Hamburger Special: An Interview with Neil Hamburger
Armed with an arsenal of humor drier than the Sahara, Neil Hamburger is the comedian you’ll love to hate. For most comedians it would be a guaranteed ticket to career suicide, but Hamburger’s finely tuned shtick has garnered a cult following and record deal with Drag City. Of course his mysterious Kaufman-like identity – allegedly Amarillo Records’ Gregg Turkington – is an additional allure to Hamburger’s deadpan deliveries. Not too shabby for a comedian who made his live debut in a pizza parlor. America’s Funnyman has once again hit the road and is making appearances in clubs across the country. The following is a discussion about car ornaments, fans and future plans during Hamburger’s recent pit stop in Lincoln, Illinois.
Darren Eke: You’re three shows into your tour, how’s it going so far?
Neil Hamburger: Well, you know, sometimes I think some of the diseases and things that are going around can cut into the attendance…It’s not just my shows, it’s across the board. Your Metallica shows and things like that aren’t having quite the attendance they hoped either, so you have to look at it that way. But I do think there’s a lot of scientists and university students working on these plagues and hopefully that’ll be under control and we can bring in a better income.
DE: What kind of diseases do you worry about the most, Neil Hamburger?
NH: They’re all out there. The ones I worry about are the ones such as the plague that have the ability to wipe out the population, which is my bread and butter so to speak. You know you wipe out the population and I’m gonna be talking to myself in the Phillips 66 restroom rather than on stage at some of these venues. So anything like the Black Death, the plague, SARS anything of that nature…
DE: If everyone else was eliminated, do you think you could still stand strong and beat the plague?
NH: Well, you know, I eat healthy – which a lot of these people don’t do – because I’m on the road all year long and lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle in terms of sitting behind the wheel of the car 12 to 15 hours a day. What I do is, at the first of the month, try to find a good source of canned fruit cocktail and get a couple of cases in the trunk of the car and get a good can opener, not one of these rusted ones…You get your different food groups and things and it keeps you healthy.
DE: You’re in the car 12 to 15 hours driving from city to city. How do you keep yourself occupied all the time?
NH: Well the radio’s broken now so, you know, you talk to yourself for a bit…license plate game.
DE: Do you have an 8-track or cassette deck in there?
NH: We have an 8-track but the heat melted a lot of the tapes so that’s not an option at the moment.
DE: What are you traveling in right now?
NH: This car here I purchased second hand and the brand was stolen off of it. These kids make necklaces out of the brand of the car and they pried that off, so I don’t know what this is. It’s an older car, shall we say. It needs a lot of maintenance.
DE: You’ve gone from playing pizza parlors to places like The Improv, a couple of nights ago, and the Knitting Factory in New York City. Are there going to be any sporadic pizza parlor stops on this tour?
NH: There are a lot of shows that we don’t advertise. The pizza parlor shows aren’t advertised by the record company because they’re in markets where they don’t actually have distribution. So yes, I do actually have quite a few pizza parlor shows booked. Right now I’m lucky enough to be doing the sort of music circuit because these kids have a lot of money to spend, you know, these collegiate types. But when that resource is tapped out, it’s back to the pizza grind.
DE: Do you think there’s a different audience that will see you at the pizza parlors rather than at these clubs?
NH: Yeah because there you have a situation where a pizza parlor is trying to compete with some of the other pizza parlors in town by putting up a sign that says ‘Comedian Tuesday Night.” They’re hoping they can draw in the pizza-lover crowd, you know which a lot of times are families, older people, people on a pension and that sort of thing…It takes all types, we do not discriminate here.
DE: When you talk to people that are on a pension, I’m getting this vision of you speaking to Conservative America, and a couple of your acts include stand-up bits about Timothy McVeigh, Princess Diana. Do you ever feel that some of your lines go a little overboard?
NH: Yeah, I do actually. I do think those go overboard but again you’re talking about the collegiate crowd, the young sort of music people and they sort of demand the topical, up-to-the minute, dare I say ‘cutting edge,’ sort of humor. It doesn’t come naturally to me. At some of these pizza parlor shows I’m free to do the more standard sort of jokes – jokes that have been around for 100 years – in some form or another, and try to keep the act a little bit more clean.
DE: You’ve managed to present yourself to a national audience, back in May, with Jimmy Kimmel. How did that go for you?
NH: You know I think it went pretty well. I didn’t flub up too badly and the show, as far as I know, was watched by quite a few people. The advertisers seemed happy and Yoko Ono was a delight. As far as I can tell that could be the tip of the iceberg for a whole new television sitcom for me. You have a lot of people who watch TV that see something like that and they say, ‘Who is that guy? Let’s see more.’ And the next thing you know you’ve got your own sitcom, your own car…
DE: Speaking of television, you were planning on making a television documentary at one point or another?
NH: You know there have been a lot of plans that have gone down the drain I have to admit. I was planning to stay at a Motel 6 last night and instead I slept in the back of a car at a rest area. You can’t really rely on plans. The only plan that really seems reliable is God’s plan to have me on the road 365 days a year for eternity.
DE: Have you had any cancellations for any upcoming tour dates?
NH: Not yet, but a lot of these are only ‘one night only’ things and those tend to work out better. It’s when you’re booked for three nights at a place that the second and third nights often mysteriously get cancelled. So this is sort of a better strategy. You do some of the second-string casinos that I’ve performed in, some of these Indian bingo halls and things like that, and that’s where sometimes they run into financial troubles. I did a show in Elko, Nevada, that was supposed to be a 30-day run, but after the first night they said, ‘Hey that’s enough, we can’t have you here.’ I think what had happened was that one of that somebody must have hit one of the slot machine jackpots and cleaned the place out.
DE: When was this?
NH: This was a few…months ago, earlier in the year. I just think they must’ve cleaned the place out because you get the three cherries and that’s that, they can’t afford a comedian. It just unfortunately coincided with my 30-day booking, which they had to pull the plug on.
DE: And there wasn’t any compensation for you?
NH: No. Actually they gave me a bag of apples. I don’t even know if it was official it was just something that was sitting out by the back where my car was parked.
DE: How do you prepare for a tour when you go out on these long hauls?
NH: There’s no preparation for a tour because a tour is constant. You know, ‘How do you prepare for a tour to end?’ is a question that I would like to be asking.
DE: So how would you prepare to wind-down from a tour?
NH: I don’t know, it hasn’t happened. I’ve been on the road continuously for the last fifteen years. You know you get your day off here and there, but those are definitely taken up dealing with lawyers or car repairs, trying to go to my storage locker and deal with those assholes, because they seized a lot of my property. So, the day off is often worse than the days on.
DE: How do you find the time to write new material?
NH: You don’t really. If you can get the newspaper – some of these motels give you a free newspaper – you can find out what’s going on in the world and keep the act up-to-date. A lot of times you just take an old joke that you’ve been using and you drop Rick Springfield’s name out of it and put in the newer acts, the New Kids on the Block or whatever they’re into, and you just keep things moving along. And also you do have twelve hours of driving sometimes and hopefully something will click in your mind. If you see a semi-truck slipping on a banana peel and slipping off the road you may do a routine on that.
DE: What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen while traveling?
NH: Actually you get some people who are mentally ill that will occasionally scratch on the window. Sometimes I have to sleep in the car, in some of these bad neighborhoods, and you wake up at three in the morning and there’s somebody scratching on your door to get in. You think you’re dreaming and its Night of the Living Dead but it’s just some of these enthusiastic locals.
DE: You’ve mentioned that you have been at this for 15 years. What inspired you to get into comedy?
NH: There was no inspiration. This is just something I’m forced into doing.
DE: What forced you into doing comedy?
NH: Well, economic necessity and lack of other skills I guess. I did work in the fast food industry as a teenager and that didn’t pan out. I needed to find something that was one step down on the ladder and this was the next step down from that.
DE: Your first release was on Amarillo (Great Phone Calls, 1993). Do you think you could have just been successful releasing phone pranks instead of touring 365 days a year?
NH: People talk to me about that but I’m not familiar with the recording because I don’t have a record player or cassette deck. I don’t follow my own recordings and I hope there’s just some sort of money coming in on these things to try to get me out of this whole that I’m in financially. As for these phone calls, people record all kinds of things, release them and put a naked girl on the cover and hopefully they will sell.
DE: And you know nothing about that cover, which got re-released on Mike Patton’s label (Ipecac Recordings, 2000)?
NH: Well you know these records fall into different hands and the rights get sold along the way. But I don’t actually have a copy of the records. I know that everything’s on the level legally and the royalties are getting paid, but as for the content I’m too busy doing my thing to go back and listen to these records.
DE: Speaking of record labels, how has the association with Drag City panned out?
NH: It’s been quite good, these are professionals, they have a successful label…You know, I don’t know exactly who’s on it but some of the pop people that you hear on the radio (are on the label). They send out their team of recording engineers to my shows, roll tape and then take it back to the studio and sweeten it up a little bit in case the applause didn’t record properly. The next thing you know, the thing’s on the market place…
DE: How do you monitor how well your show is doing based upon the audience?
NH: I don’t even know anymore, you just gotta continue on regardless. Sometimes they try to defeat you and if you start to hat them and thing that they’re defeating you they will defeat you. And they’ll destroy you.
DE: What attributes do think you have to lend to your moniker as “America’s Funnyman?”
NH: That’s strictly a marketing gimmick, I don’t really have any attributes that I can lend to anyone…Anything that I have I’m keeping for myself because I have so little. I think that some of these people should be lending something to me, especially some of your wealthy entertainers…your Mariah Carey’s and those sorts of people. I could do with a handout to keep this act going.
DE: One final question: Gregg Turkington, what does that name mean to you?
NH: That’s a guy that produces some of the records…We have a variety of people that handle the technical side of things, which I don’t get into because I’m too busy making people laugh.
DE: Where do you see yourself in five years?
NH: Umm, probably right here at Phillips 66 in Lincoln, Illinois, because history has a way of repeating itself.
DE: Thanks a lot, Neil.`
NH: Well, thank you…good luck…goodnight…
DE: Thanks, have a good show tonight…
NH: Yeah right, GOODBYE.
Neil Hamburger is currently on tour, the dates for which are available by clicking HERE
By Darren Eke