9:58pm PT by Tim Goodman
Quick Take: Comedy Central's 'Why? With Hannibal Buress' Needs to Find Purpose Fast
Depending on how much stand-up comedy, news or TV you consume, you may know Hannibal Buress as a funny, laid-back observational comic; a comic who called out Bill Cosby as a rapist and moved the needle on that entire story; or just a guy who appears on Comedy Central's Broad City, Adult Swim's Eric Andre Show and a bunch of late-night talk shows.
Prior to Wednesday, when his new Comedy Central series, Why? With Hannibal Buress, premiered, he wasn't known as, well, a guy with his own show. Unless he does some serious tinkering going forward, he still might not be in the future.
But this — in a caveat I give to first episodes of all late-night shows, from John Oliver to Larry Wilmore to James Corden — isn't a review of Why? With Hannibal Buress, because a critical appraisal would be both unfair and ultimately inaccurate based on one show. These kinds of shows need time to find their rhythm, their direction and what they will ultimately be 20 episodes or two years down the line. One night is a sample size that doesn't reflect what Why? will be once it's firing on all cylinders.
This is only a first take, but a few things can be derived from it. The most obvious one is that this is a show that's a work in progress. The Wednesday premiere felt disjointed, lacking a point or a clear reason for being and — least promisingly — it wasn't very funny.
Buress, however, is a funny guy. From his stand-up to his most advanced television work, which is his recurring role as Lincoln on Broad City, Buress has delivered the laughs. The issue at hand, however, is whether or not his brand of comedy fits a weekly series format.
Why? Why, indeed. For starters, Buress is a pretty laid-back guy who doesn't — in the annoying parlance of the industry — "pop" off the screen. In a show like Broad City, he's not supposed to; he's the guy who's just happy to go along with whatever. In his stand-up act, he has enough time to set the pace and reel in the audience, his perceptive and sometimes whimsically dismissive points steeped in his distinctive vocal rhythm. In a weekly half-hour show that needs to jump off the screen with the manic intensity of Key and Peele or the dead-on brilliance of Inside Amy Schumer, not so much. The dry observational take on life that Buress offers seems a little flat in Why?
And part of the problem is that it's not clear what Why? wants to be. It's not really a news show in the sense that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is. Nor is Why? a sketch show. (A taped bit he did in the premiere — not answering questions from cops — had the same visual punchline as a much funnier bit that Key and Peele did just minutes before.)
Why? appears to be, at least in the premiere, kind of a collection of video bits you might see from a late-night talk show, interspersed with Buress talking to a live studio audience and doing a bit of stand-up. But maybe it's not — because that doesn't really feel like a show, or a concrete idea for one. Wednesday's premiere was a hodge-podge of things that didn't articulate what the show was about.
And that's not really how you want to enter an insanely crowded TV landscape.
Why? started with a video bit about Buress appearing on Conan O'Brien's talk show and asking both O'Brien and Andy Richter to be his first guests. The punchline, and not a very good one, is that Conan's audience says no to the idea and Buress leaves.
Buress also tapped Corden to record a bit about not being able to appear on Buress' "podcast" because he was out of the country and, in the one celebrity cameo that worked best, Amy Schumer, his Comedy Central stable mate, popped up as an internet troll who has been harassing Buress online. When they meet, the joke is that Schumer doesn't want any competition from a new series because there's no way viewers can possibly juggle two options. It doesn't sound great on paper, but Schumer made it work and Buress' off-kilter comic sensibility shone through.
Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot to laugh about in the debut and the final five minutes or so were spent on an in-studio bit about the Fourth of July that was so pointless and unfunny that it was wince-inducing.
But hey, that's why a first episode — or even a fifth episode — of these kinds of shows is not entirely indicative of what viewers will get going forward. No doubt Why? will get better as it goes.
The troubling part of the premiere, however, was two-fold: It didn't give you any sense of what the show is about, what it wants to be — what Buress wants to do now that he's got his own show. And secondly, there were no advance screeners because, according to Comedy Central, Why? wanted to soak up all the news of the week and so it couldn't be canned (which is understandable). However, Buress is tied so closely to taking down Cosby (a fact he's tired of discussing, as he noted in a New York Times story this week) that it was expected he'd have something to say about a judge unsealing a 2005 deposition in which Cosby admitted drugging women for sex. It was a huge story that got no mention on Why? — and other than Schumer noting in her taped bit that her movie was coming out this week, there was otherwise no time-sensitive element in the premiere.
Meaning Why? could have been better planned and better written in advance to make a better first impression.