Step into Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory on any given Sunday night, and, well, good luck finding room. Typically, the show going on inside the bar area, Hannibal Buress’ “Comedy at the Knitting Factory,” is packed. The venue is sweaty, crowded, and the bouncer sometimes has to turn people away at the door. But this doesn’t stop the conclave of people from having a good time, and filling the room with roaring laughter.
In 2009, Buress, a stand-up comedian, actor on “30 Rock,” (NBC) and former Saturday Night Live writer, started the show. He lives in Williamsburg, and was asked if he wanted to put up a weekly show on the Factory’s opening night in the neighborhood. (The Knitting Factory had moved from Manhattan to Metropolitan Avenue in July of that year.) Now, two years later, he runs one of the most popular rooms in New York City, showcasing acts like Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Todd Barry, and Kristen Schaal, and up-and-coming local comedians like Kyle Grooms, Nikki Glaser, Danny Lobell, and Damien Lemon. He hosts the shows, taking time to work out his material, like the other performers. “I just try to make people laugh, hopefully in the spots they’re supposed to laugh,” he said.
Buress has been a performer for nine years, starting out in Chicago before trekking over to New York City, and ending up here as opposed to Los Angeles simply because he didn’t have a license. He performs at the famous Comedy Cellar, Union Hall, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and local establishments like WORD, Club Europa, Sandbox Underground, and Bruar Falls. “[My shows] are varied, but it’s going well,” he said. “I like it. I’m having fun.”
The comedian spends the first half of his weeks in New York City these days, and the other half on the road. He does six to 16 shows per week, and hosts “Comedy at the Knitting Factory” whenever in town. “It’s like any other New York spot that people use the space to work out material,” he said. “Nobody’s walking out of that door with $1,000 or something. Nobody’s doing it for the money. I’m not doing it for the money.”
Calise Hawkins, a local comedian who sometimes hosts the show when Buress is on tour, said, “When Hannibal is hosting his show it is quite a different experience than any time I’ve seen a guest host or hosted for him myself. Hannibal. Is. The. Show. People come to watch this legend in the making. The crowd knows he’s going to be huge and they want to experience his climb.”
Hawkins praised Buress’ booking choices as well, since his line-ups frequently include minority and women performers on half of the bill. “Every type of comedian from every background does Hannibal’s shows as long as Hannibal thinks you’re funny,” she said. “This is new. This is such a positive thing.”
Jeffrey Joseph, another “Comedy at the Knitting Factory” regular, said Buress gives performers on all levels stage time. “I’ve seen a lot of comedy in New York City and I’ve got to say that Hannibal consistently puts on one of the best shows in the city, for free. He knows the big stars like Chris Rock, as well as comedians New Yorkers are just starting to hear of, like Michael Che and Emily Heller, and he puts them all on stage.”
Since arriving in New York in 2008, Buress has made great strides, from getting jobs at two huge television shows to constantly packing the Knitting Factory week after week. Even though he’s made it on many levels, he said there is still work to be done. “Early on when you’re just trying to get on shows that can be a little frustrating, but now, not at all. Now it’s not about worrying about getting shows, it’s worrying about getting material and the work itself. It was 3 years ago when I visited New York City and it was tough to get spots…. Now it’s about doing a spot and trying new material, so I can get better.”