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Laugh, Riot

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.

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?"

What, indeed?

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.