America’s Funnyman Gives It to You Raw
Has anybody else done so little with so little? Neil Hamburger’s not famous, and he has himself to thank for it. However, his take on character comedy puts him in the ranks of bizarre jokers like Andy Kaufman and he’s earned a reputation as a comic’s comic, touring with Tenacious D and appearing on adultswim’s Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job! As a label mate to Will Oldham, he’s more comfortable sharing the stage with bands at small concert halls than crappy comics at comedy clubs. The Wayne Brady crowd would be shocked and aghast at his Don Rickles-from-hell routine, anyway. S D Green peels back the tuxedo and gets an earful about celebrities living in cardboard boxes, Carrot Top shitting into a trunk, and a little bit about Hamburger’s new album, Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners.
Your MySpace page says that you live in a cardboard box in New Mexico. Have the recession and mortgage crisis had a terrible effect on you?
It definitely has. These are tough times. You think these entertainers on stage have it so well, but half of the entertainers that you watch on TV and film and stage live in cardboard refrigerator boxes. In L.A., if you want to meet your favorite celebrity, hang out by the appliance shops. People buy washers, dryers, refrigerators, and things. As they load them on the truck, they often take them out of the boxes and you see lines of your favorite stars waiting to grab those boxes to have a place to sleep. It’s sad.
Are there any stars you’ve caught in the act of trying to get one of these refrigerator boxes?
I hate to speak ill of the dead, but Harvey Korman lived in a cardboard box under the 110 Freeway overpass. He was one of my neighbors. Joyce DeWitt from Three’s Company lived in the neighborhood… one of the replacement guitarists from the band Kiss. It’s a great way to meet stars. Find some of these cardboard box jungles and just go knock on the side of the box with your autograph book. You may get Keith Carradine’s autograph or you may get shot in the head by a crazy homeless veteran, you know? You never know what you’re going to get.
Your act seems to be more in the tradition of one-liners like Don Rickles as opposed to situational comedy like Seinfeld. Do you feel like a comedian from a different time? Do you think these up-to-date comedians have lost something?
Yes, because I think Mr. Rickles, when he comes out, his goal is to make you laugh constantly, so when you leave your sides are aching. These guys like Jerry Seinfeld, they’re telling some story about buying coffee at Starbucks and waiting in line and the girl with the nose ring in front of them. Then something happened and did you ever hate the paper on the straws and did you ever notice when somebody spills something at Starbucks and then they wipe it up and then blah, blah, blah this long story about something that happened to them. I don’t wanna hear about your shitty day, I wanna laugh my fool head off. Ask your Grandma what she thinks about newspaper vending machines where the change doesn’t come out and you’ll likely get the same thing you will from these so called professional comedians who are really just annoying complainers.
I want these guys to come out and make me laugh. That’s what I try to do. Some of these guys, too, you got the new generation, they’ll come out and shit onto a plate and then put some Thousand Island dressing onto the bowel movement and that’s the act, you know? That’s horrible. They got that from Gallagher, he started doing that — I think he shat into a watermelon — or Carrot Top, who comes and shits into a trunk until the trunk fills up completely. That’s not comedy to me.
Jay-Z and Nas had beef for a long time, and it helped increase their record sales. Would you start beef with Dane Cook? He seems like the Jay-Z to your Nas. Can we start some beef, right here, with this interview?
Sure. I will challenge him publicly. Mr. Dane Cook, if you think you’re so funny, have me be your opening act on a long tour where I’m getting paid a few thousand dollars a show, preferably a two-year long tour. That’s my challenge to you. We’ll just see who’s funnier. Get me a role in a movie, or have me open for you at the high paying shows. Then we’ll see what the audience thinks. I don’t even care if I lose the challenge; honestly, I just want to get on the bill.
On the album, you’ve got a backing band that includes Prairie Prince from the Tubes, Atom Ellis from Dieselhed and Rachel Haden who toured with The Rentals. How did you choose the musicians? Are they fans of your comedy?
Yeah, these are people I knew personally who were fans of the comedy or friends of mine personally. Sometimes you play the serious music and maybe you want to laugh so why not get involved in a project like this? Of course, Prairie Prince, the Tubes, now that was a crazy group. Some of the things those guys were doing on stage were just bananas. So, it’s nothing new for him to see a person giving birth on stage, or somebody taking part of their head off and out come two rabbits. We’ve done a couple of these shows already and it’s been pretty sensational to fill up 90 minutes like that with entertainment.
How did you approach the lyrics on this album? Do you write as songs or are you writing as jokes?
I’m basically giving the job of writing the songs to the musicians and I’m giving them the information they need, but I can’t write a song correctly. I can only pass on my ideas and hope they can somehow turn them into a song because I am not musically inclined. They’re things that have happened to me, things I’m complaining about, or things based on routines of mine in the past that might very well turn into engaging songs.
You have a show coming up in Orlando at the AKA Lounge on June 26.
Yes. Are you going to be there? Do you have a lot of friends?
I have enough friends to give you a cheering section right in the front row.
Fantastic. Because, in Orlando, they have these amusement parks so everyone is in a great mood all the time. They have fewer problems because when they do have problems they just go ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean for an hour. Everybody’s happy and you don’t have the drugs and all the other problems that plague the rest of the world.
You seem to thrive on the confrontation between yourself and your audience and the awkward tension at your shows. Is there any sado-masochism in your act?
That’s the whole sexual scene isn’t it, those people, with the rubber ball that goes in their mouth and that whole thing? No, this is strictly to entertain folks. Sometimes you do have some hatred thrown in my direction but I’ve done this long enough that a certain amount of hatred is not going to completely crush my spirit… only partially.
There is something profound about your song ‘Recycle Bin,’ it’s one of my favorites on this album. It has some poignant philosophical thoughts: ‘Not everything goes into the recycle bin, some things must be simply thrown away.’ Then you mention ‘the album that no one bought.’ Is this that album?
We don’t know yet. Certainly the last one I did was the album that no one bought. This one could also be the album that no one bought. It’s still too early in the process to tell, but I certainly have a lot of experience with that type of album. I can’t sell as many albums in a year as that horrible group Nickelback can sell in a day. You put that thing on and afterwards you just wanna wash your hands and ears. It’s really an unpleasant feeling. It’s like being sexually assaulted.
You do a version of American Music Club’s ‘Hula Maiden’ off their United Kingdom LP. Are you a fan of American Music Club? Were you responsible for that selection?
Yes, I selected that one. I know their singer quite well, Mr. Mark Eitzel. He’s a real nice guy and he’s come to my shows. I could relate to the loneliness of the man [in the song] just trying to have a happy vacation, but of course his own inner torment prevents their vacation from being anything other than miserable. Of course, self-pity is something I’m very familiar with and it just seemed like a perfect number. I know it’s not necessarily a country song [but] it’s a funny and sad song. If you noticed from the record, we may have gone a little bit more on the sad side than the funny side, but this is not a Weird Al Yankovic record. You gotta get that right blend of sadness and laughter. That’s how the good country records are.
Is this album in anyway autobiographical?
Yes it is. It’s a sad situation here, this career of mine falling apart and of course the marriage falling apart and so many things. My merch booth fell apart at one of the shows. This is not a comedy album. It’s not a laugh-a-minute sort of thing; it’s a celebrity vocal record. Sometimes you don’t want to listen to just a stand-up record, you want something else. Hopefully, this is what you want.
Interviewers always try to get to the heart and soul of their subjects. I found a shortcut in this book called Kokology. It has short scenarios with questions at the end. Your answers to the questions are supposed to reveal your true character. Would you mind answering a Kokology question?
It sounds suspicious but let’s see what happens.
‘One day a blue bird suddenly flies through a window into your room and is trapped. Something about this lost bird attracts you, and you decide to keep it. To your surprise, the next day the bird has changed color from blue to yellow! This bird changes color again overnight — on the morning of the third day it is bright red, and on the fourth it turns completely black. What color is the bird when you wake up on the fifth day?’ 1. The bird doesn’t change color; it stays black 2. The bird turns back to its original blue 3. The bird turns white 4. The bird turns golden colored.
I think by then the bird is so tired of my company that the bird has left. I don’t think that there’s a fifth day. These birds have better things to do. They could be out singing or laying eggs or having sex with other birds. Birds can mate with any other type of bird. You could have a peacock which mates with a parakeet. Then you get these truly spectacular birds, like these color changing birds you’re talking about. I would have to say that the bird probably stays black because black is all the colors mixed together. It sounds like the pigment was switching and finally it all got blended together and you’re not going to be able to turn back from that. Probably the bird’s going to need surgery.
‘Those who said the bird stays black have a pessimistic outlook. Do you tend to believe that once a situation goes bad, it never returns to normal? Maybe you need to try thinking ‘if this is as bad as it gets, it can’t get any worse.’ Remember, there’s no rain that doesn’t end and no night so dark that there’s no dawn the next day.’
There’s no rain that doesn’t end, but if you drown from the rainstorm then it never ended for you. You ended. I don’t know how they’re [kokologists] making an income but I bet it’s not through telling these stories. I’m sure a lot of these guys are homeless. Birds don’t change colors so the mind that comes up with that is pickled from too many hard drugs and sleeping out in the park in the cold; that’s where they see these color changing birds. You get a lot of these sickies out there and you’ve gotta be careful. Anyone can write a book. There was a guy who wrote a book using his own fecal matter, dipping his fingers into it, writing it on the backs of McDonald’s hamburger wrappers and he photocopied 100 copies of that. Now he’s selling them in the park. That’s not my idea of a great author.
Neil Hamburger brings his stand-up to Florida: Common Grounds (Gainesville, FL) Tue June 24; Crowbar (Tampa, FL) Wed June 25; AKA Lounge (Orlando, FL) Thu June 26; PS14 (Miami, FL) Fri June 27. For full concert listing, visit MySpace.
Neil Hamburger: www.myspace.com/americasfunnyman