When you were a kid, and you went to see a magic show, which kind of viewer were you: The one who got utterly swept away and believed that those doves appeared from nowhere, or the one who sat with furrowed brow, trying to figure out how the trick was accomplished?
Or, to put it another way, which would you rather know: Simply the names of the men who pulled the triggers on JFK, or the complex chain of command that organized the whole operation?
These are important questions, because if we're going to talk about "America's Funnyman," you and I, we're going to have to establish our terms. It's a tale riddled with cries of "hoax" and "conspiracy." But it's also a jab at our sorry fascination with fame, and of the hideous voyeur entertainment industry, in which we derive fetishistic pleasure from watching people we don't know experiencing very public pain and embarrassment.
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Not that Neil Hamburger -- America's Funnyman -- would necessarily agree, or even care one way or the other. He's too busy packing them in at Malaysian karaoke bars. But somewhere, a man you've never met is sharpening the knives in preparation for his own murder. At your hands.
The story ostensibly begins in Culver City, California, in the mid-1980s, where a young shlub named Neil Hamburger received a fateful piece of advice from his exasperated shrink: Go into standup comedy. It'll be good therapy.
Our man, so the story goes, threw his belongings into storage and mounted a grueling touring schedule, playing upward of 300 gigs a year on the pizza-parlor and side-room circuit. At a gig in Needles, California, Hamburger was approached by famed showbiz manager Art Huckman, whose past roster had included such comedians as Rich Little and the Ritz Brothers. Huckman was impressed with Hamburger's tenacity, and offered to represent him.
Under Huckman's firm hand, Hamburger's career took off, after a fashion. The grueling schedule got much worse, rising to a phenomenal 360 gigs per year, but as Hamburger himself puts it, "That was okay. It gave me less time to think about my problems."
But all this is backstory; our first recorded evidence appears on the legendary 1993 phone prank album Great Phone Calls, upon which a man identifying himself as Neil Hamburger delivers an impromptu (and unwanted) phone audition for the secretary at the Punch Line comedy club. Horrible one-liner follows lame non sequitur in a rapid-fire delivery, while the beleaguered secretary repeats, "I'm going to hang up. I'll hang up. Stop. Be quiet."
Now here's the sticking point: Great Phone Calls, recently re-released on Ipecac records, was originally pressed onto vinyl by Amarillo Records, a label headed by producer Gregg Turkington. Because of this shadowy connection, and because of the "prank call" methodology involved, a persistent rumor circulates that "Neil Hamburger" is actually a fictitious character created by Turkington, a never-was tenth-rate comedian with obvious parallels to Andy Kaufmann's "Tony Clifton."
Several factors, many say, point to such a swindle. Apart from a couple of self-released EPs, Hamburger's recorded output since 1996 is carried by indie rock label Drag City, an unlikely home even for a marginal comic. And he does seem to play a large number of difficult-to-verify gigs in places like Kuala Lumpur and the Australian outback. Home gigs are few and far between.
Turkington himself has resolutely denied any connection, and Hamburger has been known to hang up on interviewers who imply that his comedy is all an elaborate hoax. He takes his craft seriously -- he even claims to regularly sue comics who steal his material. And as he says in the intro to America's Funnyman, his 1996 full-length debut, "That's my job -- going around making people laugh. That's what I enjoy doing. What's wrong with that?"
The most compelling indication (say detractors) that it's all an elaborate ruse lies in the material itself. Simply put, Neil Hamburger's albums are to comedy what the Zapruder film is to amateur moviemaking. His jokes are received by audiences with open insult and heckling at best, or grim, terrible silence at worst. His "topical" humor is hopelessly dated or unsalvageably obscure, his setups and payoffs are connected by the most tenuous of narrative threads, and his timing is that of a piece of heavy furniture falling down stairs.
"My wife told me she was going to take the kids someplace where I'd never go. 'Where's that?' I asked. 'Easy; on stage at The Tonight Show!'" Dead silence.
"Why do Pringle's employees get laid so often? Because they CAN!" Far away, the sound of ice being shoveled into a glass. A stray cough.
"I'm going through a divorce . . ." Sporadic laughter. "Well, what's so funny about that? It's actually a very painful experience." Then he segues into another topic entirely.
It is to go on, indexing Hamburger's gaffes. What should be a simple gag about the massive spending at outlet malls fizzles to a stop just before the punch line, which Neil then proceeds to explain for the mirthless audience's benefit. A list of double-entendres during a supposedly ribald discussion of condoms falls flat. He performs a Rich Little tribute that contains not a single impersonation: "It must be tough to be his wife. One night you're in bed with Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan . . . whew." Immediately following a joke, Hamburger is apt to preempt an audience's groan with his own: "Hoooooowhaaaaaauuuuugh," he intones in a half-yawn, half-sigh. He's been known to actually encourage an audience to laugh.
But for all that, you can't help somehow liking the poor nebbish.
Hamburger's inexplicable charm isn't a case of so-bad-it's-good, an intellectual shortcut too many of his commentators have taken. No, Hamburger's true genius, regardless of his actual identity -- and we make no guesses one way or the other -- lies in his willingness to call forth the dark parts of our human nature, the savage in us that not only wants to see blood, but will go to any lengths to draw it.
Left for Dead in Malaysia, a 1999 recording which purports to be a warm-up show at a Kuala Lumpur karaoke bar, is perhaps the best case in point. During the course of an excruciating set, we hear Neil trying to win over the crowd, only to discover that absolutely no one at the venue speaks English. Slowly, Neil's bits become more and more introspective, until he's speaking with alarming frankness about his failed marriage, the Spice Girls, and Montezuma's Revenge to a crowd full of dead-silent strangers; horrified, his manager walks out on him midway through the set. At the end of the record, Neil is literally drowned out when the karaoke machine is turned on mid-routine.
It's the most desolate onstage failure since Lenny Bruce's classic "Comic at the Palladium" routine, but there's no ironic distancing here. You're listening to a man die, all alone, over a full hour, and nobody does a thing to stop it.
To lesser degrees, every Hamburger recording is a painful listening experience, whether due to the material itself or to a cringe-inducing empathy with the poor bastard. But no one escapes unscathed.
By phone from somewhere in America, Neil Hamburger doesn't sound like a man at the end of his rope, but the rigors of his schedule and a thousand unforgiving audiences have clearly jaded him a bit.
When asked which album he finds most representative of his strengths, Neil Hamburger responds affably, "I'd say, probably, whichever album sold the most. But I haven't actually heard any of my albums, to be honest. The record company has their people they send out to the shows to record [them], and I never really hear the tapes. I have a tape player in my car," he finishes, "but that's about all I can say about that."
Conversation with Neil Hamburger is an object lesson in abstraction; he refuses to name names or give locations, and often speaks of himself in the first person plural. "Currently," he says of his whereabouts, "we're based out of some of the better motel chains, your Super-8s and so forth. The Marriott Courtyard has been good for us lately. But actually I'm going to be down in Australia again for an extended tour, so I'll probably be there for most of the rest of the year."
Advice for travelers down under?
"I'd really recommend you not try to get booked in the comedy clubs, because that's my thing, and I'd really like to keep it that way. But as far as the touristy stuff, you wanna do your Koala Walk . . . and your Wombat Run. Probably you could go swimming or something. There have been a lot of shark attacks in Australia lately, which cuts into my record sales, ultimately. But you still get people being born, and immigration and all that, so it hasn't been a major problem."
Amidst his furious schedule, Neil reports that he's taken on a number of side projects in recent months. Rumors about an in-the-works Hamburger memoir are apparently founded, but don't look for the tell-all anytime soon.
"[The book] was about halfway completed, but I felt that my career was only about halfway through, so that left a pretty big gap. A lot of people start autobiographies, and get about a hundred pages in and realize they're still alive, and then they have to pad it with things that didn't even happen [he said, enigmatically]. I don't want to do that. I think I'm gonna have to wait until just before I die to complete it. I want to wait until I really have a story to tell.
"Now, we did work on a screenplay, me and one of the top screenwriters on the East Coast, and we're trying to get the interest of some movie studios. Did you see that movie a few years ago with Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett?"
"Well, I think we can do better than that," he says confidently.
So who would he tap to play the lead role?
"I'd like to play myself, ideally, because of the salary that goes with it. I think actors have enough roles. You give that part to some actor, and it's just taking money out of my pocket."
Current plans also include a musical project with ex-Meat Puppet Derrick Bostrom, who's collaborating with Hamburger during his upcoming trip to Phoenix.
"I'm not sure what Neil wants to do," says Bostrom, who claims to have known Hamburger since his earliest performances in San Francisco. "I think he wanted to do a kind of novelty song, topical humor thing. But Neil's concept of what's topical is a little . . . unpredictable."
("You know that hit song 'Disco Duck' that's way up in the charts? That's the kind of thing I'd like to do," Hamburger explains helpfully.)
"We used to see Neil all the time, when the Meat Puppets went through California," says Bostrom. "The guy's a pro, he's Mr. Show Biz, he shows up in a tux everywhere he goes. It really used to amaze me that he could do that, just throw two tuxes in the back of a car and then hit the road. I hated the road; I don't know what Neil's take is on it, but he seems to get something out of it. I think he's become a lot more jaded than I ever got, though. A lot of times when we'd see him, the audience would be a punk crowd who seemed to get off on heckling him. But he never really let it get to him. His idea was, well, they came out and got to have fun, even if their fun was insulting him. At least they had a good time."
The duo will lay down tracks at Bostrom's home studio in early August, but Bostrom pleads ignorance when asked about their scope, or the schedule of their release to the public.
"At first it was just going to be a single," he says, "and then Neil wanted to do a longer, Eminem-type novelty song, so we started thinking in terms of an EP. I have no idea what he eventually wants out of it."
Even with his partial newfound fame -- recently, Hamburger's become a sort of underground celebrity among the indie rock set, touring with bands like Australia's Frenzal Rhomb -- Hamburger continues to report receiving snubs from the unlikeliest of sources.
"Steve Martin's people asked us for a videotape, I guess in connection with [Martin's] new TV show. But as far as I know, he just used it to tape baseball games. Which is pretty sad, because I think the guy's got enough money for a blank tape. I was in a Walgreen's earlier today, and I think they were only $1.99 for one tape. But I don't know where he lives, though. Maybe it's more expensive there."
Living comedians as a rule get mostly short shrift from America's Funnyman: "I tend to like the ones that are deceased, because then you can give the respect without the competition. But still, you don't want to give these people too much credit, because they don't reciprocate." As for the comedians who are still working, "You have to watch out for those guys. What I've got, they want for themselves. I'm always getting people coming to the shows with cassette recorders, to steal my material.
"Or, like for example, I've had bookings in Quartzsite, Arizona [pop. 2,085 --Ed.]--not one of your great entertainment hot spots -- and I've had those bookings stolen from me by some of these Hollywood so-called legends, who just didn't like to see an up-and-comer with a booking. I mean, it wasn't a big pizza parlor, not a national chain, but suddenly I was off the marquee and these people were in there. So the next thing you know, I'm off the bill in Quartzsite."
We won't ask him to name names, but if he did, would we . . . ?
"Oh, yeah. These are people you see on your TV every day of the week. Really, it's happened more times than I can say. It's true. The same thing happened in Wickenburg."
Following Australia, Hamburger plans to make a return visit to Malaysia, where Left for Dead is about to be released (or unleashed, perhaps). "We're hoping to get a bigger audience than last time, since the record is being released down there. I don't really know why they used that recording, though . . . as I recall, it was a pretty problematic show.
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Will he play the same unfortunate venue, that fabled karaoke bar?
"I'm not sure . . . I don't really have a lot of say, I just go where they tell me. But I'm sure not gonna eat at the same Kenny Rogers restaurant, I'll tell you that."
Maybe this time, he could have a Malaysian comedian to repeat the jokes in the native tongue as he performs, to bridge the language gap.
"Yeah, that's a good idea. Or they could even add a few extra punch lines to get the crowd going. 'Cause the ones I delivered sure didn't."