Arts comedy review

Hannibal Buress performs stand-up comedy at MIT

The actor, writer, and comic brings his unique persona to the Institute

Hannibal Buress

Kresge Auditorium

Februrary 26, 2016

Stand-up comic Hannibal Buress performed to a sold-out Kresge Auditorium on Friday night, in a comedy set ranging from commentary on the previous night’s Republican debate to a solid five minutes of gibberish rap. The show was sponsored by the De Florez Fund for Humor, and tickets were distributed by lottery to members of the MIT community.

The Chicago-born comedian has had short stints writing for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but is most well-known for his stand-up comedy and his role as Lincoln in the standout Comedy Central show Broad City. Earlier this month, he released a new comedy special, Comedy Camisado, on Netflix, to critical acclaim. Buress is also often credited with helping push the rape allegations against Bill Cosby to the forefront of the public consciousness with a set of jokes from late 2014.

After Lamont Price, the opening act, warmed up the crowd with a decent 20 minutes of stand-up (with some particularly funny bits about white people named Todd and the joy of hitting people with coconuts), he introduced the headliner, to enthusiastic applause. The very first thing that Buress said after entering the stage was, “Thank you, for your parents’ money!” He went on to make a few jokes about MIT, including one he revisited several times about just how funny he thought it was that one could major in French here. Buress also engaged with the audience, asking one person in the front row what his major was and what he was planning to do after college. The student answered computer science and that he wasn’t sure, and Buress joked, “Don’t worry, I’m an MIT student. I’mma network my way into suburban tranquility.”

Buress kept the audience engaged and laughing, expertly transitioning from topic to topic without making it obvious that he was telling a set list of jokes. That, in my opinion, is one of the most important characteristics of great stand-up comedy: the ability to get an audience to willingly suspend their disbelief and take in a set as if it’s complete stream-of-consciousness. Buress has a way of talking very softly, almost at a whisper, at certain parts of jokes, and he utilized that expertly to keep the crowd hanging on his every word. Whenever he lowered his voice, the entire room would become virtually silent. And his personality, low-key and laid-back but also unpredictable, is an integral part of his comedic persona, manifesting itself in his television characters as well as his stand-up.

Much of Buress’s comedy centered around telling stories. He also talked about contemporary issues like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where he went on to headline at a benefit on Sunday, and the current presidential race (my favorite bit from that: “Bernie Sanders is gonna die soon. How has Hillary not pulled that out in debates? ... Also, he’s bald. If the president’s bald already, how are we going to track his stress?”).

But perhaps the most unique part of Buress’s comedy is his experimentation with musical cues. He had a DJ on stage for the entire show who he began incorporating into his humor, and who functioned almost as a comedy backup singer. In one joke, Hannibal remarked about how many rap songs start with a line about morning wood. “Don’t believe me?” he said. “I brought evidence.” He proceeded to have the DJ play five-second snippets of every single song that starts with a morning wood remark, commenting on each one. Later on, he played the opening bass line to the song “Fancy” over and over again, making a different joke about how stupid it was every time and bringing it back later to tie into other jokes. The use of preset musical cues somewhat undermined the sense of spontaneity and natural flow that comics work to construct, but on the other hand it was refreshing to receive acknowledgement of the planned nature of comedy, almost like a wink from backstage. The show was an intriguing mix of traditional stand-up and rehearsed elements, providing hints of where comedy could go in the future.

Just when it seemed like the show was over and Hannibal was about to walk offstage, he yelled, “Ballerinas!” and music blasted as four dancers pirouetted onstage. Buress started rapping over the music as the ballerinas danced. It was unintelligible to me, but like most people, I just assumed that there must be decent or funny lyrics buried underneath all the noise from the music and cheering. He did the same song twice, and then one last time with no music, to reveal that he had just been rapping gibberish the entire time. It was a wonderfully disorienting ending to a great show.