We poke fun at Chicago’s desperate thirst for a celebrity culture, so desperate that anyone remotely notable who was born in the city or started a career here or graduated from an area university is forever celebrated as a local hero. Hannibal Buress, meanwhile, has a legitimate claim to local-boy-done-good status. The 34-year-old comedian, a regular on Comedy Central’s Broad City, previously lived in New York but returned earlier this year to the city of his birth. He was raised on the west side and paid his dues in the mid-aughts hustling between three to four stand-up shows a night. He stood out with absurd observational humor delivered with a mix of confidence and indifference. He confessed in an old joke, for instance, that he keeps jars of pickle juice in his refrigerator to “flick on my sandwiches for flavor.” Buress still makes a habit of dropping into small rooms around town—the open-mike night at Cole’s, the Paper Machete at the Green Mill—but these days the majority of his gigs are high profile. He opened for one of his comedy heroes, Chris Rock, at the Chicago Theatre last September, and on December 29, he’ll headline a show at the Civic Opera House. Last year, he launched a podcast, Handsome Rambler, on which he chronicles stories from the road and interviews guests such as Chance the Rapper. Buress, like Chance, has taken an active interest in giving back to his hometown; he’s in the early stages of planning a small community center on the west side that offers comedy classes and other opportunities for youth. We asked him about that project, his formative years in Chicago, and his fraught relationship with The Cosby Show. (And no, Buress doesn’t talk about his arrest in Miami on a disorderly intoxication charge; this interview was conducted nearly two weeks prior to that incident.)
What’s kept you in Chicago, despite getting plenty of work on the coasts?
I’m still gone a lot, but even when I was living in New York, I really wasn’t truly living in New York. If I did spend ten days straight in New York, that was like a long time. I’m not writing on 30 Rock, I’m not writing on Saturday Night Live, I’m not on a late-night show, I’m not doing a full-time television show that requires me to be in New York every day.
I just bought this place on the west side, a commercial building where I want to start offering some arts classes, writing classes, music classes—that type of thing. That’s part of the reason I moved back, so I could have more of a good impact here. It’s still superloose; I gotta find a structure to it now that I have a mortgage in place. The idea is for kids on the west side, if you don’t play sports and you’re 14, there’s something else for you to do. Maybe you want to get into sketch writing, so we invite somebody from Second City.
You grew up on the west side.
North Avenue and Austin. North Austin is the neighborhood, and Galewood is what we would call it.
How connected do you still feel to the west side?
Connected but not. You get what I mean? I’m navigating what I’m trying to be, trying to be an adult, that kind of stuff. But as far as my regular—I live a weird-ass life.
You also have a place in Wicker Park?
Yeah, I rent it out when I’m not there. I don’t have possessions there, pictures of family and stuff, old CD collections—it doesn’t have that type of personality.
It must be weird to live in a building where you’ve never actually unpacked.
It’s fine. I don’t need stuff like that. Give me my TV or some shit that I can watch, give me my computer so I can do some work, give me a Bluetooth speaker and my clothes, maybe I’ll grab just a little food and juice and water—what the fuck else do I really need?
Do you rent it to mostly other comics who are touring?
No, Airbnb, but not under my name. I [once] left my ID in the place without realizing, so then these people start tweeting at me: “Yo, we found your ID in this Airbnb.” They’re thinking I just stayed in the place that they stayed in. “Whoa, this is crazy!” So I say, “Hey, can you send that to me, please?,” trying to play it like I was still just a guest. And then the guy says, “My girl kinda wants to keep it.” And I said “Hey, bro, that’s actually my building, and you’re stealing right now if you do that.” [Laughs.] They dropped it off at my friend’s store.
How do you juggle Airbnb while you’re on the road?
I have property managers for it. I see all the interactions, like they handle all the turnover and getting it clean, dealing with the guests, dealing with their issues. I couldn’t deal with that. I don’t have the personality for it or the attention to that type of detail. I see the interactions, and I only jump in on the correspondence three times in a year over probably 100-something [correspondences]. Once we thought somebody stole a piece of art.
There was a painting there when she got there and it wasn’t when she left so . . . This one lady wrote a long thing talking about the banister for the back porch: “Oh, this is not up to code”—this really long, annoying thing. She kept going on about the stuff she wished [had been there]: kitchen furnishings, a Brita filter for tap water, a skillet, one more saucepan, a mixing bowl, a grater. She wanted a cheese grater! Go to the store and get your cheese grater! I forget where I was when I saw it, but I said, “You need to get out of here with that bullshit.”
What college did you go to?
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois. Dick Gregory went there. Who else? Open Mike Eagle, Tony Trimm. I went to college for four years, then stayed with my parents for a couple years after. I went to New York for a few months in 2006, then came back.
I moved without money or structure or a job and somehow pulled it off for four months and then left.
Was there like a benchmark you’d reached in your stand-up that made you say, “Now is the time to move”?
I’d been to New York a couple of times. It’s really exciting when you visit when you’re 21 or 22. That shit is mind-blowing. I knew the stories of comedians going to New York and making it, and how Chappelle got [rejected] by all the clubs in just two weeks.
What was your performance schedule like in Chicago?
Just trying to be onstage a lot and do it a lot. I never had a regular day job. I was working at Pita Pit for a month or so, had some side gigs doing promotions—like, go to a boat show and hand out flyers for some shit.
Was there a particular comic or show that made you think, “I have to go up a lot to make it?”
I don’t know if it was a particular comic, I just wanted to do it, man. I would always go to Zanies and watch whoever—as long as the show wasn’t sold out, you could go and watch the headliner that week. If I wasn’t reading about comedy or looking up stuff online, I would do it.
What was your media diet growing up?
Martin, Living Single, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jamie Foxx Show, Cosby Show, and Animaniacs. Gargoyles was a great cartoon. X-Men—I was a big Gambit fan. Wrestling.
When was the first time you got onstage?
March or April 2002. It was chill. I mean, it wasn’t an aggressive environment. It was supportive. I got some chuckles, enough to be really excited. I remember just afterwards my legs were shaking from the adrenaline.
Who were the people you looked up to when you were frequenting Chicago’s open mikes?
Leon Rogers, Lil Rel, Deon Cole.
Did any of them particularly influence your style?
No. Deon a little bit. I didn’t really take any cues from anybody.
You mentioned growing up watching The Cosby Show. Back in 2014, you were speaking openly about rape allegations against Bill Cosby, unknowingly opening a door for more women to come forward with their stories. Can you still enjoy Cosby knowing what we do now about the allegations?
Yeah, I don’t know. I was at my cousin Percy’s house and there happened to be an episode on. It was a few months ago. I think it was the episode where [Cosby] says, “I brought you in this world and I’ll take you out,” and I said it along with him. It varies, but it puts a weird vibe onto somebody’s work. That’s a decision each individual needs to make for themselves. There’s no playbook, there are no rules.
You’ve been getting more television and film roles recently. I just saw The Disaster Artist, in which you have a small part. Is acting something you’ve been focusing on pursuing?
It just comes. I don’t pursue it. Occasionally they bring me straight-up offers. I did that movie specifically because I used to go to see The Room at screenings in New York in 2009, 2010. So I heard that [James] Franco’s making a movie about The Room and I was like, “He’s making a movie about a movie? It sounds like a terrible idea, but I’m on board.”
Do you ever perform at open mikes here?
I go to Cole’s [on Wednesdays] a lot. But I knew if I went to Cole’s last night, I’m going to have to talk to a lot of people. It’s that type of thing, where I do make decisions if I want to go [knowing] I’m going to engage with x amount of people. I was with my ex-girlfriend at some random bar—this one girl came up and was like, “Did you find a pair of glasses over here?” I’m turned this way, and she’s trying to get me to turn [the other] way. She’s just trying to check to make sure it’s me or some shit. It’s just weird-ass behavior. We had a drink and we get to the car, and I’m about to pull out, and this girl comes up to the car acting all weird. She says, “Are you a comedian? My friends work at the bar you just left. Can you come back to the bar, please?” I tell her thank you but I can’t come back to the bar. And she’s like, “Please come back. Please, please. I’ll give you some money.” I said, “How much money?” and she’s like, “Is money the only thing that matters to you?”
Sounds like you feel like you brought it upon yourself.
Part of it is: I didn’t have to take the movie. I didn’t have to tour. I didn’t have to do multiple television shows or specials. I didn’t have to do that shit. That’s just part of it. It’s still weird, but that’s why I’m like, “You did that shit, man. You did a Samsung commercial. Deal with it. If you didn’t want this, stay in the fucking house.” v
Hannibal Buress headlines the Civic Opera House Fri 12/29, 8 PM, sold out.