Hannibal Buress’s Why? and the Future of Stand-up Comedians on TV

Photo: Comedy Central

Who among us wouldn’t give Hannibal Buress a TV show? His precise and rhythmic stand-up is hilarious; his performances on Broad City and The Eric Andre Show are charming and memorable. He was even good as a recurring homeless guy on 30 Rock. Alas, his new Comedy Central series Why? With Hannibal Buress doesn’t reflect all that just yet, partially because it’s only had one episode and partially because stand-up’s role in the comedy ecosystem is currently in flux. Buress is part of the next great generation of comedians, which is why he has and deserves a TV show. Now the question is what exactly that show’s going to be.

Buress himself doesn’t have a clear description of Why? and perhaps that vagueness will make the show nimble in ways that others can’t be. Wednesday night’s pilot had some stand-up, some sketch, some video segments, and an in-studio bit (which went nowhere). That’s a lot of format for one half-hour, a lot of material to juggle, particularly given that Buress’s style is patient bordering on laconic. His stand-up is measured; he’s big on dynamics, but the tempo tends not to change. It’s hard to translate that kind of control to sketch or shtick. Why? tried for timeliness, too, with segments taped that day, in a Daily Show kind of turnaround. News-oriented one-liners have never been a big part of Buress’s portfolio, so it’s strange to see them shoehorned in here, and the material itself didn’t have a sense of immediacy; there was a long, tepid bit about historical reenactors, and Buress’s stand-up segments felt like parts of a late-night set he’d do on another show.

Pilots are not representative samples, and that’s truer in comedy than in drama, and even truer in sketch or late night than in sitcoms. There’s no virtue in bashing a weak debut, but in the interest of candor, Why? decidedly did not start off strong. The show is part of Comedy Central’s creative peak, which makes comparisons to Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer both obvious and a little unfair. Having Schumer guest-star in one of the video sketches reinforces an unflattering comparison.

It’s not clear yet where exactly Why? will fit in, or which shows it really ought to be compared to, because stand-up comedy has changed. It’s less clear now what the big prize is for being the best stand-up comedian. Once upon a time, comics hosted late-night shows. Not so anymore: Jimmy Fallon’s not a stand-up; Seth Meyers isn’t, either; nor is Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert or James Corden or Conan O’Brien. The give-a-comedian-a-sitcom thing worked for a long time, particularly in the ‘90s: Roseanne, Seinfeld, Grace Under Fire, Ellen, Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show, All-American Girl, Martin. Recent attempts at that — Whitney, Mulaney — haven’t gone so well. Schumer turned her stand-up into sketch, Louis C.K. turned his into a brooding masculinity-crisis fairy tale, Marc Maron turned his into a podcast and then into a TV show about the podcast. Aziz Ansari wrote a sociology book. These aren’t repeatable patterns; they’re too specific and voice-driven. “Make your own Louie” isn’t an option the way “make your own Everybody Loves Raymond” is. (See: King of Queens. Or don’t.)

Buress’s stand-up doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. His TV show probably shouldn’t be like anyone else’s, either. But forging new paths takes time, especially because it’s not clear where comedy is going next, or how it’s going to get there, or what it will look like when it arrives. At least with Buress, we can be confident in the who.

Hannibal Buress’s Why? and the Stand-ups on TV