inaugural Tuesday-night taping, to be followed by a 24-hour turnaround before airing that Wednesday (tonight!) — a no-safety-net format to allow for the freshest possible topical sketches and jokes. This is (according to Buress) his fourth, and only successful, attempt to get his own TV show on the air. It’s going to be produced on a frantic enough schedule that if he doesn’t stock his fridge now, he might never eat again. “Is that rude?” he asks, springing the new multitasking, errand-running plan on me only when I arrive at the swank West Hollywood hotel where he’s been living for the past two months. He’s already ordered an Uber.

If you learn one thing from watching Buress’s stand-up shows, it’s that he operates under his own rhythm. Upon hearing his sleepy, Chicago-area drawl, “people always think I’m high,” he says, though he rarely is; most weed gives him anxiety. “You talk slower, you’re less likely to say something dumb,” he tells me in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, then takes it back: “I just made up a fake philosophy! Nah, it’s just how I talk.” He’s also remarkably patient with his wry, observational jokes, letting them unfold over many meandering minutes of hyperspecific language and unexpected twists and turns. Such as the story from his 2014 stand-up special Live From Chicago about trashing his hotel room during a threesome with two coked-up girls in Minneapolis and then later returning to find the whole place spotless: “[The hotel] cleaned all of the kitchen counter, except they left a small bump of cocaine. I said, ‘That’s extremely professional hotel housekeeping right there. They love people. That’s the kind of attention to detail that gets you a five-star Yelp review right there! I’ll be back to that Residence Inn Marriott.”

Buress doesn’t walk down the aisles so much as prowl them, bent over his shopping cart, leaning on crossed arms. He makes two entire loops of the premises without choosing a single item — other than the Super Green smoothie powder he’d grabbed right when he walked in. “I haven’t been to this store,” he explains. “I still might have to go to Whole Foods to get what I want, if their butchery situation isn’t right.” He begins to riff. “Smoked apple-Chardonnay chicken sausage? I’m intrigued,” he says, throwing a package in his cart. “What’s uncured bacon? I don’t know. We’ll find out!” He picks Cajun salmon; three dozen eggs at varying price points so he can experiment at breakfast and see if there’s a discernible taste difference; two cartons of orange juice from concentrate, plus one jug of freshly squeezed in case he can’t stomach the cheap stuff (he’s oddly thrifty for a well-off performer); two jars of pickles, one sweet, one sour. Definitely no olives: An early promo for Why? features Buress’s somewhat-angry musings about why people act like olives taste good when they really taste horrible. I tell him I disagree. “It’s subjective,” he says, “because obviously olives are still in business.”

A young male employee carrying a huge crate of fruit turns around when Buress passes him. “Can I please take a picture with you, bro?” he asks. “You gotta put that shit down first,” says Buress and poses. “I was talking about you ten minutes ago!” says the employee. “You’re me and my best friends’ favorite comic,” particularly for a bit in which Buress describes his lifelong dream to kick a pigeon and start a pigeon-kicking Olympics.

Most people, though, likely know Buress as the comedian whose slow-burning career turned into an inferno last fall after a covert cell-phone video of jokes he’d made onstage in Philadelphia about Bill Cosby went viral. It wasn’t some sort of calculated move; Buress had been doing those jokes for six months to plenty of laughs but no significant attention, pointing out the hypocrisy in Cosby, of all people, smugly telling black people to pull their pants up. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches,” Buress said. “‘I don’t curse onstage!’ Yeah, well, you’re a rapist, so … ” Inside Edition tracked down his address and slipped a business card under his door; his routine appearances on “Howard Stern” and Jimmy Kimmel mentioning Cosby became national news; Chris Rock (a Buress fan) defended him to black talk-radio hosts who’d wondered if trying Dr. Huxtable in public was too far over the line. Buress maintained that he hadn’t done anything other than point out information that was easily Googleable, and some observers rued the fact that it took a guy to do it. Nonetheless, he’s been established as the David to Cosby’s Goliath, the comic — African-American, no less — who spoke out against a seemingly untouchable icon. It’s undeniable that the subsequent wave of attention helped enable the large number of additional accusers who’ve come forward since then, and contributed to the subsequent cancellation of many of Cosby’s stand-up dates, as well as projects he’d had with NBC and Netflix.

Buress, to his credit, hasn’t actively tried to capitalize on any of this. Like any performer, he’d rather be known for his own work than as the Cosby-slayer, and Buress was doing just fine before, selling out large theaters on tour and gaining new fans as Ilana’s sweet, older gentleman dentist lover, Lincoln Rice, on Broad City. The attention has definitely upped his national recognition, and can only help the reception of Why? — a show that was green-lit just before the Cosby stuff happened and essentially asks Buress to bombard us with his version of funny, from sketches to interviews to “man-on-the-street shit” to “me in a live studio introducing shit.” But he also became genuinely paranoid for a while, thinking that all of the women who wanted to meet him were Cosby’s agents. Then there’s the death threat he received from a “male bodybuilder-slash-stripper” friend of a friend on Facebook. He knew it wasn’t serious, but it was disturbing nonetheless. “That guy was a joke,” he says now. “I had to hit up a friend like, ‘Who the hell is this cat?’”

“I’m just burned out on it; it was October,” Buress says, wearily, when I bring up Cosby later. “That’s it.”

We walk back to Buress’s hotel (Uber canceled on him) to put the fish back in the fridge of his suite, which has a great kitchen, a washer-dryer, and daily housekeeping, “which is clutch,” he says. (Though I do see enough dirty laundry on the floor to know he wears boxer briefs.) Buress pours himself a glass of the cheap from-concentrate juice and nearly spits it out. “So that’s why it costs less,” he says. “That sucks!”

We head back out, to his local sports bar (too loud to talk), then to the sushi place next door, where Buress tells me about his childhood on Chicago’s west side and the future he envisions, one in which he can sell out 20,000-seat arenas in at least a few key markets. Buress sees stand-up as the reason he’s on TV, and TV as a way of getting more people to watch his stand-up. Even his movie roles, most notably playing an angry bird in the forthcoming Angry Birds and a handyman in Daddy’s Home, with the reteamed Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, are meant to support his touring. “I think having mostly funny scenes in a Will Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg movie helps me become a bigger stand-up, versus if I was, like, a serious character in something,” he says. “Even if I did it well, does that translate to selling tickets? Or does that just get me more serious shit? Also, I wouldn’t want to say ‘serious shit’ over and over!” The way he looks at it, if he bombs out of TV and movies, he can always get work as a stand-up and “probably make, like, 30 grand to 40 grand a week on the road.”

We’re winding down, and Buress is headed back to his hotel. An old college buddy, the rapper Open Mike Eagle, is coming over later to help him rewrite lyrics to a song for the show, because they need to be more cutting. He’s got two more months in L.A. doing Why? and working on Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show before heading to New York to shoot season three of Broad City and prepare for a new stand-up special to air on Netflix. He’s also working on his merchandising game, because he thinks he could be pulling in $10,000 a month more with better-designed T-shirts, lighters, and phone cases.

What’s the use of accruing more money when he already surpasses most people’s yearly salaries in a week, besides never again having to drink orange juice from concentrate? “There’s a lot of different levels within the one percent,” he says, laughing. “I want to move up within the one percent.”

*A version of this article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

137 Minutes With Hannibal Buress