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Laugh, Riot

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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.

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Eric Waggoner