Stand-up Is the Star of Comedy Central’s Promising ‘Why? With Hannibal Buress’

Why? With Hannibal Buress is still very much a work in progress, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it remained that way for the entirety of its ten-episode first season. This isn’t a bad thing — Buress excels when he is seemingly unpolished, and his laid-back but incredulous delivery tends to make his stand-up flow as though he just thought of something — making last night’s pilot a fine, if shaky, debut.

Hannibal Buress made the talk show and interview rounds in advance of the premiere, explaining that he didn’t entirely know what his show was going to be like — except that it would be funny. It’s true; so far, Why? is a hybrid of various forms of comedy, from stand-up to pre-recorded sketches to a full-on operatic performance. Some work better than others. Some still need fine-tuning, but hint at the potential for Why? to quickly become one of Comedy Central’s (many) must-see television programs.

The pilot, “8th Of July Celebration,” opened with a quick sketch involving Conan O’Brien and his audience, a group of people not interested in seeing O’Brien and Andy Richter on Hannibal’s show. It was cute enough, but, like the later bit involving James Corden, was mostly a Famous Friends! nod, rather than anything more interesting. Another segment that worked better found Buress confronting one of his meanest trolls on Twitter (@NotAFannibal), which led him to another famous face: Amy Schumer.

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This was a nice way to introduce Buress into the Comedy Central family, though its underlying intention — the hope that Schumer’s knack for going viral would help out Hannibal’s premiere — wasn’t so subtle. But it worked, largely because the sketch was funny (of course), and because of the rapport between Buress and Schumer (as well as her self-awareness; she repeated her hyper-publicized “I’m 160 pounds and I can catch a dick whenever I want” quote, prompting Hannibal to ask, “Why do you keep saying that?”). It also worked because of Buress’ delivery: the hardest I laughed throughout the half-hour was at the way he said, “It’s owned by Viacom!”

Another pre-taped segment featured Buress attempting a white man’s successful “I don’t answer questions” approach to dealing with getting pulled over. As expected, Hannibal’s attempt leads to him getting shot (the second time he tries, with an emphasis on his celebrity rather than his blackness, it doesn’t work quite as well). Interestingly enough, this echoed a similar scenario from Key & Peele‘s new episode — do you think Comedy Central ever imagined that, in one night, it would air two different shows with comedy bits about black men getting brutally shot by the police? These moments were bleak but necessary, and they illustrate why diverse voices are so important in comedy; I can’t wait until we get a two-hour Key & Peele, Hannibal Buress, Trevor Noah, and Larry Wilmore block.

By far, the best bits in Why?‘s pilot episode were the stand-up. Buress is one of the most gifted stand-ups out there right now, and this show’s weekly format (it’s filmed the Tuesday before it airs) allows him to do some more topical jokes while in his comfort zone, rather than sitting behind in a desk like Jon Stewart or Larry Wilmore. (In fact, one of the sketches was Buress’ already-released fake Daily Show audition). Last night’s jokes included references to Caitlyn Jenner, the USA soccer team’s Women’s World Cup win, and Donald Trump. His best riff was on Greece’s financial problems, likening the country to philosophy majors and giving practical broke advice: “If the phone rings, don’t answer it. It’s a bill collector.” But this material was still somewhat rocky. An extended joke about male housekeepers seemed a little out of place (though, “you MAN” was my other favorite delivery of the night), though it did eventually, oddly, lead to the elephant in the room when Hannibal joked that the housekeeper could be a Bill Cosby assassin.

Why? With Hannibal Buress didn’t quickly bolt out of the gate — that, quite honestly, would be jarring in light of the comedian’s slow and steady stage persona — but all of the pieces are in place for it to become something great.