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In an interview snippet at the beginning of the recent Drag City release Inside Neil Hamburger, a "leading critic" is quoted describing Hamburger as the worst comedian he's ever heard. The remainder of Inside Neil,like every Hamburger release, is filled with abusive audience members, flatliner jokes, and cringe-worthy attempts at topical humor. ("Why does Britney Spears sell millions of albums? Because the public is horny and depressed." "Why did Sporty Spice cross the road? To try and strong-arm some kids into buying her crap solo album.") Inside Neilalso features some flailing stabs at Australia, due to its being recorded on the continent where Hamburger has spent the last couple of years in marital exile.
"My Australian tour came about as a result of some legal problems I was having over here in conjunction with my recent divorce," he explains from a pay phone at Pea Soup Andersen's Restaurant in Selma, Calif. "My lawyers advised I stay out of the country for a while, because I was collecting subpoenas like most people collect ... stamps? Do people still collect stamps? Anyway, at the same time, I was offered a couple of very high-profile tours in Australia. It turned out to be a great decision on a professional level, because I ended up performing on several big rock festival shows before crowds of over 20,000 people a night. Even though most of them were throwing bottles and shoes at the stage, it still looks good on my résumé to have been on those bills."
To some people, Neil Hamburger is a brilliant meta-comedian, an ingenious lampooner of stand-up comedy's worst clichés. To others, he's simply the world's worst comic. Adore him or deplore him, this throwback to the moldin' age of humor -- replete with stale, lead-balloon yuks that would make Henny Youngman do a grave-twirl -- has somehow managed to parlay painfully obvious observations, jokes of the light-bulb-screwing/ road-crossing caliber, and exceedingly rare zingers into something resembling a cult following.
Now, after years of slogging through third-tier gigs in backwater burgs, this enigmatic humorist has found a niche in the music world; in fact, he's opening for relatively well-known bands like Washington, D.C.'s Trans Am. Hamburger says he hopes U.S. rock crowds will respond to his uncommon brand of wit with laughter.
"That's what the goal is, of any comedian," he elucidates. "But it can be hard sometimes. I toured Australia with Frenzal Rhomb, one of the biggest bands there. [The band's] fans are all these young kids into the punk music, and they would throw things and try and intimidate me. Then I did about a dozen shows around Australia with Mr. Bungle, from San Francisco. Their crowd was a little more sophisticated, so they would do things like interrupt punch lines and try to ruin things that way."
Nonetheless, Hamburger has his followers; he even gets fan mail. "We don't read it," says Rian Murphy, sales manager for Drag City. "We just send it to Neil at whatever forwarding address he's got going at the moment. Oftentimes, his mail looks a little official, if you know what I mean, and we really don't want to get involved in the legal proceedings of any of our artists, no matter how much we love them."
Weirdly, Hamburger's snowballing notoriety has led to current audiences actually calling out for routines like his "Zipper Shtick," where he free-associates on the phrase "zipper lips." In addition to such "classics," the Hamburger catch phrase "Thaaaaaaat's my life!" often gets a fervid response.
"That always brings the house down, at least sometimes," Hamburger claims schizophrenically. "I think Drag City has gotten the records around more, so audiences have become more appreciative. I have done hundreds of these little pizza parlor gigs across the U.S., and while I have nothing against pizza restaurants or their patrons, the fact is lots of people would talk through the show. And then it could be hard to get paid afterwards."
Luckily, things have been sorted out back home, which enabled him to start his current tour. "Now I'm OK to tour freely without fear of my ex-wife and her army of subpoena-servers and lawyers," Hamburger asserts. "Financially, I'm in ruin, but if I can just stay on the road for another five years, I should be back at ground zero." Despite living out of motels and storage lockers for the foreseeable future, Hamburger's guardedly optimistic; in addition to his relentless touring schedule, he's got a religious humor project tentatively titled Laugh Out Lord slated for release in 2001.
On the current tour, Hamburger is selling a limited-edition CD titled 50 States 50 Laughs. Recorded without a live audience, the disc is a sobering half-hour alphabetical blitz through the states, riffing on tortuous puns and digressing into ham-fisted pop-culture commentary ("Does anybody actually eat at Long John Silver's?"). It's a rough ride, even by Hamburger's standards.
"That CD was a case of trying to throw something together quickly for possible release," he confesses. "It didn't come out too well, so yeah, now we just sell them at shows, hopefully. It makes a great souvenir of the evening, something to add to your memory chest."
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