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Inside Hannibal Buress' Comedy Central special

There's an art to making a stand-up special look good. See how the Buress team does it.

Christopher Borrelli

6:41 PM CDT, March 25, 2014

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Neal Marshall wasn't thrilled.

About 15 minutes before showtime he walked to the lip of the stage, put his hands on his hips, held his body in a dejected slouch and stared out into the Vic Theatre. He had done this many times, in many theaters: As executive producer of dozens of stand-up comedy TV specials, he liked being first onstage, to read the temperature of the room, to gauge the energy level. This was a Saturday night in late January, and the audience was still settling into its seats, peeling off winter layers. But already Marshall was not smiling.

Or scowling, exactly.

But if you'd been there and glanced up a few moments before the show began and noticed an older man with graying hair pacing the stage, it was hard not to recognize a look of disappointment on his face. Here he was shooting a Comedy Central special with one of the smartest young comedians in America, Hannibal Buress; it was the first of two sold-out shows that night (an hourlong version airs Saturday); and Buress, a Chicago native, was playing to a hometown crowd — all good.

Yet something was off.

"I have been doing this for 350 years, so I could feel it in my feet," he said later. "No buzz."

He would know.

To understand the machinations of a genre as seemingly artless, straightforward and ubiquitous as the stand-up comedy TV special — to understand why the format has remained so durable, and relatively unchanging, for five decades — you need to start with a guy like Neal Marshall. He is among the handful of producers, directors and crew who make up what one TV executive called "the longtime stand-up TV special ecosystem." His first TV stand-up special was with Redd Foxx in the late 1960s; later, he worked on stand-up specials featuring Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Buddy Hackett; more recently, he's played executive producer to a new generation, from Al Madrigal and Carlos Mencia to Kumail Nanjiani and Katt Williams.

He's been at this for so long, he's watched HBO virtually create the stand-up TV formula in the 1970s — a stand-up, a stage, a colorful backdrop, a few fixed cameras, an elaborate boom shot, a live audience — then seen the format develop into a staple for Comedy Central, where stand-up now makes up roughly 15 percent of its schedule. He's watched the genre evolve glacially and seen production budgets go from peanuts to, well, pricier peanuts — mid-six figures or more. But he understands, ultimately, the genre is a slave to a comedian's material: "That old thing about putting lipstick on a pig? I've seen it happen. Five minutes in, you're looking at guys in the control room, knowing it's ugly."

On that night in January, though, his concern was the audience.

He left the stage, trudged to a makeshift control room in the basement, sat beside director Marcus Raboy and said: "Hannibal's going to work for this one."

Two days earlier, Buress sat in the lobby of his Loop hotel, going over his game plan. I explained that I wanted to understand how a stand-up TV special works — that nothing as effortless-looking as a stand-up special can be as easy to make as it appears.

Buress, 31, with his casually cool, deceptively laconic air, nodded: "So here's where a stand-up special begins. Touring, that's how you prepare. It's been two years since my last Comedy Central special, so you write new material, then you tour with it. There, you hone until it's ready. Once I feel like I have a tight new hour of material, (there's) a special. Early on, with my first special, I was coming across bit by bit, joke by joke. Now I know how to pace, add detail, close off a story in a big way. Once I feel like it's different enough, that I'm different enough, it's like a time capsule of where I was at that moment."

Indeed, in the past decade, the Comedy Central stand-up special — the network has produced more than 30 since 2011 — has become for both aspiring and established comedians what the HBO special once was: a kind of talent show, a living resume. Said comedian Todd Barry, who's done three stand-up specials for Comedy Central: "It really has become something of a goal, even a milestone, for a comic. These (specials) tend to give a lot of exposure because Comedy Central tapes one then runs them a lot."

When a special works, he said, the effect should be deceptively simple. You're just watching a person speaking off the top of his head. He cited "Elephant in the Room," the late comic Patrice O'Neal's 2011 Comedy Central special, as the ideal: "Patrice wasn't winging it, but you know it's good when you can't tell what's being said in the moment and what's written." Buress himself told me: "By the time you get to the stage of the TV special, to an extent, it's just about remembering that you are onstage, to stay in the moment, and to let your body and voice convey that you are in the moment. Because by this point, I have told some of these jokes hundreds of times. You can easily slip into autopilot at basically the worst time."

Here's where Comedy Central comes in.

Generally, the network wants comics to dictate the look and feel of their own show, said Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central's senior vice president of talent and specials. It wants a relaxed entertainer, because "these specials are our pipeline for developing new talent. It's the entry point for the comic, and the viewer. It's how Amy Schumer started with us, how Nick Kroll started, Anthony Jeselnik, Daniel Tosh …" All shot stand-up specials before landing a series; Buress, who has a development deal with the network, is in that pipeline.

But form must follow function. The stage must act as a showroom.

So, the afternoon before filming, the chilly, aging Vic was slowly transforming into a jewel box. A crew member leaned out over the facade of a row of box seats, painting it the same blue as the new stage backdrop. A lighting man incrementally adjusted spotlights above the stage until every seat in the balcony was lit. A camera on a long crane rested in the wings like a grazing brontosaurus. Frank Pappalardo, an audio engineer from Downers Grove who has worked on many comedy specials (and spent a decade on the WTTW series "Soundstage"), placed microphones throughout the room, in the balconies, on the railings. Though the show is one man talking, there were 16 tracks available. Bruce Ryan, a longtime comedy-special production designer, sat behind a folding table watching pieces of gold edifice get fitted into a proscenium arch. Anne Harris, a Comedy Channel exec, stood on the floor and grinned. "Love that curtain," she said.

"Midnight blue," Marshall replied, proud.

If you've ever seen a stand-up comedy special on TV, the image they were creating should come to you immediately. Artful footage of stand-ups might date at least to Lenny Bruce, but, as a TV genre, this milieu begins with "An Evening With Robert Klein" in 1975.

Said Klein, now 72: "Nobody really did an hour of comedy onstage on TV before I did it on HBO. If you had accomplished something in your career, the most you could generally hope for was maybe eight minutes on a talk show. The trick was to take advantage of the medium, give people a better seat than the people who were there, which, that first show, meant capturing me patrolling a stage like a tiger. Marty Callner, the director, was terrified. He needed close-ups, and I didn't stop moving."

Callner himself, who is now in his late 60s and never stopped directing stand-up specials, said the genre took off with then-fledgling HBO because productions were cheap, money was scarce and viewers watched. He told me about shooting Steve Martin for a 1976 special because the comic asked for $5,000 less than HBO's intended hire, Norm Crosby.

He said his only regret with the form he helped develop is that it's become a form: "If a sameness settled in, it's because the formula is applied to too many (different) comics, not because comedy's bad." Larsen at Comedy Central doesn't disagree: "I fear (the formula) gets stale. Today's comics, who grew up with Internet shorts, they read comedy in new ways, and we are obligated to reflect that." He cited Sarah Silverman's recent HBO special, shot before an audience of 39, as the genre's latest seemingly-minor-actually-major innovation.

"The trend is toward intimate, unique," Larsen said. Barry himself just released a stand-up show (via Louis CK's website) shot with hand-held cameras, centered entirely on unprepared audience interactions.

But John Irwin, who began his career as an assistant to Lorne Michaels and has made dozens of stand-up specials (including Buress' first, O'Neal's "Elephant in the Room" and upcoming Comedy Central specials with Patton Oswalt and Tracy Morgan), said: "I may be traditional, but I think (stand-up specials) can quickly grow cluttered and cheesy. You can't go too far outside the box before you screw with the point. It's about the person, and all the hard work nobody sees, that should be invisible."

The afternoon before filming, hours before the first show, Buress paced the stage in a Bulls hat and track pants, saying gibberish and cliches into the microphone, sounding like a comic imitating a comic, giving Raboy in the basement ("video village," they called it) and lighting guys above something to rehearse with. "Ever notice," he started, then trailed off. "Racism is out of control," he began, then trailed off. He stopped moving: "What if I freeze up? Like Eminem, 'Eight Mile'-style! 'He's choking how, everybody's joking now ...'"

Then the ballerinas arrived.

A half dozen strolled out, to rehearse a bit where Buress pretends to rap and decides that he needs ballerinas pirouetting around him. Even if the stand-up TV special format has stalled, Buress wanted to meet it halfway. He provided the producers with a set list. He moved a closing joke about stopping traffic in New Orleans to the head of his show at the request of Marshall, who liked it as a way of introducing Buress' absurdist bent. But he also told me before his performances that "an hour of stand-up can get boring straight through, so it's not bad to add elements."

For his first Comedy Central special, he let the network make the major decisions, and this time he wanted to show more ambition. So he brought in a DJ, and ballerinas.

"You never see ballerinas in, like, life," he said into the microphone, to no one.

In video village, a warren squirreled away in one of the basement green rooms, Raboy and Marshall sat at a bank of monitors, many showing Buress in close-up because, as Raboy explained, "Hannibal's a close-up guy, a lot of his material plays on his face. A lot of (directors) like big crane shots, but I like big stuff to establish the scope then stay close." He turned to the center image. On it, a woman walked out on stage with two sets of clothes on hangers, both dark and cool, but one more casual than the other. Buress went with a mix, a sport coat and jeans. Larsen, seated on a couch, said, "That looks great," and Harris asked: "Are there no other options?" A ballerina wandered in with a bag of popcorn and listened.

"Tom, can I see the ballyhoo?" Raboy said, asking the lighting director to show off the opening light design.

Ballyhoo, check.

Showtime was creeping up. All that remained was an audience, and that was Samantha Black's job.

Samantha Black is a professional audience coordinator. If you have ever seen a Comedy Central stand-up special, rest assured: She arranged that audience just so. She meets with the comics, asks who they want in the front rows, what message they want to project (Buress wanted diversity, youth), then seats accordingly. She is a friendly woman with a necklace made of wine corks.

"I cast on the fly," she said, smiling. Forty-five minutes before Buress' first set, she grew intimidating: "Load-in's starting," she said in a huff.

For the next 25 minutes, she did not stop moving. Ushers brought her groups of three and four and five at a time. She playfully grabbed guys by their collars, pointing them toward seats. She walked to back rows and found handsome, young, hip-looking couples and led them to the roped-off rows down front.

"How many?" she asked a young guy, scanning his face.

"Five," he said.

"And your favorite Hannibal bit?" she asked, squinting.

"Pickle juice?" the guy said, referring to Buress' best-known bit — as if there were a right answer.

"OK, fine," she said, not impressed. She pointed the guy and his college-age friends to a row down front but off-center.

"Favorite Hannibal show?" she asked the next person, a sleek-looking woman in a tight gray dress.

"'The Eric Andre Show,'" the woman said, referencing a fairly obscure series on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Black nodded slowly, impressed. That's a deep cut. She led the woman and her date to the front row.

Ten minutes.

A woman walked up and thanked Black for the seats. "Don't talk, sit," Black said, scanning the remaining empty seats in the front row and looking around for candidates, passing over anyone looked even remotely 40-ish.

The show began.

A boom moved at the back of the main floor and swept impressively under the balcony and toward the stage. And almost immediately, Buress was off, sounding self-conscious, muddled. And the audience, though appreciative, seemed (as Marshall had indeed divined) to lack buzz. It was a muted, just-OK performance. Between the main set and the ballerinas in the encore, a handful of audience members even bolted for the door.

"Well, one under our belt," Marshall said morosely to Raboy in the video village, both of them knowing, as I heard often, that stand-up specials shoot over two shows because the later shows are always the keepers.

Sure enough, backstage, before he went out for the second show, Buress hopped in place between the curtains, stretched, held his arms straight out and loosened up, and results were remarkably different.

There were a few small issues. Raboy said into his headset: "Camera seven, change it up. That guy in the audience is a corpse … No, he's dead. Find someone else out there …"

And at one point, there was a concern about whether a joke in which Buress called out a company would make it past editing. But, generally, a surge of relief hit Marshall and Raboy: "So much improved," Marshall said, and Raboy shrugged, as if to say "Of course." Marshall turned to Harris, sitting in the back of the room: "This is the show, Anne."

Indeed, in the weeks that followed, Marshall and Raboy would edit together several versions very quickly — for broadcast, DVD, uncensored, censored — and, in all instances, "88 percent (of the material) came from the second show," Marshall said. The ballerinas were cut, for time reasons, and because of issues with the copyright of a song that played during the bit. Also, though Black sweated the audience placement, the special itself offers few reaction shots (Raboy said he believes in an old mantra, that the audience is better heard than seen). But in all, as Buress promised, they had a smart, solid hour.

So solid that during the second show, as Marshall could feel the set wrapping, he said to Raboy: "They're going to give him a standing ovation." Raboy nodded and said into his headset, "Cameras, get ready for a standing ovation." Marshal hunched forward in his chair and said, "I can feel it, I can feel it, and hear it …"

Standing ovation.

Marshall clapped once and stood. All was right in the video village.

Weeks later, when I watched the finished show,

it was funny and looked so

effortless that I briefly forgot that anyone actually made it.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

'Hannibal Buress:

Live From Chicago'

11 p.m. Saturday, Comedy Central