In what should have been a breakout album, Live From Chicago feels like a master storyteller retell jokes you've already heard.
Hannibal Buress' resume seems to be leading up to this very year. After slogging through the club circuit, he earned top-notch writing gigs for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. But in the last two years, Buress' name seemed to get continuously mentioned as a serious contender for the next big breakout comedic star, thanks to appearances in both highbrow (read NPR) and lowbrow (see FX's Chozen) mediums. Buress' low-key mix of quirky observations and engaging storytelling is accessible while still maintaining a wry edge.
This all leads up to Live From Chicago, which was recorded at the Vic Theater. Buress' third studio album plays like a sort of homecoming. He immediately begins with a reference to the Chicago-based homeless advocacy magazine StreetWise. It's a joke that elicits a smirk, but doesn't exactly trigger a laugh. And that sets the course for the rest of the album.
Just listening to Live From Chicago feels like something is getting lost from seeing Buress' physical delivery to your speakers. Left to just audio, some of the jokes seem unbelievably tired. For example, when Buress talks about his celebrity and when a woman offered to flash her breasts for a joke, he responds "My jokes are better than your tits." In another segment, he resorts to the lame "what do you call a woman with two black eyes" joke, even though he excuses that inclusion by stating that joke has been around for eons. If anything kills Live From Chicago's momentum, it's the feeling of familiarity, something that can be a great asset to a music album, but absolutely toxic for a comedy album.
Live From Chicago does show moments of brilliance. In "Rappers Talk About Drugs", Buress points out the hilarious paradox of hardcore hip-hop artists rapping about Molly. In "I'm Not Religious", he deftly breaks down the difference between those who believe and try to proselytize their beliefs as compared to those who are atheists and agnostics but could care less about knocking on people's doors and telling them their beliefs are wrong.
Moments like these are even funnier than they should be because too much of Live From Chicago focuses on your typical "brushes with fame" stories (such as a lengthy story about meeting Scarlett Johansson). The rest of the album deals with topics that have been played out in scores of other stand-ups (being out of shape, getting too old to party).
Buress has the talent to record a classic comedy album. His delivery and his material in interviews and other stand-up appearances show a comedian who is on the cusp of a breakout role. Unfortunately, much of Live From Chicago fails to deliver on Buress' comedic promise.