(N.B. Watch a video of writer Paul Curry discussing his interview with Neil Hamburger.)
When I offered to write a 2,500-word article about Neil Hamburger, I was joking. The idea of dedicating so much ink to promote a performer who would only be doing one local show in a room with a maximum capacity of 300 was absurd to begin with, but considering the confounding nature of Hamburger’s work, the fact that most people will never understand or accept his shtick, the fact that most people would find his work hateful, disturbing or at least annoying — well, at that point it started to make sense.
On the other hand, Hamburger’s shows are usually more fun when the audience is unprepared. His unusual approach to stand-up comedy doesn’t really reach the heights unless there’s somebody in the audience who just doesn’t understand what’s going on and feels compelled to make sure everyone else in the room knows how lost they are. With that in mind, I’m afraid I may be doing a disservice to Neil Hamburger and his fans by letting you in on it beforehand. But chances are the show is already sold out, and most ticket holders know the score, so it doesn’t matter.
Neil Hamburger is not a real person. He’s a character created by Australian-born Gregg Turkington, a former indie-rock entrepreneur turned performance artist. In 1992, as the owner of the small, independent record company Amarillo Records, Turkington released an album of “real” prank phone calls called Great Phone Calls. The album art featured a vintage photo of a naked lady sitting on a bed with her hand on a telephone and a promise in bold capital letters that YOUR SIDES WILL ACHE FROM CONVULSIVE LAUGHTER. Could such a ploy fail? Huge sales were assured.
Unfortunate buyers of the album were almost certainly disappointed by the haphazard, uncomfortable and not very funny collection of conversations with unsuspecting pizza restaurant employees and disc jockeys. Two of the tracks, however, feature what must certainly be the on-the-spot creation of Neil Hamburger, an obnoxious, supposedly well-known stand-up comedian at one point looking for gigs in the area and later asking for a job washing dishes for a week because he’s going to be appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson but needs a job in the meantime.
The raging success of Great Phone Calls was followed by a series of singles and EPs. In 1996, indie label Drag City released a full-fledged Neil Hamburger solo album, America’s Funnyman. A work of singular vision, America’s Funnyman presented a dramatically different version of the character; rather than the fast-talking phone prankster, the new Neil was a carefully crafted combination of wheezing, groaning discomfort and mean-spirited misery. The album was supposedly recorded live, but the very small audiences are intensely disinterested, and it sounds like one of the microphones was set up in an ice bin behind the bar. It is here, too, that we are introduced to the supposedly well-known “Zipper Shtick,” which is apparently a sight gag of some sort.
With America’s Funnyman, Hamburger explored a region of comedy beyond the telling of jokes, with the performer simply mentioning the names of people in the news and allowing his audience to fill in the gaps. Or not. The biggest laugh on the record comes when he says, utterly without context, “Condoms,” but it seems the laughter has been added after the fact, in the studio, from a sound effects record.
The next step was, of course, actual live shows. Responding to what must have been a bewildering demand, Turkington made himself over physically, with thick black-rimmed eyeglasses, a horrendously greasy comb-over and his trademark thrift store tuxedo, and he hit the clubs. His relationship with Drag City led to bookings in venues that would ordinarily feature live music rather than comedy clubs. In 2003, a DVD, “Live at the Phoenix Greyhound Park,” appeared, showing Hamburger “performing” for disinterested dog-racing fans.
Over the years Hamburger has made seven more albums, and the most surprising development is that he actually tells jokes. He has worked “blue” (telling raunchy, sexual-themed jokes) on an album called Raw Hamburger. On another album, Laugh Out Lord, he touched (very briefly) on religious topics. Still, his delivery is excruciatingly awkward, his jokes tend to be so filthy or mean-spirited that they defy social acceptability, and when he manages to deliver a punch line, he undercuts it almost completely by groaning, as if to telegraph the fact that the joke is not funny. And then, of course, he’ll add his catchphrase, “But that’s my life!,” whether it follows logically from his previous discourse or not.
Meanwhile, over the years, Hamburger’s back-story has been fleshed out, as he makes light of the wide variety of failures he has endured. Ironically, this pose makes his most recent effort, an album of country songs called Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners, sound almost conventional, circa 1973. The musicians are clearly professional, and, as a songwriter, Hamburger works his strengths more effectively than ever before. On “The Recycle Bin,” for instance, he becomes unreasonably angry about the things some people try to recycle, and plumbs the depths of misery by explaining that some things, like a failed career or marriage, simply cannot be recycled.
Indeed, the last few years seem to have been very, very good for Neil. He has made several appearances on Fox News Channel’s “Red Eye,” talking about entertainment and related topics. He has been featured on Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”, and he had a regular segment called “Poolside Chats” on “Tom Green Live.” He toured with the musical comedy duo Tenacious D and appeared in their movie, “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.” He’s even been featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” a few times, at one point telling what is undoubtedly the filthiest joke ever told on network television. Bits of these various appearances make up the bulk of the approximately 440 Neil Hamburger clips on YouTube, where he has a consistently high rating. Local fans will want to see his six- or seven-part interview with musician Will Oldham.
Still, if you ask Neil, things aren’t so good. He claims he will be paying for his earlier mistakes long into the foreseeable future. On the other hand, he is a fictional character, so talking to him about his life, as I did recently, by phone, is kind of strange. It’s impossible to tell how much of what he says is prepared material and how much he might be inventing on the spot. A question about the recent media attention he’s been getting quickly turned into a story of woe:
“We had a thing in The New York Times just a couple days ago which was real nice because that paper’s all over the place. I have gone to sleep so many times and used that as a blanket. It’s around. You can find them. If you check the trash behind the, uh, not the Days Inn, at the Days Inn they tend to throw out the USA Today. That’s not as thick of a paper, and so it’s a colder night, but the Hilton or the Hyatt, something like that, you can usually find The New York Times and get a real good night’s sleep with ’em.”
And while Turkington lives in California with his wife, Hamburger is single and homeless.
“I don’t know if you’ve been through a nasty divorce or fathered some children out of wedlock, you know, you might be in the same boat I am, you know, with the pay being garnished. In my case, not from the children out of wedlock, it’s more from just a bad contract with a dishonest management company who claims I owe all this money for uh, really for I don’t know what because they’ve done a horrible job. I mean, these guys represented me for the first several years of my career, back when I was playing pizzas parlors, and yet they wanted a fee for each one of those bookings. They did 365 bookings in a year playing to an average of seven people a night.
“There would be a sign that said, ‘Monday night pizza special 2 large pizzas $9.99 Free Comedian,’ you know, and I would just be standing there in the corner of the room, not even on a stage, usually, sometimes on a milk crate or not even, and telling these jokes. And then at the end of the night I’d get, you know, what they would call an honorarium, sometimes $5, sometimes $2, sometimes $10, sometimes nothing, sometimes a large pizza and a pitcher of Coke.
“But [my management] wanted $150 for every show they’d set up. Well, I wasn’t making that kind of money. And the next thing I know, they’ve compounded that with interest, administration fees, they were charging, I think it was 79 percent interest per year on the unpaid balance of this. So it took a very short time, I stopped taking bookings from these guys and started doing it other ways, but the money I owed them just from these two years with the 79 percent interest, before long you’re talking five and six figures.”
There’s almost always more than one thing going on when Hamburger starts talking. When I asked him about how he got started in comedy, he said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been doing this, at this point it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t doing this.”
Then he added:
“I worked for one of the fast-food restaurants. You know, for just a couple of weeks. I lost that job. And I went in to see the job counselor that I was working with, you know, this was with the state, and uh, I said, ‘Gee, I couldn’t keep that, I couldn’t keep the fries cooking properly,’ and they weren’t happy with my work, cooking these french fries, we did onion rings also, and the guy said, ‘Well, let’s see. You can’t handle that. You know, that’s a job that most teenagers can handle. Let me see if I can find the job that’s even lower on the totem pole in terms of prestige and also in terms of pay,’ and of course that was stand-up comedy.”
But it turns out Neil had some minor experience with comedy earlier in his life, and a natural aptitude — beyond his inability to do anything else.
“I was a troubled teen, and the youth counselor took a lot of the troubled teens to a comedy club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., called the Laugh Wharf, cause it was at the end of a wharf, of a pier, and they had a thing, it was three in the afternoon, when the club was closed, but they let some of these troubled teens of which I was one onto the stage to do some comedy. The counselor said this was a good way to exorcise our demons, as he put it. It was a small club, mostly the kids’ parents, that sort of thing, but that was my first taste of it, and I really enjoyed it, you know, even though the response was so poor. There were a couple people that laughed. You know, I really, just hearing those two laughs — that really gets you going. It’s addictive, you know. Now, I don’t know if you’re a crack cocaine abuser or not, a lot of the journalists I speak to are, but they say that this sort of laughter is similar to the addiction you get from the crack cocaine.”
Now, of course, it seems like his career is taking off, but being busy doesn’t necessarily translate into financial success. He doesn’t get paid for his appearances on Fox News, for instance. By way of explanation, he adds — with a sly comment on television news — an anecdote about a recent tragedy.
“A woman lost her whole family in a fire. I don’t know if you saw this. It was in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, somewhere around there. There was a fire. The whole family burned to death. This woman was at work. And she came back — I think she had four kids and a husband and her mother, I think, was in the building, too. They all burned to death, OK? It was just horrible. Unbelievable grief. Unbelievably awful situation. And so Channel 9 is there putting a microphone in front of her face to get her comment on it, and, you know, she’s very distraught. Well, anyway, you know, can you imagine when they go to talk to her to say how does it feel to lose your whole family in a fire and before they can do that they’ve got to get her to sign a contract on how much she’s getting paid for this appearance. I mean, that’s not gonna work out, you know. That’s a mess.
“And what happens then — say you get paid $500 for each news appearance. You’re gonna find people who are gonna go out there and burn down houses just so they can do the interview about it. Just think how much the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, think about how much he would have made at $500 a pop talking about that. So you just can’t do it. Now, in my case, it’s really just too bad, cause I really could use the money, and I’m not convinced that Kevin Federline is really news. But nonetheless, that’s the system that’s in place and that’s why, unfortunately, there is no pay.”
And so, while he complains about “all these damn shows he has to do,” Neil still manages to find joy in his work. He obviously has a complicated relationship with his audience, a seemingly impossible balance of compassion and contempt, as he made clear in this overview of his career:
“One thing I have learned in all these years of show business is that my role, my job, is to help others feel good and help others have a good night out, you know. Let’s face it; I’ve been through a painful divorce. I’ve had so much failure in my life and career and so many hard knocks and these lawsuits and the lack of funding and an estranged daughter and failed albums and poor reviews. I had a tuxedo that was stolen, and so with all these disappointments, I feel that it’s more important that I bring happiness to other folks and not worry so much about myself.
“And, you know, you get people to come out to these shows who are so miserable and have so many emotional problems, some of them have sexual impotence, or have lost their job, people who are just broken in many ways, and so if I can get out there and tell a few jokes and cheer them up and make them feel good and make them laugh their fool heads off, then I’ve done a good job. Much as if a plumber comes to your house and unplugs the toilet, or if you’ve got an onion in the garbage disposal that can clog that up completely. You know what I’m saying. The plumber can do his job, and remove the onion or whatever was in the toilet, he can feel good, and that’s what I feel like. If I can remove the burden that is on these people’s shoulders who come out to my shows, and if they walk out of there with even a slight smile on their faces, then I have done my job and then I can feel good.”
Yeah, he can feel good about entertaining the poor miserable souls who have no other way to have their spirits lifted than by attending a Neil Hamburger show. It’s a sly insult about the relationship between the entertainer and his audience; how pathetic they must be, those unlucky few who manage to make the show.
Well, I’ll be there, so I know. But that’s my life!
Thursday, March 5
1250 Bardstown Road
$8 advance (online), $10 door; 7 p.m.
Neil Hamburger: myspace.com/americasfunnyman