Netflix surprised everyone when they announced that stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress, who released a new special with the streaming platform in February, would be releasing a documentary about his experience at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Titled Hannibal Takes Edinburgh, the Judd Apatow-produced, Ryan Ferguson-directed documentary follows Buress during his month-long stay at the famed arts festival, during which he performed 28-straight days of comedy.
Though that might sound like a project aimed only at Buress’ most ardent fans, Hannibal Takes Edinburgh is closer in spirit to comedy documentaries like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. It’s more than a celebratory ego trip that preaches to the choir; it’s one man’s love letter to the art of stand-up — even when said art includes jokes about doing crack to stay up and finish Homeland. The movie combines biography, stand-up, situational comedy, and commentary as Ferguson tails Buress from the Knitting Factory concert hall and his “shithole” apartment in Brooklyn to an upstairs efficiency in Edinburgh about which he jokes, “I think this place is owned by a midget that likes to inconvenience himself.”
At several points, the comic refers to events that were either never filmed or never made the final cut, but what the director culls together is more than enough to tell Buress’ story. That story, has nothing to do with the Bill Cosby controversy that first brought Buress to the attention of a wider audience and everything to do with the life of a traveling comedian. It’s not always rife with life-changing events (a la Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop) or cumulative career reflections (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work). Sometimes it’s just focused on a New York apartment riddled with packages of unworn underwear, a long stairwell up to a tiny flat, and what it takes to perform hundreds of stand-up shows while suffering from asthma. Differences in scale notwithstanding, the Rivers and O’Brien documentaries are the best (and most recent) examples of the kind of films Buress, Ferguson and Apatow have made, even though it’s focused on a younger subject at an earlier point in his career, before he became a regular on The Eric Andre Show and Broad City, before he scored his own Comedy Central series, and before he landed roles in films like Neighbors and Daddy’s Home.
Anyone who doesn’t mind learning about how the sausage is made will enjoy Hannibal Takes Edinburgh, especially if they’re a working or would-be comedian. Ferguson organizes the film around a chronological count of the 28 days spent in Edinburgh. As a result, several versions of the comic’s material are shown. A joke Buress tells on day three reappears a few days later at another club with different audience, covering the same material, but with a much longer pause. Or no pause at all. Careful viewers will be able to trace the genesis of new jokes — like a bit Buress develops about his tiny flat and its confusing layout after his “convenience” quip earlier.
Even when Buress fizzles out halfway through the festival because of the constant grind and an asthma flareup, the stand-up sticks to his chosen profession like a committed partner. Early one morning, he sits, stands, and paces outside of a cafe, listening to a recording of the previous night’s set. “I wish I listened to my set earlier in my career,” he explains. “You hear certain bad habits that you’re doing. Like I could hear that I was rushing yesterday and I should just calm down. I don’t know, maybe I’ll yell and see how that works. They like yelling a little bit here.”
Hannibal Takes Edinburgh is now streaming on Netflix. Check out a preview below…