A few days after I spoke with Hannibal Buress, he announced what’s likely to be his highest-profile gig yet: an undisclosed role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Just before our interview, he had completed a very different kind of high-profile gig: speaking at his high school’s graduation. “It was cool, man. It was different,” he says. “I hadn’t been in that building in, like, 15 years. There are a lot of different emotions. ‘Oh shit!’ and just thinking about the fact that, you know, this graduating class wasn’t born when I started high school in ’96. It was crazy, man. I don’t think a lot of them really knew who I was; there were definitely a few in there, but I was happy they asked me to do it. It was an honour.
“I had a situation where I had left some of my stuff with a friend in college, including my yearbooks. He eventually lost all of them, so I was able to replace them at the school. I passed out last night looking at old yearbooks and Googling classmates, finding out that some of them were criminals and some of them were lawyers.”
The Chicago-born comedian may seem like a newcomer in the comedy scene, but what may appear to be an overnight success came after a decade of hard work for Buress. It’s certainly paid off recently, with his role on the hit show Broad City, in scene-stealing parts in big studio comedies like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Daddy’s Home, in voice roles in animated films like the Angry Birds movie and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets, not to mention four hour-long stand-up specials/albums. His career also suffered a somewhat accidental boost in 2014 when his comments about Bill Cosby’s rape allegations reignited the controversy (and legal proceedings) surrounding the veteran comedian.
Buress has become the kind of guy who gets recognized on the street every day. “Me getting recognized is just a product of the work, man, and of people enjoying what I do,” he explains. “As long as people aren’t rude, it’s fine. It’s kind of a weird world to live in where that’s everyday life, to go somewhere where I know that’s going to happen.”
I ask Buress if he thinks that fame will affect his ability to connect with audiences over shared experiences. “I don’t know, man. I mean, I get that it is different. They say that your first hour is the one you’ve been writing your whole life, the one where you come in with material you’ve been doing for seven, eight years, as opposed to the second hour that you’ve usually been working on for a couple of years. Maybe it was more raw before, but now I’m funnier — more grown-up and more honest. The situations might not always be relatable to the average person, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t wanna hear about me in this situation.”
I mention that having all of his specials, a documentary based on one of his tours and an indie film (Band of Robbers) in which he appears available to stream on Netflix at once almost certainly cements a place in the cultural conversation. “These days, it’s all about making it simple and easy for people to get your shit and Netflix just does that, man.”
If you’ve binged on his specials, never fear: the show Buress is presenting as part of Just for Laughs this month consists of new material. “I’ve got a new hour and I’ve been writing a lot,” says Buress. “We’re incorporating video and music and DJ stuff — it’s a lot different now. Putting stuff out challenges you. I gotta write new jokes, man, I gotta focus. I can’t just sit back and do these old jokes. I do a couple of older ones that I really like telling that I’ll do just for me, because they’re short and they work, but the rest is pretty fresh.”
For most comedians, the JFL festival is a major career highlight — it’s here that a lot of the wheeling and dealing is done, and killing in a showcase in Montreal is almost a rite of passage for comics. Yet whenever they talk about Montreal, they have this warped view of the city that limits itself to the Quartier des spectacles, a place full of mimes and circus performers and surly Québécois teenagers selling soft-serve ice-cream. “There’s always that shit going on right next to the Hyatt, all the time!” he laughs, referring to the hotel that generally serves as the unofficial HQ for comedians during the festival. “I go to the Hyatt, but I try not to stay at the Hyatt. It can get a bit overwhelming. Everybody you know… in one room?!” he laughs in his unmistakable Hannibal Buress laugh. ■
Hannibal Buress performs as part of Just for Laughs at the Olympia Theatre (1004 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, July 30, 7 p.m., $39.50–$45.50