When comedian Hannibal Buress began preparing material for a new special back in 2017, he went into it knowing that much of it would hinge around the story of his encounter with a Miami Police Department (MPD) officer. 

That special, now aptly titled “Miami Nights,” begins with a brief clip of bodycam footage of Buress’ December 2017 arrest. He later presents the rest of the footage of his arrest, in which an intoxicated Buress is shown baking an MPD officer who is following him, while fans who recognize the Chicago-born comedian film from their phone cameras. 

The incident escalated when Buress was placed under arrest, despite demands to hear what he was being charged with from both himself and the people filming him. The case was later thrown out. 

While Buress was prepared for the clip to go viral at the time, he had no idea how emblematic his experience would become in the current atmosphere in the U.S. in which police conduct is under increased scrutiny from citizens. 

“This isn’t new. I’m a Black man from Chicago,” Buress said matter-of-factly during my interview with him on July 23. Describing these interactions was about as heavy as our hour-long conversation got. “I can remember being a teenager and being stopped for no reason and searched. I’ve been pulled over while jogging. Many situations where I was just minding my business.” 

A West Side native, Buress has been living in Los Angeles since the conclusion of NBA All-Star Weekend 2020 back in February, his longest stretch away from home in his life. However, the high of NBA All-Star Weekend didn’t last long in Chicago.

By the beginning of March, confirmed COVID-19 cases were rising exponentially in Illinois, and by March 20, the state-wide shutdown had been announced. In May, the shutdown took the passenger seat in Chicago as Black people in search of justice, for the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others at the hands of police, began protesting. 

They haven’t let up since then, and the discourse in Chicago has shifted to #DefundThePolice and #CopsOutCPS.

“I know that it’s a tense situation for a lot of people in Chicago right now,” Buress says. “And I do feel like too many resources are being given to policing. A lot of that funding could be going toward education or other things that help people more directly [than policing].” 

Buress is no stranger to working for the well-being of Black Chicago. In 2019, he began working on Melvina Masterminds, an arts and technology-focused nonprofit  based on the West Side in Austin, named after the block in Chicago that he was raised on. While they did offer in-person workshops last year, the pandemic has forced them to shift to online programming.

“I want to be here for a while to get a better feel for what’s going on, rather than summarize a bunch of news stories,” he adds. 

While away from home, Buress’ time has been spent writing, making the occasional Instagram Live or Zoom appearance, and finding new ways to deliver his material in the age of COVID-19. 

Though the special “Miami Nights,” was filmed in February 2019 before coronavirus hit the nation in general and the entertainment industry in particular, Buress’ touring career has been halted by the nationwide shutdowns. 

While some entertainers have shifted to alternatives such as live Drive-In events, others have latched onto social media technologies to interact with their fans. Buress has used his time away from the stage to focus on writing material and collaborating with editors.

Creating a new workflow and not being able to work on material in the traditional way has encouraged Buress to find new avenues for his ideas. “I’m able to come up with more dynamic stuff,” he says. “During the quarantine I’ve had more time to think deeply about concepts, and production, so that when I finally am able to tour again, I’m able to make it something more elaborate.”

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
I want to do a footworking movie. That would be dope. - Hannibal Buress

“Miami Nights” currently sits at over 1.5 million views on YouTube since its release on July 3, and is in many ways a sample platter of Buress’ comedic identity. The clip of him at a college open mic in 2002, his interpolation of auto-tune and other sound effects, the use of visual aides including news stories and his ability to turn unexaggerated real-life events — such as a multi-encore Prince concert (that he assured me was not fabricated), and a run-in with the police — into tales of epic proportions; they’re all indicative of his lawless, borderless brand of comedic artistry.

Experimenting with new ways to present his comedy isn’t uncommon for Buress. On his podcast, The Handsome Rambler, he often includes instruments such as the theremin and an auto-tune microphone. 

In “Miami Nights,” Buress includes these elements and more visual effects like green screen backgrounds, and voice manipulation that make the comedy show more animated. 

“These things we added weren’t just from a podcast to a special. We had to workshop them a lot,” Buress says. “While I was touring, every once in a while, we would throw something in like the autotune or a huge graphic in the background and we’d gauge the reaction. It just started to seem like that sort of stuff resonated with people.” 

Perhaps his most common method of manipulating his comedic delivery is through music. “I was into music long before I ever touched a stand-up stage,” he says. Buress came up battle-rapping, freestyling and even recording music as a teenager. “Professional comedy just wasn’t something that we were ever around. But you might’ve run into somebody from Crucial Conflict while you were out.”

Hannibal Buress posing at the crib | Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

From bucket boys off the Dan Ryan exits, to amateur rappers spitting at after school open mics, music is perhaps the most accessible artform in Chicago. Bernie Mac, Cory Holcomb, and Lil Rel are just some of the Chicago comedians who’ve successfully disguised comedy as music. Buress’ use of music as a comedic device is not only a continuation of that tradition, but a proliferation. In Buress’ case, music was here first and it has only grown more ingrained into the focal point of his artistry.

Since June, Buress has made appearances on an Instagram Live show called “Smokin at Church.” Musicians James Earl and Jameel Bruner — aka Kintaro — created “Smokin at Church,” a Los Angeles-based variety show where they join a group of friends in clergy robes for a jam session in a dimly lit and colorful environment. 

“It was my first time really doing anything that interactive with a group of people in a while,” Buress says. “I got on the mic and just started going and I realized then how many ideas I had just sitting in my mind waiting to come out.”

In April, he released his latest single, a backhanded tribute to Judge Judy, who recently announced her retirement from her self-titled show. The song, “Judge Judy” is produced by Chrome Sparks and features Buress’ friend and multidisciplinary artist Ron Lamont. It’s his second release of 2020 following his “We’re Playing Basketball Remix,” also featuring Lamont and singer Emmaharu. He still isn’t sure, though, when his debut project will be released.

“Most of what I’ve been doing lately has been about experimenting, trying new things. Like when an athlete just shooting around trying shots they’d never take in a game,” Buress says. “I’ve considered changing the title of the special from `Miami Nights’ just because it’s possible.” 

When I informed him that he was the only Chicagoan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (he played Coach Wilson in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming), he proposed turning that accomplishment into a tagline and announcing it as an opening to a future special “Maybe I can have it [announced] over the speaker while I come out footworking.” His mind wandered on “… I want to do a footworking movie. That would be dope.”

On July 24, he debuted a new web series called News Overload, where he and a group of comedian friends — Tony Trimmel, Byron Bowers, Brian Babylon, Marcus Russell Price, and Al Jackson — each bring a news story to the table and discuss. “It’s been fun to work on because we’ve just been catching up and cracking jokes,” he says. “It’s another way that I’ve been able to keep working on material without necessarily performing on stage.” 

At this point, our conversation had gone about 20 minutes past the time I was allotted and it was about to reach an abrupt end once his publicist jumped back on the call. When I thought back on all that we talked about, it was difficult to wrap my head around how much he had going on all at once. That’s when he added his simple explanation.

“It can seem like a lot but in my mind, I want to try all these different things now because I don’t want to look back 10 years from now, 15 years from now, and regret not doing these things when I had the capacity to.”

Stream “Miami Nights” on YouTube (link below).

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.