"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There’s nothing more cliché than calling an entertainer the hardest-working whatever in show business. But seeing as how, a few years back, Hannibal Buress quit a steady, comfy job writing for “30 Rock” to work even harder on an ever-increasing number of projects, he has as much of a claim to the label as any comedian working today. In addition to regular appearances on Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and Adult Swim’s “Eric Andre Show,” Buress tours the country regularly doing stand-up. Not surprisingly, he also has ambitions toward film and – Holy Joaquin Phoenix! – his legit rap career has already started. Buress’ latest special, “Live From Chicago,” which jabs at Scarlett Johansson, timeshare scams and cocaine-fueled threesomes, debuts on Comedy Central this Saturday at midnight.
You’ve been working on a lot recently – touring, appearing regularly on “Broad City,” writing and doing voices on “Chozen.” What are the different challenges of each, and do you have a preference?
I’ve been doing stand-up longer than I’ve been doing anything. It’s just learning how to act on camera, trying to get better at that, figuring out how to make my humor translate and bounce off other people. It’s not a big challenge, but the main thing is just trying to be on point and be the best I can be on these shows.
Do you still prefer stand-up to everything else?
I mean, I enjoy all the other things. The thing about stand-up is the immediacy of it – where I can just decide to do a show at night and just walk out with an idea: Oh, I’ve got these two bits, I wanna go try these tonight. “Broad City” had kind of a quick turnover. I think we finished up in late November, and then the show premiered in January, which is pretty quick for a TV show. They’re actually writing the second season now for it, to start in June. So that’s moving kind of fast, but other projects can usually take awhile to come out. The movie “Neighbors,” we filmed that in May of last year, and it’s premiering on May 9. That’s a legit full year. That was fun but then it’s like, “Man, is that even coming out? Am I gonna die before that comes out?” [Laughter]
I enjoy these projects a lot, but I don’t like to wait. That’s what makes stand-up perfect. I’m going to New Orleans for BUKU (Music + Art) Fest this weekend, and I’m thinking about doing a show there tonight, like a last-minute show. You can do that with stand-up. You can’t just do a TV show last minute: I gotta get a camera crew, and I’m gonna do a TV show and its gonna be on-air tomorrow… But with stand-up I can do a show at midnight tonight and there might be a few people there, and I can try these ideas I just had, and that’s it. So, that’s the benefit of stand-up for me.
I’ve seen you do a full hour live, but how do you select the right material for a TV special? What were your goals?
It’s just about doing the bits that I think work and that I toured [with] and honed, and just doing funny stuff. That’s pretty much it.
It’s not a thing where this is my material for the special. It’s like, this is a funny joke that I’ve been doing all over and, so, this is my set. The special is basically just a snapshot of what material I was touring [with] at the time, you know, and what I thought was funny and where I am as a person, too, what I’m thinking about, and what I’m doing. And that’s what I put in.
One of my favorite bits in the special is the palm reader joke. It’s not even the joke so much as the way you set the joke up, like, This is not connected to anything before or after. I really like that setup, but I did notice that you end the special with a long story, probably the longest bit. So I was wondering, do you have to think about structure or pacing? Are you trying to get the audience to a certain point?
It’s just about doing stuff that’s funny. I like showing different types of comedy – showing that I could tell a story, or showing that I could do a one-liner, showing I could do stuff about music – so just trying to be versatile and talking about different topics. I like the challenge of trying to tell a good long, 10- to 12-minute story because it actually is really tough. You really got to pepper it with jokes and keep the audience engaged. And I really like telling those true stories cause I think they connect.
I’ve heard you talk before about developing your delivery. I think it was on a podcast or something where you said you’d made a conscious decision to add more volume. When you first started out, you had a style that was very low-key, deadpan even, and you added a bunch of range to it. How is that working out? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you were trying for?
It comes with more confidence and just performing and doing different venues. Like deadpan definitely works for some people, but as far as me and some of the bits that I do, it just wouldn’t, like some of that material, it just didn’t make sense to do it deadpan all the time. You know, if I’ve got different characters in a story, they don’t talk like me. So, it’s just part of getting better as a performer and trying to really rock a crowd. It’s about bringing energy … and just really trying to sell a bit, and just be in the moment and trying to kill it.
You’re constantly performing in New York City. And you and I, we have people in common: Jean Grae, Open Mike Eagle, Wyatt Cenac. Can you talk about the importance of being part of a creative community, whether they’re comedians, rappers or whatever?
It’s great, man. It’s really great. I started out with just doing this open mic in college, the DJ that tours with me, Tony Trimm, used to have an open mic in his house – a poetry, comedy, music, everything open mic. Open Mike Eagle used to perform at that, and a bunch of other people, and he used to have it in his bedroom and there would be, whatever, 20 of us just kicking it, smoking and drinking and doing stuff and so, that’s what I started out in. I didn’t start out as a lone wolf doing comedy. I started out around other poets and other artists and always doing shows with other people. It’s just really great and inspiring, and keeps your energy up when people collaborate. I think that’s why a lot of my comedy is talking about music and going to concerts. I started out around rappers. The Sunday School Open Mic, was in Carbondale, Ill., so it was the only thing I was doing every week. Basically every show I was doing I was around other musicians. It was a real cool way to start out and I kind of continue that by having musicians on my shows, and having DJs and having rappers open for me, and things like that, hosting music shows. It’s a fun thing.
What part of Illinois did you say it was?
Carbondale. Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. Open Mike was my R.A.
(Laughter) Oh, really?
Open Mike, he was my R.A. dude. He was the first dude I showed my [stand-up to]. I had this stand-up in Peoria, it was one of my first sets, early on in my first few months of doing stand-up. And I had a tape, like a legit VHS tape, like 2002, and I brought my stand-up to him to check out, “Yo I do stand-up, check out this shit, man!” (Laughter) Popped my shit in the VCR.
That’s funny. Now, you were a writer on “30 Rock,” right, but “SNL” too, or just “30 Rock”?
There’s been a lot of conversation about the state of diversity in comedy and TV writers’ rooms. Do you have any thoughts about that?
I mean it’s … I don’t know. I really don’t. (Laughter)
(Laughter) That’s why I phrased the question that way. I didn’t want to put words in your mouth. If you have something to say about it, feel free, but if you don’t that’s fine, too.
Yeah, I don’t really want to get into that.
Speaking of Open Mike, I heard there was a rumor that you might actually try your hand at MCing. Is that true or just some shit I heard?
People don’t even know, I rapped before I even – I mean, in a fun way – but I recorded rap before I did any stand-up. I used to record rap for my friend David. He had this little beat machine in Chicago and I made a bunch of songs, goofy ass songs. I want to do it, I enjoy just messing around with music and trying to do it. If I had the time, I actually want to, at some point, maybe try to make beats too, and just try to do different things with music. I enjoy doing stuff with music, even if it’s just freestyling over a beat and recording it. Just because it’s kind of exciting in a different way. It kind of excites my brain in a different way. I do so much comedy, and I enjoy comedy. But if I do a stand-up set, or write a new joke, it just feels like another day at the job. I did a song – I don’t know if we’re going to get it out soon – with Flying Lotus. He made this beat, I made a hook, and freestyled this thing, and it’s actually kind of catchy. I think it might work. And so, we played that, and I was just real all legit excited and giddy just because it was like “Oh, shit. We just made this little piece of music!” It’s just fun, to be creative in different ways, just because it kind of keeps you fresh and on your toes.
Hip-hop has a lot of the immediacy you talked about with comedy. And there’s a lot of crossover, too, with humor and delivery. They’re very similar things. I mean Jean [Grae] is going sort of the other way.
Yeah, Jean’s doing her thing. She’s got her series and she does stand-up, and she’s on tour a lot doing a lot of stand-up shows lately. It’s been cool to see what she’s doing. It’s just a fun way, man. It’s unfortunate that people put people in boxes but, you can’t even really listen to that, because if you’re doing something and you’re having fun, and people are enjoying it, that’s what it is, man.
I feel like there’s a lot more organic crossover these days. If you’re in a community with a bunch of artists, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t share interests and collaborate.
And, like I said, I’ve been like legit in it. I used to battle rap too, just because, I knew that battle rap was based on getting the audience’s reaction. This was early, like my first two years of stand-up, and them old-ass VHS or 8mm tapes. Somebody has one of me battle rapping, and doing all right at it! (Laughter)
I’ve had this idea for a long time: I want to do a documentary, where you just walk around with a mic and a beat, and walk up to every black man you know in his 30s, ask for his best 16-bar verse, and just see how many times you get a hit.
(Laughter) I mean, that’s what you do, if you legit. Like, what’s the other reason to smoke weed, man? I mean, that’s all me and my friends did when we were teenagers: Smoke weed and then you start rapping. Fucking don’t just sit around, you rap!
Yeah, that was pretty much my entire four years of college. Definitely. So what’s up next, what are you doing that we should make note of?
Next is the special, and the movie “Neighbors.” For now, I’m just starting to get back on the ground and try to figure out the next tour and material for the next special, work on a couple film ideas of my own. My main next thing is trying to come up with a low-budget comedy where I’m the lead. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff as a supporting actor, so I’m trying to figure out a good project of my own, to either get produced by a studio, or just even finance myself and just do my own project.
Obviously, you know I’m a fan of the independent route. I’ve probably thanked you before for the early attention that you gave to “Big Words.” [Author’s note: Last year, Buress showed up unexpectedly at the Slamdance premiere of my first film and tweeted enthusiastically about it afterward.] We still really appreciate that.
Yeah, man. It was a good project. Is it on cable now?
It’s on Netflix now.
Oh, that’s awesome.
I’d love to see you as the lead in something.
I’ve got a decent idea. I gotta run it by some people and make sure it wasn’t just a drunken thought. But uh … (Laughter) gotta see how it goes.
Well, as long as you’ve got good people around you, you can figure it out.
Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.More Neil Drumming.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)