Horror stories abound of comedians’ first forays onstage. Jokes bomb, crowds are indifferent, angry drunks heckle mercilessly — it’s all part of the growing pains every comic must experience.
Hannibal Buress managed to avoid those nightmarish scenarios. He didn’t cut his teeth in hip Los Angeles night clubs or trendy New York City comedy cellars. His career took off in the sleepy college town of Carbondale, Ill., and he knew exactly what kind of one-liners to feed his captive audience.
“I would talk trash about the cafeteria and campus police and boring lectures,” said Buress, who appears at The Masonic in The City on Saturday. “The jokes weren’t that funny or anything. But people could relate to them, so I got some chuckles.”
A Chicago native, Buress wasn’t enraptured with the art of comedy as a youngster. There were no transcendent performances he witnessed that changed his life forever. It was only after he began attending school at Southern Illinois University and attended a few open mics that he considered making a career out of his natural ability to make people laugh.
“Seeing that open mic demystified things for me,” says Buress. “When I was getting into comedy, in 2001 and 2002, YouTube wasn’t really around for you to watch regular comedy performances. The only time I saw comedy were these huge specials on television, and that just didn’t seem like something I could do.”
With a foot in the comedy door, Buress’ career steadily grew, buoyed by scene-stealing cameos in shows like “30 Rock,” in which he played a homeless man with strangely sage advice, and movies such as “Neighbors.”
He eventually landed a full-time role in “Broad City,” portraying the on-again/off-again boyfriend of Ilana Wexler, the main character played by show co-creator Ilana Glazer.
Perhaps most significantly, Buress’ comedy act attacked the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby, bringing new light to the level of serious sexual assault charges levied at the legendary comedian, and playing a galvanizing role in the burgeoning MeToo movement.
Buress has shifted away from talking about that pivotal moment. Instead, he’s discussing other projects he’s working on, including the creation of a new community center in Chicago.
Despite receiving increasingly more exposure and fame — he had roles in multiple movies this year, including a leading part in the comedy “Tag” — Buress wants to focus more of his time to giving back to his hometown. He’s filming a comedy special during his current two-month tour, but after that he plans to take it easy for a little while.
“I want to take a step back and focus on things outside of entertainment,” says Buress. “I still plan on laughing and having fun. I just don’t need to be up onstage the whole time.”