Hannibal Buress has always known that his name gave him an edge over other comics. Sharing a first name with the infamous cannibal from "Silence of the Lambs" has been an instant attention-grabber — both positively and negatively — as his stand-up career has blossomed.
"I've seen the fear in people's eyes" when he is introduced to them, Buress told shock-jock Howard Stern a few weeks ago. "[The name Hannibal] does stand out for stand-up, so I appreciate it for that. But it makes for a lot of weird conversations. Sometimes I say a fake name just to skip that part of the conversation."
But it's not his offbeat name that has thrust Buress in the national spotlight. His comedic rant making fun of Bill Cosby's fatherly image, filmed on a smartphone during a club gig in Philadelphia and posted on YouTube, was the lighted match that touched off a firestorm. The controversy has engulfed the legendary entertainer, tarnishing his All-American image and inflicting major, perhaps irreparable, damage to his legacy.
After the Buress video went viral, more than a half-dozen women have come forward alleging that Cosby had sexually attacked them, in most cases decades ago. Despite the entertainer's repeated denials, the furor has prompted several media companies, including NBC, to abandon projects. Meanwhile, the negative publicity has also prompted the cancellation of other appearances, including a concert scheduled over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at Las Vegas' Treasure Island.
The riff's outsized impact appears to be anything but a laughing matter to Buress, who has been mostly invisible since the uproar. He has declined interview requests despite the widespread attention that would bring. His website does not mention the Cosby comment or subsequent controversy.
His only public comments about the matter came during the recent Stern interview, when he expressed mixed feelings over his routine.
"This is the first time that's happened, and it's very weird," Buress said when Stern asked him how he felt about making headlines. "This was unexpected. I didn't want to do that. If I were going to do that, I would have done it on my own. It wasn't my intention to make this part of a big discussion. It was just something I was doing at that venue right then."
Playing a pivotal role in dethroning a show business icon who has been a pioneer for African Americans in popular culture has brought new scrutiny to Buress. The 31-year-old comedian has generally been regarded within industry circles as an insightful and provocative talent with the potential for major stardom.
Executives at Comedy Central have labeled him as a brilliant observer of life and its absurdities. A profile in Chicago magazine this year carried the headline "Is Hannibal Buress the Funniest Man Alive?"
"He's a very smart comic, a genuinely good guy who has the guts to say what he feels," said Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. "He does a lot of topical stuff. I really don't think he intentionally meant to hurt Bill Cosby. Comedians talk about everybody. He was not out to do any harm."
Added Bert Haas, executive vice president of Chicago's Zanies comedy club where Buress was a regular: "Hannibal has always been honest and isn't afraid to go where others won't go. I haven't seen the routine, but I think it's interesting that he did get on a soapbox. He does at times lecture the audience. It's all part of the honesty of his act."
A former writer on "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," Buress has been performing since he was 19 and is described on his website as a "comedian, actor, writer, musician, magician, and poker dealer from Chicago." He's a cohost of Adult Swim's "The Eric Andre Show" and has appeared as Comedy Central's "Broad City."
He also had his own Comedy Central special, "Animal Furnace" in 2011. Buress costarred in this past summer's "Neighbors" and has been cast in a Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy, "Daddy's Home."
Buress told Stern he had been doing his Cosby riff "on and off for about six months." He expressed bewilderment that it was his Cosby bit that caught fire and not his other humor. "That's the first time that happened when people put something out. Nobody's putting out the bit about me [going to the bathroom] on an airplane. Nobody cares about my edgy TSA material."
In the profanity-laced rant, Buress said that Cosby had the "smuggest old-black-man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, 'pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.'"
He said he had read articles about Cosby and his alleged sexual misdeeds: "Everybody can get that information." He said he also was registering his opposition to comments Cosby has frequently made scolding African American youths for poor language skills and rudeness.
The sexual allegations against Cosby date back decades. In 2005, Temple University staffer Andrea Constand sued Cosby, claiming he drugged and groped her during a visit the year before to his Philadelphia home. During that case, 13 other women came forward with similar stories and were prepared to testify, according to published reports. But her lawyers reached an out-of-court settlement with Cosby in 2006; the terms were not disclosed.
Cosby has repeatedly denied the allegations and has steadfastly refused to address them during interviews with National Public Radio and the Associated Press in past weeks. But before Friday night's performance in central Florida where he received a standing ovation from the sold-out audience of more than 2,000, Cosby told a local television interviewer: "I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn't have to answer to innuendoes."
Buress is not the first young comic to take a swipe at the legendary entertainer. Eddie Murphy famously lampooned Cosby in his 1987 concert film, "Raw," recounting how Cosby called and chastised him for using foul language in his act. Murphy said he felt insulted and dismissed Cosby with a few coarse words.
But Buress' routine has caused a lot more damage, largely fueled by his national following and social media.
"Hannibal has a massive social-media presence," said Mark Geary, a presenter of Chicago comedy. "Obviously something lit his fuse that night. Usually he's laid back and very genial. I doubt he would have said, 'I gotta take Cosby down.' I'm guessing he's a smart guy. It's amazing that one line in the social media world would be the first domino in taking down an American icon."
Asked by Stern if he regretted the rant, Buress replied, "I said it, and I gotta stand on it. But it's an interesting situation."