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After Cosby controversy, Hannibal Buress looks forward

The inquiry seemed innocuous enough -- "So, how was your 2014?" -- but comedian and actor Hannibal Buress knew the question was loaded the moment he heard it last week.

The inquiry seemed innocuous enough — "So, how was your 2014?" — but comedian and actor Hannibal Buress knew the question was loaded the moment he heard it last week.

The underlying, headline-grabbing controversy the 32-year-old Chicago native was recently involved in was inferred, but not specifically mentioned, which made him reply with the full-body laughter often heard in Buress' live act and comedic roles.

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"You wanted to be the slickster," Buress said on the phone from a tour stop in New Orleans between chuckles. He went down a checklist of accomplishments: Filming new seasons of TV shows he's featured on ("Broad City," "The Eric Andre Show") and memorably playing a cop in the movie "Neighbors," along with the release of his Comedy Central stand-up special "Live from Chicago."

"I had a lot going on in 2014," Buress, who performs at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Friday, said.

It was an understatement we both knew was more complicated. Last October, Buress made headlines worldwide because of a stand-up bit he told at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia. After complaining about Bill Cosby's attitude toward the black community (he described it as the "smuggest old black man public persona that I hate"), Buress reminded the crowd of the number of horrific sexual-assault allegations made against Cosby over the years.

"'I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom,'" Buress, imitating Cosby, said on stage. "Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby, so that brings you down a couple notches."

The joke was not new — Buress had been telling it for six months, he told Howard Stern in January — but it was the first time an audience member uploaded raw footage of it online. His remarks brought renewed attention to the trend of women accusing Cosby, a figure many loved for his role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show." (Cosby, who has vehemently denied allegations of sexual assault, is scheduled to perform at the Lyric two weeks after Buress.)

The controversy invigorated Cosby defenders and detractors alike, and shoved Buress, a rising star, into the spotlight for reasons he did not expect. Many championed Buress, while others accused him of trying to earn fame by bringing a widely beloved man down.

When asked explicitly if he was surprised by the backlash he received, Buress was uninterested in providing details.

"Yeah, it was very surprising," he said. After being asked to elaborate, Buress paused, and would only further say, "It was just a crazy situation."

It's hard to blame Buress, a former "30 Rock" and "Saturday Night Live" writer, for not wanting his Cosby comments to overshadow his burgeoning career. He has raised his profile in recent years by frequently touring as a stand-up comedian, being Eric Andre's talk-show sidekick on Adult Swim and playing Ilana Glazer's easygoing love interest Lincoln on Comedy Central's "Broad City." The exposure has led to more strangers — especially young ones familiar with all of his work - stopping him on the street, he said.

"People say, 'Do I know you?' and I say, 'Nope!'" Buress said before bursting into laughs. "If I'm in a place where there's a bunch of college students, I can't really chill out. But for the most part, it's pretty manageable."

That could change, as Buress continues to climb the comic ranks. He recently shot a part in the movie "Daddy's Home," a new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, and did voiceover work on the upcoming "Angry Birds" movie.

Buress — who cited Dave Chappelle, Patrice O'Neal and Mitch Herberg as some of his influences — said he was also working on his jokes for Comedy Central's "Roast of Justin Bieber," which airs March 30.

Roasting is not his default form of comedy, but Buress has experience.

"As a kid, that was my real introducing to having to be funny," he said. "Teenage boys, they crack jokes on each other. You sit around and roast."

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Expect more in the future between Buress and Comedy Central, he said, but not "Unemployable," a show he was linked to last year. The deal fell apart after Buress prematurely told his Twitter followers the series had been purchased for a 10-episode season. That was not the case, he said, and Buress learned a valuable lesson.

"I think part of why it didn't work out is because I announced that they picked up the show when they didn't pick up the show," he said, "which was funny to do, but it doesn't really motivate people to pick up that particular show."

Now, he's working on a new series with Comedy Central tentatively titled "Why? With Hannibal Buress." It was too early to provide details ("We're still figuring it out"), but regardless of the final product, Buress hopes the show — like all of his endeavors away from the stage — leads audiences to his live stand-up, which matters most to him. The pursuit of refining a joke to its perfect delivery continues to drive Buress.

"I like the immediacy of [stand-up], and just being able to create and develop something over the course of the night. ... It could be just a so-so bit at the first show but by the third show, it might be solid and ready to take on the road," he said. "That's what I've been doing longer than anything else."

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