By James Poniewozik
July 9, 2015

I worry that the first episode of Why? with Hannibal Buress was a setup to get critics to make the same hack joke about the title. But I am not too proud to do it. Because while it’s hard to argue with the show’s who (searingly deadpan comic Buress), what (getting his own show), where (on Comedy Central), when (weekly) and how (with his notoriety as a standup, a killer guest on others’ shows and Bill Cosby’s comedic assassin), the premiere left the “Why?“–that is, the show’s purpose and point of view–unanswered.

My standard caveat is that you can’t fully judge a late-night show off its first episode, but ideally the kickoff gives you a context for what comes after, a mission statement. The first Colbert Report included his segment on “truthiness,” which put a name to the kind of gut-over-head demagoguery the show would satirize. Key and Peele from the outset riffed on the stars’ biraciality, which would inform the sketch comedy’s it’s-complicated approach not just to race but identity and assumptions in general. Inside Amy Schumer, from the title, told us it would focus close-up on sex and gender and would make it personal.

Why? with Hannibal Buress, on the other hand, so far is simply a lot of elements you’d find in other Comedy Central shows, with Hannibal Buress in them, because he’s a funny guy. (Contrary to the expectations of people who know him only from the news, it’s not like Buress is going to dethrone a different beloved sitcom dad every week. Tim Allen, you’re safe for now.)

So there was an awkwardly funny cold open with Conan O’Brien. There was standup, some topical (Greece, the home of Socrates, went broke “like all philosophy majors”), some not (like a riff on his discomfort with male hotel housekeepers, which included a quick reference to Cosby). The strongest sketch was a bit with guest Amy Schumer as a Twitter troll, which made the most of a much-used scenario; the weakest, a stage piece belatedly celebrating the “8th of July,” did indeed seem four days long.

One problem may actually have to do with Buress’ strength. He has a track record of being one of the best things on other people’s shows–Broad City, High Maintenance, The Eric André Show–in part because of his hilariously chill nonreaction reactions. His zen unflappability–being a “squinty ____,” as Troll Schumer put it–is the special sauce that cuts the acid note running under much of his comedy.

That’s what makes Hannibal Hannibal, but I can see how it would be hard to translate to a show in which his job is proactive. Occasionally, Why? captured it. Another taped sketch, with unarmed Buress being shot at by a white cop, was overshadowed by a better one on the Key and Peele season premiere before it. But the funniest thing about it was Buress’ tossed-off reaction from the stage, pointing out what a terrible shot the cop was from point-blank range.

Buress was at his best when he was able to do that kind of meta comedy–reacting, essentially, to his own show even as he was making it. I don’t know precisely what kind of series would best harness that skill, but I suspect it would be (a la Eric André, which he co-hosts) more surreal and experimental than the largely conventional formats the premiere mixed together.

It’s fine for Why?, like any comedy show, to figure that out as it goes. But what it needs to do first is to decide what it exists to say, what it is doing on air because nobody but the talented Buress could do it. As it stands, the only answer so far to Why? with Hannibal Buress is: because.


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