Photo by Byron Cohen/ABC
Q: Why does Britney Spears sell so many millions of albums?
A: Because the public is horny and depressed.
—Neil Hamburger, telling it like it is
There are three varieties of not funny: things that are plainly not funny (these days, almost anything having to do with Iraq); things that are not funny but that you must acknowledge are actually kind of funny (Saddam Hussein’s sons, for example. Qusay & Uday? A natural comic pairing if ever there was one); and things that are not funny but which are in fact intended to be funny. Take standup comedy — please!
Standup comes in many styles, but no matter what form it takes, the effect is often the same: Hilarity does not ensue. Standup is harder than ever in the television era, because most performers approach the genre as little more than the purgatory that stands between one angry, self-hating guy alone in his apartment and that guy’s very own prime-time sitcom.
Neil Hamburger’s goals are more complex. Remember the first time you came home and Mother told you your little doggie Patches needed to be put to sleep? You loved Patches. You stroked Patches’ shiny coat. You kept filling his water dish. Well, Patches’ cancerous growths did not go into remission. What Neil Hamburger seeks from comedy is a bit like what those malignant tumors wanted from your puppy. Only in Hamburger’s case, his kind of treatment could help bring Patches back to life.
It’s pre-show on the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live. A magician sets fire to a piece of flash paper to rile up the studio audience. A pale, bald man with boundless reserves of enthusiasm and cruelty circulates among us. He touts tonight’s guest Yoko Ono as “really really great because I think she married one of the greatest humans,” and eggs us on: “We’re not at the energy level we have to be at, but if you get there, we’ll get very raunchy.” He’s a jolly sort and his job is to psych us up.
The show unfolds. Kimmel tells a Qusay joke. (“Yesterday Saddam’s son loaded $1 billion cash into a van, and all I could think is, why do I have a $300 limit on my ATM?”) Fred Dryer, former pro football player and star of the action drama Hunter, is in the audience. At the end of the night, after Ono has refused to answer questions about her love life (“Do you ever go on dates?” asks Kimmel. “Well . . .” replies Ono), after Australian actress Poppy Montgomery has finished her 15 minutes of bubble and charm, the introduction is made: “This is a fun show, and it’s an odd show, and it’s about to get a lot odder . . .”
When Neil Hamburger walks onto the stage, the effect is like a Thorazine cocktail. He wears a black suit, bow tie and oversize glasses. A pink carnation is tucked into his lapel, the comb-over is in full effect, and two tumblers of amber fluid are gripped perilously in the crook of his arm. His lips are pursed like a fish, and when he speaks he sounds like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin.
“Why did the farmer start a punk rock band? Because he was tired of Hall & Oates.”
“Why did Michael Jackson dangle his infant son over his hotel balcony? He was punishing him for refusing to finish his plate of sperm.” [Hack throat clear hack cough HACK]
Off-camera, Ono winces. She is visibly shaken.
“Sorry, it appears I’ve been saddled with substandard material here tonight . . . Hey, c’mon, I have cancer!”
Post-show, in the green room, Neil Hamburger is receiving a stream of stagehands and writers for the show, each congratulating him on the performance. “This is who Hamburger is ultimately for,” he says. “Security guards, record-label employees. Insiders, basically.”
Hamburger is still wearing his tux, his face still glows with a patina of sweat, but his lips are no longer puckered, and his forehead is not quite so scrunched up. A freshly autographed copy of Ono’s Arias and Objects book is tucked under his arm. Hamburger has left the building.
Enter his alter ego, Gregg Turkington, a longtime underground prankster. Just how underground is he? Well, in 2002, Turkington co-authored Warm Voices Rearranged: Anagram Record Reviews, a 73-page book containing hundreds of haiku-like nuggets. (Madonna’s True Blue became “Matured? No, unable.” Mike Love’s Looking Back With Love became “Overt hack milked B. Wilson. O, vile rock ego!”) If Hamburger has a low profile, Turkington is subterranean, a connoisseur of obscurity. For the past two years he’s been living in Australia, riding on the coattails of a group of ska-punks called Frenzel Rhomb, opening for them at festivals, appearing in their videos and learning new skills.
“I got really good at dodging bottles and shoes,” he says. “Twelve-year-olds are strong and just filled with rage, but it’s pretty easy to time your movements so you don’t get hit.”
“Not that the comedy people get it, either,” he adds. This is debatable. Daniel Kellison, the Kimmel program’s executive producer, walks up to Turkington. Responsible for shows like Crank Yankers and The Man Show, Kellison looks like a reformed frat guy.
“You know, I’m not usually a big laugher, but I was really into it,” he says. Turkington’s eyes are scrunched, as if he’s preparing to get hit.
“We’d really like to bring you back,” says Kellison. He points at me. “Is this your manager?”
“No,” says Turkington, “this is the guy who’s going to write a hit piece about me and destroy my act.”
Hamburger’s act shouldn’t be confused with alternative comedy, a subgenre of standup that has exploited standup’s unfunniness by replacing the standard MO with meta-comedy. No punch lines. Punch lines announced in advance. Deadpan narratives with no jokes in them. Clever stories so painful they’re just painful.
By contrast, Hamburger’s stories are pain qua pain. Take his routine entitled “Suicide,” on the 1996 album America’s Funnyman. “It’s a pretty small turnout here tonight,” he begins, the electronic pling of a pinball machine audible in the background:
Well, that’s par for the course for Neil Hamburger. Things were so bad for me on my last tour that I actually considered and attempted suicide. Now hold on there, I actually got my doctor to prescribe some sleeping pills [audience: heh heh heh], and I dissolved 60 of them in a glass of water [heh heh cough] and swallowed it down. Seriously, folks, to make a long story short, I didn’t die. [uproarious laughter] Well, I ended up getting my stomach pumped. Yeah, it was actually very painful. The whole experience was quite depressing. I’m seeing a therapist now, whenever I can. Hey, well, I went to the Waffle House the other day. Has anyone ever been there before, the Waffle House? Well, I waffled for about five minutes as to whether or not I’d have the ham and eggs that give you diarrhea or the omelet that makes you vomit.
So what is Neil Hamburger doing, exactly? Performance art? Anti-comedy? His entry in the Allmusic.com online reference guide straight-facedly refers to him as “one of the most acclaimed and name-checked comedians of his generation.” Until now, practically everyone who has promoted Hamburger, written about him or discussed him has refused to acknowledge that they’re playing along with a colossal in-joke.
Fact is, Hamburger is not a native of Culver City. He has not lived out of a storage locker ever since his wife ran off with a dentist, he did not start his career under the advice of a psychiatrist who thought it would be therapeutic, and his former manager is not the same guy who gave Rich Little his start in show biz. He does do an annual gig at the Phoenix Greyhound Dog Racing Park, though, and he once performed at a wedding in a Las Vegas bowling alley. And, come to think of it, having just moved to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, he may very well live out of a storage locker.
In Hamburger/Turkington’s life the line between fact and prank, person and persona, seems to get narrower as time goes on. He may just be a comedian whose time has come — post–war on terror, post–teen pop, post-idealism.
“Everyone’s heard my records, but no one ever buys them,” he says. “Whenever someone tells me they love what I do, I always want to ask if I can sign their CD-R.”
Backstage, Turkington’s publicist offers me a drink. She says there’s an open bar.
“Oh, yeah,” says Turkington, “just ask about the Bailey’s Irish Cream.”
I ask if they charge for that.
“No, the top-shelf material’s all fake. You know how it goes . . . thaaaat’s Hollywood!”
Neil Hamburger appears at the Knitting Factory’s AlterKnit Lounge every Wednesday in May at 7:30 p.m., and at M-Bar on Tuesday, May 20.