An ornamental, Carthaginian name isn’t the only thing that separates comedian Hannibal Buress from his closest peers. He’s inscrutable in many other ways — political, but not a provocateur; scatological, but not lewd; weird, but apt to convey it in a very matter-of-fact way. He’s a gravelly-voiced mumbler who intentionally blurs words together. He has weird intonation, and an accent that’s equal parts Chicago and New York. He often seems prickly and petulant. Not Twitter-addicted like Patton Oswalt or Elon James White. Not a fan of word economy. Not one to josh his audience, aside from asking if anyone in the house does cocaine. Not one for set-ups and punchlines.
While other comedians play it safe by sticking to one subject, Buress prefers to take a lot of asides, and see where the rabbit holes lead him. “Anyways, I got off the subject,” he says offhandedly in “It’s Hard Out Here,” a bit from his new album My Name Is Hannibal. The bit starts off with a kid trying to goad Buress into supporting an imaginary basketball team, which leads to a weird rumination on words (specifically, whether the word “tribulations” can exist without “trials,” or whether we can “pillage” without “raping”). It’s typical of Buress’ shaggy-dog-story form: rambling, conceptual, and a little neurotic, with no clear narrative arc. But therein lies the humor.
The better jokes on My Name Is Hannibal begin in common-man terms, and get progressively more complicated. Take the fourth track, “Metal Arms,” which could easily be a coup de grace. Buress starts off with a premise that any maladjusted person would understand: “I don’t trust society at all. I live alone and I lock the door every time I go to the bathroom.” He makes it more and more improbable: “For Christmas I bought myself a set of metal prosthetic arms. Because you never know when you’re gonna lose an arm, and I want to be prepared for the situation.” One and half minutes in, he’s advanced it to a level of utter lunacy: “If I lose an arm I’d be like, ‘Everybody relax — eh, grab my other arm off the shelf over there. … Somebody clean this shit up right here.”
The same form pays dividends elsewhere, as Buress ventures from the banal (kicking pigeons, wondering how the plot will develop in a rap video), to the bizarre (finding new culinary uses for excess pickle juice), to the realm of magical realism (personifying an STD or imagining himself inside a video game). That’s a risky way to do stand-up. Yet on this album, it usually works. Buress doesn’t seem to mind if his one-liners don’t always hit. He prefers the deeper humor of telling stories, and building character. He revels in complexity. (Stand Up!) — Rachel Swan