Rising stand-up star Hannibal Buress downplays his Bill Cosby moment

STAND-UP GUY: Hannibal Buress has been shying away from his comments that called out Bill Cosby. Instead, he's focused on film roles — like that of Officer Watkins in the Seth Rogen movie Neighbors — and Live in Chicago, a one-hour special that landed him on multiple year-end best of lists. Photo by Constance Kostrevski

About three months ago, Hannibal Buress got uncomfortably famous.

It was the 31-year-old Chicagoan’s casual stand-up riffing on the Bill Cosby rape allegations that sparked a media firestorm. New alleged victims emerged, and the embattled comedian and community leader once thought of as America’s dad suffered myriad cancellations of future projects and television appearances. While much of the attention was soon diverted to Cosby and the multiple women who have accused him, Buress went from being the quickly rising comedian with recurring roles on critically acclaimed television shows like “Broad City and “The Eric André Show” to the guy who inadvertently brought down the biggest black entertainer in history.

Since the YouTube clip of those inauspicious minutes detonated, Buress has been pointedly keeping a low profile. He’s taken no questions on Cosby since his appearance on Howard Stern’s show just days after the incident, even as he continues his relentless touring schedule. Those dates support his 2014 release Live in Chicago, a one-hour special that landed him on multiple year-end best of lists. Buress appears at The Orange Peel on Sunday, Jan. 18.

Even now, questions about how he handles politically sensitive topics in general are treated with a reserved, if genial, manner. “I just talk about what’s interesting to me, man,” Buress says. “It’s not very calculated, even in the technique. It’s just not that planned out.”

It’s true that most of the comedian’s material is observational and story-driven. There are hilarious bits about from renting a Second Line in New Orleans and an extended tale about how he pretended to be Donald Glover’s manager to score free tickets to an Eddie Griffin show in Las Vegas. But there’s often more at play in Buress’ work then his persona would suggest. Underneath the aw-shucks, possibly-stoned demeanor he uses in performances is the eye of a keen social commentator, as the Cosby joke and others — like briefly imagining a world without racism due to his love of apple juice — have demonstrated. “The things I talk about are things that happen to me, or that I thought of, or things I can’t stop thinking about,” he explains. “Most of my stuff is true, with maybe some tweaks on the things I’ve said and a reaction that can be crazy or wild.”

And it makes sense that Buress would shy away from punditry, as 2014 has been one of the best of his career. While the comedian paid his dues early on as a writer for “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live,” in recent years he’s found success on screen as well. He plays a pediatric dentist with an ambiguous sexual relationship to one of the leads in “Broad City,” a millennial send-up sitcom that started out as a Web series before it was picked up by Comedy Central. He serves as a would-be sidekick on “The Eric André Show,” a hilarious parody of a public access talk show that excels at crazy antics and breaking down walls, both literally and figuratively. “Broad City” premieres its second season on Jan. 14; the third season of “The Eric André Show” wraps up just days later on Adult Swim.

Buress also had a role in one of the biggest comedies of the year, the Seth Rogen vehicle Neighbors, and is currently finishing up a prominent role in Daddy’s Home, a film that stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg and wraps in February. Not bad work if you can get it.

For all of the recent acting success, which he refers to as “awesome,” Buress is still very much focused on his stand-up career. His success has been gradual, from his start at open mics during college at Eastern Illinois University to his rough-and-tumble early years in the New York comedy scene and, later, a weekly gig hosting a comedy night at The Knitting Factory.

“[Acting] is fun, but I still think of myself as a stand-up comedian first,” Buress says. “It’s just about what kind of opportunities come along.  If it looks fun and it can help progress my stand-up act and push people toward that, those are the types of roles I’m looking for. If I’m in a drama or something, that doesn’t necessarily help me sell tickets to a show.”

Or maybe it does,” he says after a moment. “Maybe it would, I don’t know! I don’t feel like I’m a good fit for it yet, though. Maybe when I’m 40.”

WHO: Hannibal Buress
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. $27 advance/$30 day of show

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About Kyle Petersen
Kyle is a Columbia, South Carolina-based freelance music writer and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. He's also in a sincere, long-term love affair with the city of Asheville. You can follow him on Twitter at @kpetersen.

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