Hannibal Buress is a staff writer on “30 Rock,” NBC’s half-hour sitcom about a sketch comedy show, which makes a point of portraying its writers as schlubby losers who can’t get a date. Even if it’s a caricature, one can assume that the show’s comedy writers approach their on-screen parts with some combination of self-deprecation, self-awareness and self-loathing.
Like some of the other cast and crew, Buress is also a working stand-up comic. On a Thursday night at nine, Buress slides into a booth at the Olive Tree Cafe on MacDougal Street, which is where the comedians who are performing downstairs at the Comedy Cellar hang out before and after their sets.
An hour before his set, Buress is drinking Jameson and ginger and a water, a fancy Acqua Panna. “Usually I get a Poland Spring but the waitress knew I was trying to impress you. I winked at her,” he says in a low, slow deadpan, typical of his style.
By industry standards things have gone well for Buress since he moved to New York from Chicago, where he grew up and did the comedy circuit, in September 2008. He released his first album, “My Name Is Hannibal,” last summer. Rolling Stone named him one of the 10 funniest people to watch in 2011. His appearance last month on “Late Show with David Letterman” was a triumph. And before “30 Rock,” he was a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” a gig he got after performing on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” At the Writers Guild Awards last Saturday in New York, he was the only person on the docket nominated in two categories: Best Comedy Series (“30 Rock”) and Best Comedy/Variety Series (“SNL”). Neither won but “it’s OK. I did not sulk,” he tells me in an e-mail a couple of days later.
Buress isn’t a lifelong comedy fiend. In fact, he kind of fell into it in college when he was 19. Even then he only tried it because his friend was doing it and “so many other people were horrible.” Now he averages between seven and 13 shows a week. His favorite comics are “Patrice O’Neal, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Bill Burr, Bill Cosby, Bill Engvall, Bill Bellamy. All of the Bills,” he says. “I started being a little facetious. Or was I? I might be a huge Bill Engvall fan.”
Writing for a TV show like “30 Rock” was on his wish list, but ultimately, he wants his own hour-long special on HBO or Comedy Central. Buress has had a little screen time on “30 Rock.” “I had a line as a homeless man, and then I just taped one as a homeless man,” he says. “Then they wrote me in as a homeless man again. I don’t know what this means, if I give off a homeless vibe.”
Buress lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he originally moved with his girlfriend before they split up. He tells me he signed up for OkCupid, the free dating site, but took his profile down after “10 minutes.”
Since a sense of humor is usually at the top of the list of qualities women look for in men, he shouldn’t have a problem, right? “There are some groupies,” he says of the Comedy Cellar in particular. “A couple of comics here talk to a bunch of the girls, but I’m not as extraverted as some of the guys here. I’m not as opportunistic. I don’t know what it is about this place, but I’ve never been able to get a girl out of here.”
At the back of the bar is what Buress calls the comics’ table, and he’s suddenly fixated on it. Tonight’s occupants, showcase host William Stephenson and Keith Robinson have just been joined by Judah Friedlander, the comedian known for his big glasses, trucker hats and generally slobbish appearance who plays writer Frank Rossitano on “30 Rock.” He is a star in the comedy world, though it’s unclear whether he would be able to interest any woman in the room in more than a laugh. Friedlander is here unexpectedly, which Buress takes as a sign that his set will be bumped. It is, by 30 minutes. At that point our interview takes a turn toward an awkward first date, when you’ve run out of things to say but dinner isn’t even close to over.
He takes me downstairs to the club, buys me a beer and we watch Robinson, and then Friedlander, who kills. “Hey man, see you tomorrow,” he says, fist-bumping Buress on the way out.
Whenever someone mildly famous shows up unannounced, it’s tough to follow them. One time Dave Chappelle surprised everyone with an hour-and-a-half set and Buress drew the short straw, but “Judah’s OK because he’s one of my favorite comics.”
There’s a one-act buffer between Friedlander and Buress. For the most part, he’s a hit. He opens with a joke about his name (yes, it’s really Hannibal. It has at one time or another ruined his game), and closes with new material about not putting a napkin in his lap when he eats, “because I believe in myself.” The only off moment is when he mentions that it’s his 28th birthday tomorrow and someone from the audience shouts that Buress looks 35. He does not like this at all. “You look like a bouncer. [Beat.] At a bookstore,” he tells the guy in the audience. “Which means you look unnecessary.”
Afterward, I ask him if he was pleased with the performance. He was; he got a lot of laughs. But he did not see that 35-year-old comment coming. I think his feelings were hurt — enough to drown his sorrows in a gastronomic horror. Buress orders wings from a waitress. “A single order or a double?” she asks.