NY Comedy Trip: Knitting Factory Showcase with Hannibal Buress

Huge, free night of comedy last night that I’m going to try to get at comic-by-comic.

I think a lot of what makes Buress so funny is the way his slow, laconic voice hides a sharp-as-hell intellect. Hides is the wrong word here, but he’s got the verbal timing of a stoner, and he’ll often wear this steady grin while working through a bit, but when the punchline lands what had seemed like a stoner now seems like a guru, the kind of seen-it-all hermit people hike up to caves to ask life-changing questions to. It’s like a slow wit that’s still impeccably timed.

He stood himself in great contrast to Seaton Smith, who’s got a rapid-fire delivery and a voice that’ll growl in high pitch for emphasis, like a motorbike stuck in a low gear. But also in great complement to him. In some between-acts bantering crowd work about white guys and black guys and who can run faster, Smith mentioned that there’s always one white guy in the Olympics. “He’s always from South Africa, have you noticed that shit?” Buress: “You think that’s the residual effects of Apartheid?” This didn’t kill like it would have if it were in a proper set, but what’s also great about Buress is watching him masterfully let stuff like that go.

An in-credible name. I’ll note only for self-aggrandizement’s sake that I once predicted this as a hot new thing for hip parents to name their kids and was told it was much too far-fetched.

“I kinda put off a nerdy, weiner vibe,” Green said early in his set. It got him his first laugh, which I think was about everyone in the room happy to hear him self-diagnose. It was a relief we expressed, akin to when I saw a thirtysomething woman with braces slip, halfway into her open-mic set, a joke about her braces. Is this weinerness why he came to the mic with, “This is my first time in New York; fuckin’ great to be here”? Swearing as a way to establish an authority one’s stage presence alone cannot?

His best bit was about a friend who when confronted with older standup audiences changes his girlfriend jokes to wife jokes, as a way to seem more grown up. Green changes jokes about his dog to jokes about his son. Thus follows jokes about his son licking his balls, or watching him masturbate. Pretty obvious stuff. “But that was my old son,” Green says, “the son I had in college. He’s dead now.” It was a smart way to develop the premise, raising the stakes to the ludicrously dangerous, but then the bit went on for another 30-40 seconds of more ways to joke about putting one’s son to death. They got laughs, but not laughs that escalated. A new lesson: getting out of a bit is harder than getting into one.

The first of three comics who are writers for the forthcoming Chris-Rock produced Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu had without question the most amazing opener of the night. “Crazy white dudes, shooting innocent people!” Silence. “Crazy white dudes! Shooting innocent people!” Wait for it. “But enough about the cops!” Big laughs, during which he shouts “100 retweets! 100 retweets! Twitter doesn’t know shit about comedy apparently, because that shit is not funny.”

So it’s a joke about Aurora that is also a joke about how his Twitter followers have very bad taste, that all the while chastises everyone in the audience that night who gave him the first laugh of his set. That this didn’t seem to alienate anyone is what made the opener so amazing. Kondabolu continued with quality Aurora material, delivered a solid feminist dick joke, and told enough jokes about white people’s institutional racism that a white girl near the door laughed the loudest, and clapped her hands and held them in the air as if to say Testify! I’m calling Kondabolu one to watch if other people already haven’t.

“I bombed everywhere Hitler did,” Kennedy said at one point in reference to his last European tour, and it’s got an old Borscht-Belt gag kind of feel, but it was one of my favorite jokes of the night. Kennedy, another writer for Kamau Bell’s show, had some PhD’s ≠ real doctors material that this Doctor of Philosophy was ready to get grumpy about, but his postures and clowning were so strong I had to laugh with everyone else. Of all the comics’ closers, Kennedy probably had the show-stealer, a bit about what it would be like if philosopher-critics like Cornel West were asked on to provide color commentary during football games. It was what I tend to call a bravura piece—a long bit that’s been perfectly timed and rehearsed, where details build and build and the audience is held between laughter by listening to the pacing and word choices until we finally hit the punchline we all know has been coming and we laugh and immediately applaud, as a way to show our appreciation for such professionalism. It’s a smart way to end a set, walking off stage knowing your audience has been transported.

He was my friends’ favorite from last night. One reason was that his comic indignation is so dynamic and turbulent, coming out of an otherwise mild-mannered delivery. Shaffir’s material is about being in his 30s and living alone with no kids, while around him his friends are married with kids and buying houses, so there’s lots to be indignant about. Mom friends trying to ignore their crying kids. (“Are you gonna get that thing? It’s a screaming mammal!”) The ways cohabitation means having to be wrong half of the time.

His closer was another kind of bravura piece, where some bit referenced earlier in the set (in this case, a married friend impatiently holding a beer out for his otherwise occupied wife) is brought back in at the end. This is the other reason he was the favorite: we’re writer types, and this is a writerly move toward thematic unity we recognize and can appreciate. The first time I recognized this move was at the end of an old Howie Mandel special I was watching with my parents on HBO. And when Mandel did it, when he brought an old bit back in with one detail, almost an hour had passed since we’d first heard it. It was enough for my dad to laugh the loudest he had all night, with a tone that revealed a kind of stunned appreciation and wonder. It’s a powerful move. Another kind of transport.

“Nigger dick! Nigger dick! Nigger dick!” is how this set ended, and it killed, and one thing I’m avoiding talking about in this writeup is the myriad ways race was addressed and complicated last night. (I’m going to do a poor job in a blog post.) Of the eight men who got on stage, five were comics of color, each of whom negotiated race (or didn’t) in his own way. Avery’s relationship to his blackness was somewhat like Green’s relationship to his masculinity—there’s a socially-constructed anxiety there that both guys mine for humor. Avery’s comes from having grown up, with his brother, as the only black kids at an all-white school. His parents, needing to “black up” the kids, sign them up for the Jack and Jill program, which takes kids of color once a month to museums and other destinations of urban enrichment.

The problem for Avery was that he had no idea how to talk to the other black kids. There was no shared cultural currency. So the comedy lies in the uncomfortable (and unmappable?) gap between biological race and racial identity. But this gets complicated with his last bit, about being a fan of phone sex. One … I dunno are they called conversations? escalated such that the fantasy between him and the woman on the phone developed to where she offered to invite another guy in on the fun. “Yeah I bet you’d like to watch me get fucked by a black guy,” she suggests, and then either Avery or Avery’s telephonic self (or both) gets transformed. Reduced to a voice, he’s been unwittingly de-raced in this fantasy he both is and is not constructing. And when the woman begins using the word nigger for “black guy” Avery gets effectively stuck and so goes to a stock series of black stereotypes for advice on how he ought to proceed.

All of this does a piss poor job (I warned you) of relaying how funny Avery was. “That’s funny,” a woman in the audience said at one point in his set. “Thank you, comedy referee,” he said, mocking her. “So had it been written, so it shall be done.”

“Look,” Katz opened with. “The guy from earlier shrunk himself down.” This in reference to Ari Shaffir, and other than a nice moment where being fingerbanged came up in one bit, and then he came back and did some material about the term fingerbang, it may have been his best joke. I may have been tired; Katz went on right before the show’s two-hour mark. It may have been a sequencing issue, a much more chill set after Avery’s manic one. I didn’t pay the attention I should have.

For later: my pal Steve turned to me before the show began, as the Knitting Factory’s lobby bar began filling up to standing room only (at every point of the show there was a line of people waiting outside to get in), and said, “Ten years ago nobody would be here.” And he’s right. Ten years ago if you said there would be a night of standup comedy at a bar, it would have been a hard sell.

It is an easy sell now. Comedy festivals are starting to merge with music festivals. People go see comics the way they used to see shows. Something made this transformation happen, and without question I need to think more about it.

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