Hannibal Buress is a not-particularly-topical comedian who is best known for making a topical joke. This past October, a segment of Buress’ stand-up routine about Bill Cosby being a rapist went viral, sparking public interest as it had never been sparked before in Cosby’s predatory sexual behavior. The irony, as Buress himself has pointed out, is that his Cosby riff was not particularly topical either. Rumors and allegations of Cosby’s misconduct were out there; that’s how Buress knew about them. In his routine, Buress even recommends that people google Cosby and rape, telling them they will get more results for that than for “Hannibal Buress.” But after decades of rumors, it was still Buress’ joke that catalyzed Cosby’s precipitous freefall from grace.
Despite having made news, though, Buress’ specialty has never been the news. He’s a great comedian who delivers sharp, if not necessarily timely observations with the warm rhythms of a space cadet. Buress frequently gets worked up about things—like Bill Cosby—but even then, there’s something unflappable and inviting about him, an essential calm. Turned up to 11, he still seems like he’s at seven; he does his comedy under a muffled ceiling. (That’s what makes his Broad City character, Lincoln, a great boyfriend to antic Ilana. He’s her perfectly chill counterpoint.) It’s the juxtaposition of his manner—his almost slurry, stoned out delivery—and the preciseness of his mind, which is especially attuned to the oddities of language, that make him so funny. He’s like a squishy teddy bear, but one with gears in its head churning out razor blades.
All of this is to say that Buress is an odd fit for a news show. But, starting last night on Comedy Central, a weekly comedic news program called Why? with Hannibal Buress is exactly what he got. Late-night shows hosted by professionally funny people riffing on the news take a long time to find themselves. But even given this steep learning curve, the first episode of Why? was a mess. It opened with a pre-taped bit of Buress asking Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter to be his first guests, only for their audience to reject the offer, leaving Buress to dejectedly walk off stage. It was a flat, punch-line-free way to begin.
I may be doing logical backbends over here—or rather, I am definitely doing logical backbends over here—because I like Buress so much and want him to succeed, but I am going to insist on seeing the ragged, not particularly funny first episode of Why? With Hannibal Buress through rose-colored glasses anyway. For starters, no one else would have started a show with a segment as awkward as the Conan one. It was bad, but it was also ballsy. The first episode demonstrated just how ill-suited Buress is to doing what every other late-night host does, while suggesting that, once he embraces this, he may start doing wackier, more singular bits than other shows would even consider. If the first episode of Why? was a mess, some of the splatter had potential.
After the Conan sketch, Buress came out in front of a live studio audience and ran through some topical jokes about Greece, about Donald Trump, and about women’s soccer. The best joke had Buress pondering, as usual, language. “Why are we cool with Caitlyn Jenner becoming a woman, but we aren’t cool with a woman being called Bruce?” he wondered. These jokes were fine, but unexceptional. Buress’ lackadaisical rhythms are better suited to humor that takes longer to unfold. Having him do what every late-night host does—stand up there and crack one-liners—is a waste.
On some level, it feels like Buress knows this. The episode was packed with segments that directly contrasted him with other late-night hosts. In addition to Conan, James Corden pre-taped a bit in which he played up being a smug, unsupportive jerk. Buress included a bit that was his alleged audition for the Daily Show, in which he finds it impossible to seriously audition for The Daily Show. He muffs his lines, throws his feet on the desk, wonders why anyone would want to do a show every day. Yet even as he’s demonstrating why he’s so ill-suited to host The Daily Show, he is demonstrating why he’s so well-suited to host some other, stranger program. He wonders at length if President Obama “is secretly a germaphobe and fighting through it every day.” He says his glasses don’t have lenses and begins playfully poking out his eyes. He wants to bring us a “Moment of Ben”—clips from Ben Stiller movies. Left to do anything he wants, in this segment anyway, Buress eschews the news, and goes someplace spacier, stranger, and funnier.
The weirder the show got, the better. A pre-taped segment with Amy Schumer, playing one of Hannibal’s Internet trolls, only got really amusing when they started to scream at each other about whether anyone watches more than one TV show. “No one watches two shows!” Schumer screamed. “Who watches two TV shows?” “Hannibal Buress!” Buress replied, before casting about to come up with those two shows, which turned out to be Extreme Couponing and Extreme Couponing: Dallas.
Buress also took on race, first showing some YouTube videos of a white man who, when pulled over by the police, always says, “I don’t answer questions.” Buress explained that he loved this so much, he tried it himself, leading to a pre-taped bit in which he tells an officer “I don’t answer questions” and is, of course, immediately shot dozens of times. Later in the show he decided to celebrate July 8, the day his TV show began, instead of July 4, which is “a big holiday for white Americans” but a day on which black people just “went from being owned by the British to being owned by Americans.”
The July 8 celebration, which closed out the show, quickly got stranger and stranger. Actors in revolutionary era costumes appeared on stage to announce that “Hannibal Buress does declare independence from not having a television show.” A Ben Franklin impersonator showed up to deliver a JFK quote. Buress came out in a period-era white, curled wig and deadpanned, “I don’t answer questions” and “Extreme Couponing: Dallas.” A singer took to the stage and celebrated Why? with a song that included the lyrics “Why, why, why, why is something called a fly, but nothing is called a walk or swim?” and went on to wonder why sheepskin is the only animal material used for condoms. “I would wear a cheetah condom just for pure novelty. Why, why, why.” None of this really worked—but it also wasn’t like anything else. Which is as it should be, because neither is Hannibal Buress.