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Review: Hannibal Buress Pushes the Boundaries of Standup & Addresses His Arrest in ‘Miami Nights’

By Akhil Sood 10 July 2020

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Hannibal Buress has a great story to tell—and he knows it. So naturally he’s going to milk it for all it’s worth. In 2017, Buress was arrested for disorderly intoxication. Miami Nights, his new special out on YouTube, starts with body-cam footage from that night, in which a goofy Buress looks straight at the camera and says, “This cop is stupid as f*ck.” It’s an intriguing start for a comedy special. And then he switches gears.

Buress has a colourful resume. In 2014, he used to do a routine about the murmurs surrounding Bill Cosby, at the time still revered as a comedic giant, and his past history of sexual assault. The bit went viral, butterfly-effecting into heavy media coverage about Cosby’s past and a series of allegations against him—he was eventually convicted in 2018. Buress has been a prolific actor in both film and TV, with a recurring role on the critically loved Broad City among others. He’s the co-host, writer, and producer on The Eric Andre Show (coincidentally, Andre’s recent special also opened with a fairly controversial police-related sketch). And he’s been a prolific standup comedian who even performed in India last year on a bill featuring Aziz Ansari, who was returning to comedy after a brief time-out following an allegation of sexual misconduct.

Miami Nights, for the first half, sees him riff freely on giving up on drinking after the arrest and how, among other things, it’s had a positive effect on his bowel movements. He talks about a cab driver he met, who may have potentially cooked up an imaginary Kanye West song just so he could use a racist slur. He talks about buying a house. About being at that level of fame where he gets recognised but can still convince people they’re mistaken. How asthma doesn’t get its due credit as a serious condition, and how he’d like to die of a disease named after him. Hannibal Buress speaks in an endearing stoner-drawl, where he’ll switch at will between a droopy, aloof monotone to excitable to brash to bemused to outraged. It’s breezy and has a certain intimacy to it—to use an overwrought cliché, his work has that specific offhand energy where it feels like you’re just hanging out with an accomplished raconteur as he shoots the shit.

Of course, a considerable amount of polishing and refinement goes into projecting that effortlessness. And Buress goes a step further, trying to balance it with craftsmanship and formal experiments. So Miami Nights has a lot, like a lot, of special effects. The screen goes woozy and zig-zaggy from time to time; weird voice effects come in and out, with a flaming background. There’s a running gag about auto-tune, done in auto-tune. And there’s a lot of stuff for which Buress projects videos and images on to the screen behind him. For the most part, the audio-visual trickery serves its purpose of not diminishing the moment, and letting the joke shine, only occasionally taking up too much space.

His work has that specific offhand energy where it feels like you’re just hanging out with an accomplished raconteur as he shoots the shit.

And then, finally, he decides to talk about that night in Miami. Here’s his side of the story: he’d had somewhere between 10 and 30 drinks, which is when he decided he needed to rest and recharge at his hotel. His phone was dead so he asked a cop—in that nutty, over-familiar, cocky way drunk people at bars talk to strangers—to call him an Uber and offered him $20. The cop took offense. Buress tried to enter another bar to charge his phone or get someone to call him a taxi. The cop wouldn’t let him, leading to words being said, and so he was taken away. Eventually, the charges against him were dropped.

Buress takes the audience through a play-by-play dissection of the entire incident, taking shots at not just the cop and the media blowing the story out of proportion, but also his fellow detainee at the police station and, of course, himself. Cop stories, as long as they don’t end in violence and aggression, are always so much fun—it’s a commonly accepted rule of life—and they only get enhanced in the hands of a comedian like Buress.

There is, as always with such things, a slightly deeper read into this though. On the one hand, I feel a certain discomfort when comedians—or any famous people—use their considerably outsized platform to take shots at random people and try to settle scores through ridicule and mockery by naming and shaming them. It doesn’t feel like a level playing field. But that gets cancelled out when you look at the dynamic at play here—a Black comedian being arrested by a policeman (there’s more to the cop’s story too, which Buress talks about in the special) because he was, at worst, petulant and a bit of a dick. Given the current moment—with a reckoning about the police underway in the US and, very fleetingly, in India—it takes on a greater meaning. It’s the kind of takedown you don’t feel especially guilty about enjoying. And Buress, deliberately it seems, eschews any additional political commentary. He doesn’t delve into race dynamics and institutional abuse of power—understandable as that would have been—instead letting the story play out on its own merits, allowing for the heft of the subtext to linger, to float about in the air. And that can be just as effective.

This tryst with the Man is the centerpiece of Miami Nights—taking up almost the entirety of the second half—but he’s no slouch during the rest of the set. The largely successful multi-media experiments are a highlight by themselves, a major component of a visual aesthetic that is unique in the world of stand-up comedy specials. And there’s a natural fluency to his storytelling and delivery—even on the corny cold-open which he angrily admits is an ad—that makes this special a consistently entertaining one.

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