Hamburger: king of comedy
Cult performer extracts humor from being not very funny
Flanked by camera flashes and microphones wielded by the Hollywood media, Neil Hamburger found himself roving the red carpet usually reserved for the entertainment industry’s glitterati.
The deadpan and disheveled comedian was experiencing his first taste of the good life in a career that could be described – to paraphrase Orson Welles – as “wearying, unpleasant and unrewarding.”
“I’ll tell you, walking down the red carpet in front of (Grauman’s) Chinese Theater sure beats sleeping in a rolled-up carpet behind some of the theaters that I perform in,” Hamburger says.
Best known for his masochistic stand-up routine, Hamburger relished being invited to the film premiere of “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny,” in which he makes his big-screen debut.
“One second in a Tenacious D movie beats 100 nights performing in Elko, Nevada,” he says.
Things are looking up for Hamburger … somewhat.
The comedian has spent much of the year touring as the opening act for Tenacious D, the duo composed of movie star Jack Black and musical partner Kyle Gass. He’s also just released his second DVD, “The World’s Funnyman.”
Originally dubbed America’s Funnyman, Hamburger has apparently graduated to being the master of a global stage.
“I think you’re looking at a marketing gimmick,” he clarifies during a tour stop in Los Angeles. “When you’ve got stuff that’s tough to sell – whether it’s my patented brand of comedy or the new Pringles sour cream and onion potato chips – you’ve got to pull out all the stops. Now, I have performed internationally quite a bit in the last year – which could contribute to earning a title such as that, were it a real title.”
More Willy Loman than Will Ferrell, Hamburger is the current poster boy for un-comedy. It’s an ideology first popularized by the late Andy Kaufman, and whose tactics also can be glimpsed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Ali G characters.
Some audiences assume Hamburger is the worst comedian they’ve ever heard. Others pick up on the fact he’s a gifted performance artist engaged in a lingering hoax.
How funny can being awkward, outdated, whiny and pitiful be? In Hamburger’s case, pretty funny.
Keeping it fresh
“The most difficult part of marketing Neil is dealing with people who don’t understand his humor. More specifically, that he is funny because he’s not funny,” says Nicole Crowley, publicist for Drag City Records.
“The jokes are horrible kinda like your creepy uncle’s jokes, and you laugh because they are so bad.”
Drag City is responsible for releasing seven of Hamburger’s CDs, including “Raw Hamburger,” “Laugh Out Lord” and “Left for Dead in Malaysia,” an excruciating live show supposedly recorded in Kuala Lumpur in which there is literally NO laughter emanating from the audience.
Because the hipster indie label mainly deals with hipster indie rock acts (Royal Trux, Bonnie Prince Billy), Hamburger’s core fan base is perpetually tied to the underground music scene. (This explains why he performs in spots such as The Jackpot Music Hall rather than comedy clubs.)
“My fans are all over the place – geographically and mentally,” Hamburger describes.
Hamburger also loves to make jokes (actually riddles) at the expense of current musical icons. Example: “What do you call a senior citizen who can’t help but expose their genitalia in public?”
“We’re trying to keep things fresh,” Hamburger says of his act. “You don’t want to go too far out of date, so we’re doing some Gerald Ford material. But you don’t want to get too fresh because then you get slapped.”
Hamburger says no topic is taboo for him.
“You don’t want to limit yourself in this business,” he says.
“Obviously, if you’re doing a children’s birthday party you’re not going to tell your mass murder and gang rape jokes. On the other hand, when you’ve got some of these degenerate drunks that populate the night clubs I’m playing at, all bets are off. The only limit is you don’t want to say stuff that’s not funny because these people are there to laugh.”
Does he often struggle with saying stuff that’s not funny?
“We’ve had a few problems with that over the years,” Hamburger admits. “You may have noticed if you’ve heard some of my albums. Sometimes I wish they’d used the edit button a little bit more when they’re piecing those things together.”
Modern technology has helped Hamburger in that regard. Although he’s still at the mercy of others when it comes to his audio catalog, the funnyman has found a new ally: the Internet.
Hamburger has been serving as host of his own interview show, “Poolside Chats,” which can be found on comedian Tom Green’s Web site (www.tomgreen.com).
“It’s a TV show, and it’s on the Internet, so it could conceivably be seen by every person on earth. When I’m doing a live show, you can count the heads. We did a show in Tasmania about a week ago, and we had about 30 paid customers. You get on the Internet, you could have 30, you could have 30,000, you could have 30 million. You could conceivably have 30 billion, if the birth rate were to increase,” he says.
So far guests have included comedians Andy Dick and Kyle Gass, and musicians such as Melvins singer King Buzzo. But there is one “dream guest” who Hamburger longs to interview.
“I’d sure like to get Frank Sinatra Jr. on the show. He’s always been a hero of mine,” he says.
Until that auspicious day, Hamburger will spend his time criss-crossing the states in his rickety economy car, earning the title of America’s Funnyman. No wait … the World’s Funnyman.
As for any future local funnymen who might want to follow in the comedian’s footsteps, Hamburger offers one bit of advice:
“Don’t do it,” he says. “This is a miserable way to live. There are not many rewards in this.”