The image fits the man: Hannibal Buress with his hands over his face, at once funny-making and self-effacing. In his stand-up, the Chicago native and New York resident talks about his daily experiences while revealing little about his life. In our phone interview, he deflects scrutiny: When I mention he’s the youngest of four siblings, he says, “Where’d you get that from?” (Uh, TOC published it three years ago.) When I ask if his parents gave their other kids similarly unusual names, he responds, “Listen, man, I don’t wanna talk about my siblings ’cause I don’t know what kind of weirdos read Time Out Chicago.” And when I inquire about his upcoming in-the-works special that will feature, as he’s said, “maybe angrier stuff, more personal,” he demurs: “I didn’t even say that.” Well, yes, he did. “Yeah, I said that. But I was also drunk when I said that.” The 28-year-old, who grew up in the West Side’s Austin ’hood, performs at Zanies through July 17.
You wrote for SNL for a year, then 30 Rock for a year. Which of those would you do again?
SNL has a better schedule that allows for more traveling, but 30 Rock, I was able to learn a lot more about writing structure and just how to perfect a joke and how to collaborate with others. So I liked both of them. Ah-ha! Ah-ha! You didn’t get a good answer. Ah-ha, ah-ha-ha.
Do you want to give me a good answer now?
That is a good answer. You didn’t get an either-or. Ah-ha. I don’t know why I’m being obnoxious like that. Sorry. My apologies.
Do you think you’re an obnoxious person?
No, not at all.
You had just one SNL sketch make it on air. That must’ve been pretty frustrating. What’d you think of that?
Yes, it was. Next question. [Laughs]
Is that why you finally said, “Enough of that, I’ll try 30 Rock”?
It wasn’t ’cause of that. I was new to that format, and I was open to going back there for another year ’cause later in the season I felt myself getting better at sketch writing, so it was frustrating.
I read that you had to coach the SNL actors to say your jokes with your deadpan tone.
No, I was just lying in that interview just ’cause that was my maybe fourth one of the day, so I just started saying crazy stuff.
How do I know you’re not lying now?
Well, you’re just gonna have to hope that I would treat you well ’cause you’re from my hometown.
But this could all just be made up.
That’s a possibility. I’m not in the business of doing truthful interviews. I’m in the business of trying to sell tickets to shows. [Laughs]
The truth won’t sell your tickets?
Sometimes it’s fun to say nonsense. Why not?
Given your time on 30 Rock, what did you think about Tracy Morgan’s recent homophobic rant during his stand-up?
Well, it kind of bummed me out ’cause I wrote those jokes for him, so the response has really hurt my feelings. I didn’t think the people would really react that negatively.… I wasn’t at that show, so who knows? Maybe it was made up.
In your own comedy, you tend to look at everyday minutiae, like how a stranger talks on his cell phone. Has anything along those lines happened recently that you’ve found comedically inspiring?
Well, I had a kid in the airport put his fingers in a fake gun and shoot at me. So I kind of wanted to point-blank shoot him and his family.
Don’t you think that’s an extreme response to a kid?
No, not at all. He shot at me. Why can’t I buzz back at him?
No, I didn’t, man, and it tormented me that I didn’t react. He shot at me. Why was he shootin’ at me? That was kind of just an act of terrorism. I feel like if he had a real gun, he would’ve shot at me.
How old was he?
He was about four or five years old.
Your next oldest sibling is 12 years older. Were you a surprise for your parents?
No. [Pauses, then laughs] It’s always funny to me when journalists have that pause waiting for something else ’cause I give short answers a lot and then journalists pause like being silent will make me say a longer answer. I guess it did work, but now I’m just commenting on your pause. [Laughs]
That won’t ingratiate you with journalists.
Well, we need each other.
Yes. We need more than a one-word answer.
Well, yeah, I guess, but what if that’s the answer?
What used to make your parents laugh?
My father’s pretty dry and can be curt and kind of cutting. I guess that’s where I get my sensibility from. Something you say, he’ll slip it back on you, like he’d be: “Wash the dishes.” “Hey, Dad, I don’t wanna wash the dishes right now. I’m watching Jeopardy.” “I’ll put you in jeopardy.” Stuff like that.
Sounds like how this interview is going.
Hey, man, that’s how it goes sometimes.
Hannibal Buress plays Zanies through July 17.