It can be hard sometimes to tell when Hannibal Buress, a person with one of the dryest senses of humor around, is joking. Take this whole landlord thing. Last week, the 36-year-old comedian riled up the online left by responding to a tweet from Bernie Sanders’s team calling for a national rent control standard with the word, “Wrong.” (The post has since been deleted.) Then, to pour fuel onto the fire, Buress tweeted a link to the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association asking for donations, and then announcing to the Bernie Sanders supporters in his mentions that he’s a fan of Andrew “A Thousand Bucks a Month” Yang.
On one level, this was standard-issue trolling. Buress’s post made a group of people mad, so he made more posts that made people more mad, and then he made a YouTube video semi-clarifying his comments that also included him laughing maniacally while watching a music video made by Drake’s dad. All funny stuff!
But this is complicated by the fact that Buress seems to actually believe these things. Though in public, he generally tries to appear agnostic, agreeable, and approachable in all areas, he is not above jumping in semi-random Twitter users’ DMs to defend his comments about Bernie’s age, and taking to his public timeline to point out that Sanders also owns rental property, as if this somehow negates the fact that this whole discussion started because Hannibal takes issue with Bernie’s proposal for rent control. Beyond that, we don’t have too much information about Buress’s actual politics. He’s against Trump and has ejected Trump supporters from his shows, but there isn't much tangible information of his beliefs. As Never Trumpers, centrists, and liberals show us, being against Trump isn't so telling.
Stay strong y'all.— Hannibal Buress (@hannibalburess) October 30, 2019
As an “alternative comic” with an interest in indie culture who appeals to the sort of audiences who avoid traditional comedy venues, those of us on the political left have spent the past few years presuming that Buress is at least sympathetic to our values. The fact that he helped revive the public conversation about Bill Cosby’s sex crimes helped reinforce his progressive bona fides. But if we’ve learned anything, it is that we can no longer enjoy things, unless out of desperation, and only briefly even then.
Once upon a time — before subcultures flattened out — we could safely assume that if a person liked the same art, music, books, or whatever else that we liked, we’d probably agree with them on lots of other things too. As much as I yell at cloud, I’m not a Gen X-er or a Boomer so I can’t confirm this, but the movie Reality Bites suggests that in the early ’90s, “the counterculture” was sick of Starbucks, The Gap, Evian water, and had zero faith in corporations and capitalism. And even if the punk scene had a tendency to replicate the injustices of the world on a smaller level, seeing someone with a Crass patch on a home-ripped denim vest told you a lot about how that person probably felt about capitalism (against) and veganism (pro).
But as previously underground scenes have become more accessible, and as the figures of the underground have subtly infiltrated mainstream culture, it no longer means as much to see someone walking down the street wearing your favorite band’s t-shirt. It is 2019; until a few days ago, we had a centrist presidential candidate who was once in a band with one of the dudes from At the Drive-In. While our flattened cultural landscape doesn’t negate that there some shared affinity between people who enjoy the same things (anyone who marathons Golden Girls or blasts 100gecs is welcome in my home) we can’t exactly assume that people who like those things are in the same mindset or political spectrum as us.
For decades, we’ve viewed comedy, even and perhaps especially bad comedy, as a valuable tool in the fight for free speech. We are, after all, living in the country where a George Carlin bit reached the Supreme Court because he said “fuck” on the radio. In our more culturally sensitive time, comedians have begun to sweep into their sets self-righteous, indignant statements casting their performances as resistance, either against the global rise of fascism or against the swarms of online trolls that dislike blackface and jokes about safe spaces (which, depending on the comedian, may also count as fascism). Comedy can’t exist under fascism, their logic goes, so even when they’re saying the most deliberately inflammatory thing possible — think Dave Chappelle’s recent turn towards transphobia, Norm Macdonald's creeping conservatism, Amy Schumer’s rascist joke about Hispanic men, Tracy Morgan’s jokes about if his son was gay, or basically anything that Ricky Gervais has said over the past couple of years — they’re still, in their own minds at least, making “space” for the rest of us. And if we, the audience and critics, have a problem with what they’re saying, then we clearly have no sense of humor.
In the spirit of good faith, let’s return to Buress’s video clarifying the “Hannibal is a landlord” situation: at some point, he purchased a building in Chicago but has no current tenants; when he bought the place he gave the then-residents a two months free rent before evicting them and turning it into an Airbnb that he stayed in when he’s in town. His aunt is also a landlord, and she is very nice. Beyond that, Buress is unclear about whether he still owns the building, if he’s leaving it vacant when he’s not in Chicago, or if it’s still listed on Airbnb.
The video references Twitter’s daily schedule of scandal and outcry, of feedback of varying awarenesses, of anger and flippancy. Once he realized the stir he caused, he tells us, he fed the situation intentionally, to the point of selling t-shirts memorializing the mini-scandal. Did you get your commemorative t-shirt?
These tactics bring Hannibal out of the realm of “alt” and closer to the norm than ever before. He used his social capital to cause a big fuss, rouse a bunch of internet users, and get more attention than he previously had. This is a variation of the playbook used by every figure posting outrageous content intended to rile up the left and get support from the right. Even the right hopped on board, laughing at the “woke backlash” from “keyboard justice warriors.” Buress’s willful participation in this cycle mirrors his belief that he’s guiltlessly entitled to evict tenants because the law allows him to, even if those to his left view it as unethical. I, for one, am grieving the brain space I wasted thinking about Hannibal, valuable time that I could have spent thinking about important things, like the early-2000s trend of bringing chihuahuas on the red carpet.
By certain metrics, Buress’s participation in this social media charade means that he has succeeded. I can’t remember the last time I thought about him, and now I’ve written hundreds of words. But how much of the conversation did he control? Did he win people over to the official #YangGang housing policy of vaguely promising to increase urban development? Or did he unintentionally raise the profile of the views he disagrees with? (Hopefully the latter, but you never know.) Did Hannibal just perpetuate online outrage, capitalizing off the attention economy where the people we love to hate and rue over only succeed further and further? (Yes.) And is it even a publicity stunt if it’s what he earnestly believes, or is every action we take publicity? (Yes to both.)
I wonder what we should even expect from him and those in his position. How politically engaged, or aligned, do they have to be for us to like them? Should we try to get everyone we support to pull a Pamela Anderson and sit down for an interview with Jacobin, or should we accept that celebrities often have their political blind spots? The answer is different for everyone, depending on where you want to draw your line. There's been more eye-rolling at celebrities flaunting their wealth lately, but we’re still following on the same agenda of stanning celebs until they do something that makes it impossible for us to not get uncomfortable with their wealth or politics. It’s unlikely anyone will boycott Buress because he signed up for Airbnb like thousands of other people, but tweeting jokes or disappointment is fair game. As Dave Chappelle said about 9/11, “Who gives a fuck what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this?” (Ironically, he has not asked who gives a fuck what Dave Chappelle thinks at a time like this one, but nevertheless, his words are relevant, even if Chappelle himself is not.)
Regardless of Buress’s pursuit of some passive income on Airbnb, complaining about your landlord (and roasting others on Twitter) is one of the last bonding commonalities most of us have. It’s an American pastime, a global tradition, enjoyable even if we get a chill landlord who hasn’t raised the rent since 2004 and let you pay in weed one time. As if all of this isn’t bad enough, I still can’t get that Dennis Graham song out of my head. Then again, perhaps Drake’s dad is the only innocent party in all of this.