Comedian Hannibal Buress found himself in the news late last year, when a routine about the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby catalyzed the chain of revelations -- the re-revelations, that is, with many new revelations added -- that turned rumor into ruin.
"People think I'm making it up," he had said during an October 2014 Philadelphia performance that was caught on video and circulated online. "When you leave here, Google 'Bill Cosby rape.' That … has more results than 'Hannibal Buress.'"
"Hannibal Buress" surely gets more results these days, but you might well have noticed him before he became famous for something besides his own work -- as a stand-up comic, or as (as I first did) Ilana Glazer's patient dentist-boyfriend on "Broad City," or as the cohost of the passive-aggressive surrealist talk-show "The Eric Andre Show." Now, at 32, he has a show with his own name in the title, which had its premiere Wednesday on Comedy Central.
A weekly series that will tape close to airtime for maximum topicality, like HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" (or FX's abandoned "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" and "Brand X With Russell Brand"), it features Buress working before a studio audience and in pretaped pieces. To judge by the premiere, it will be something like the first half of a network late-night show, minus the interviews and musical guests.
Buress has publicly downplayed his role in the Cosby affair -- the deal for "Why?" reportedly predates it -- and not surprisingly, there was only one passing reference to it during Wednesday's show, a throwaway line in a routine about not trusting male hotel housekeepers ("You're not housekeeping, you're a Bill Cosby assassin"). Then it was back to business, which was more hit than miss.
It is almost a given that shows like this, which invent variety anew for every new host, start on shaky legs, and "Why?" did not buck the trend. Still, it came out of the gate strong, before stumbling a little in the stretch -- you cheer it along, like a horse you have money on -- with a leaden, misfiring Declaration of Independence routine featuring a Benjamin Franklin impersonator and Buress in a powdered wig. (Amy Schumer's filmed segment, in which she was revealed to be Buress' Internet troll -- "You're like a less funny Tavis Smiley" -- was especially good because: Schumer.)
Buress is known for his low-key, sleepy delivery, and he's best when he seems to be hardly working (as in a taped piece purporting to be his lackadaisical, feet-on-the-desk audition to replace Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show"). But he amped himself up for the occasion to fit the pace of a packed, even overpacked, half-hour. Frequent cutaways -- too frequent -- to the invariably delighted studio audience seemed intended to assure viewers that something young and vital was happening, but they had the effect of feeling manufactured, a whipped up rather than an actual good time, in which every joke landed, and even the weak bits killed.
That felt like going against the grain, and it was mostly not needed. An effective opening monologue, included timely jokes about Caitlyn Jenner ("Why are we cool with Caitlyn Jenner becoming a woman but why aren't we cool with calling a woman Bruce?"), Donald Trump ("Why are we letting Donald Trump run for president like it's cool; he's filed for bankruptcy four times -- that's like asking Greece to be president"), Greece ("Here's my advice to Greece: If the phone rings don't answer it, it's a bill collector ... and if you do answer the phone on accident, act like you're Germany and say Greece doesn't live here anymore"). Of soccer: "I watch it on a national level.... I'm not going to watch the Chicago Fire play whoever the hell L.A.'s soccer team is.... By the way, horrible name, Chicago Fire, that was a bad time for the city."
It's in that offhand "by the way," in the sudden thought or the afterthought that Buress seemed most himself, and funniest, as when, returning from a commercial, he said, "Welcome back, or just welcome -- who am I to assume you started watching the show at the beginning? … I don't know you like that."
Robert Lloyd tweets from the safety of @LATimesTVLloyd