Interview – Neil Hamburger
Editor’s note: This is a reprint of an interview I did with Mr. Hamburger in early 2007.
The last time Neil Hamburger played Vancouver, in January at Pat’s Pub, the self-proclaimed World’s Funnyman demonstrated the kind of show-biz chops that can only be earned by facing indifferent and frequently hostile audiences night after night. When two guys in the crowd wouldn’t stop stepping on his punch lines, the entertainer asked those nearby to dump drinks on the heads of their loudmouthed neighbours. The duo was shortly soaked in the pub’s house lager.
“Those guys weren’t just hecklers, they were sickies,” says Hamburger, reached in Fresno, California, where his touring vehicle has just been pulled over for having a burned-out headlight. “Have you ever had one of those flies in your house where it’s oversized like it’s been somehow irradiated, and it keeps diving for your mouth, and it’s huge and disgusting and demented? That’s what those two guys were.”
Hamburger is no stranger to extreme reactions, though, particularly from paying customers who might not be prepared for such unfettered jokes as, “What do you call a senior citizen who can’t refrain from exposing their genitalia in public?” Beat. “Madonna.”
But Hamburger’s act, which includes horking into the multiple drinks he keeps clutched to his chest, has brought him a surprising amount of popularity. Australian punk band Frenzal Rhomb has taken Hamburger on tour, and Tom Green has had the comic on his Internet-only talk show a couple of times. And Tenacious D, Jack Black’s hammy acoustic-rock duo, has signed Hamburger to warm up audiences on its current tour, which hits the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this Tuesday and Wednesday. Reception to the man – whose appearance (shellacked-on hair, owlish spectacles, and an ill-fitting tux) inspires fear and pity – has been somewhat cool, however.
“Well, you get your lemon-sucking sourpusses in all crowds,” reasons the pasty-haired philosopher. “With those crowds [at Tenacious D shows], you do get quite a few of them, unfortunately. You would think they came out to laugh their fool heads off at Tenacious D; why not relax and laugh your fool head off at Neil Hamburger, the opening act? But some of these people, you know, they have a broomstick up the old yin-yang, you know what I’m talking about?”
In other words, Hamburger sometimes has to face audiences that aren’t sympathetic to jokes about Michael Jackson feeding his children plates of semen. He notes that at a recent U.K. show opening for Tenacious D in front of 15,000, the audience tried to drive the laugh-meister off the stage by chanting the Manchester United anthem. The old-school showman was undeterred. “It didn’t work,” he says. “I will not get off the stage until I’ve done every joke I’ve been hired to do.”
It’s a threat he’s been making good on for 10 years. What began as a parody of pedestrian standup comedy has turned out to be an act with legs. A certain amount of masochism is required, but hard-core fans never miss a chance to hear the same Courtney Love routines again and again. Still, even with his unique brand of comedy, where half the fun is waiting through a lengthy setup that ends in a ridiculously lame payoff, the old comedy axiom “It’s all in the timing” is true.
“Well, I don’t know, timing might help, but I think it’s a little bit overrated,” Neil Hamburger. “It’s about struggling, suffering, and persevering. I believe if you do two shows a night for an entire lifetime, you will get somewhere in this business.”