Sings Country Winners - "At Least I Was Paid" (Neil Hamburger)
Erstwhile zine writer, indie-rock gadabout and smart, funny motherfucker Gregg Turkington did as much as anyone else in the ’90s to establish the mix of sadism and surrealism that defines so much of contemporary “underground comedy.” He’s done blunt social satire and he helped to stoke the prank call fad that inspired Earles and Jensen, The Best Show on WFMU and other meta-comedy secret-handshakes. But he’s best known as Neil Hamburger, an unforgiving embodiment of the deluded, narcissistic, washed-up stand-up comedian.
The Hamburger shtick takes everything about the typically depressing joke-blower and distills it into a character who is, by turns, sad enough to inspire genuine sympathy, obnoxious enough to make your hair curl, and so damned wrong that that you laugh to keep from groaning. Like a lot of his colleagues, Hamburger tells enough awful jokes to start really bombing, then insults the audience, then makes awkward confessions about his wreck of a personal life, then pretends that he’s doing it on purpose. The only thing he lacks is a birth certificate. One key to good comedy is exaggeration, and in Hamburger, Turkington exaggerates nearly everything that’s appalling about bad comedy. Next time you see an “intentionally bad,” eclectically referential shock humorist in an alternative comedy showcase, think of him.
Unless you’re a connoisseur of suffering, and you’re willing to accept your share of it, it takes a certain amount of work to “enjoy” a Neil Hamburger recording. By rights, his country record should be the most agonizing item in his canon. But something odd happens over the course of Country Winners, which features Hamburger’s strained whine, half-assed singing and relentlessly pathetic rants over a rich, pedal-steel-accented mix: His act finally falls right into place. The Hamburger character thrives in the context of country, with its tortured confessions and metaphors. Winners throws the same nasty light on C&W that it does on stand-up.
What do comedians and country singers have in common? Geez, almost everything. They bitch (with vaguely disguised pride) about road-warrior loneliness (“Thee Piece Chicken Dinner,” “At Least I Was Paid”). They get angry without having any idea what they’re talking about (“How Can I Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right to Cry)”). They wallow in human failings and jerry-rigged analogies, and, in some cases, they release floods of profanity for no useful reason (“The Recycle Bin”). Neil Hamburger is perfect for this. Obviously, this album’s existence lampoons the thoughtless vanity projects that every bad comic seems to pursue, but it exposes all the legitimate ties between the forms. There’s an art to alienating the rest of the world and then crying out for acceptance, and on Country Winners, Hamburger takes a cubist approach.
Of the record’s three covers, only one is a validated country song (Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Jug Town”), but the others bear hallmarks of the genre; John Entwhistle’s “Thinkin’ It Over,” like a lot of his compositions, meshes infidelity and suicide, while Mark Eitzel’s “The Hula Maiden” is a boozy, half-spoken road story. Now that I think about it, Eitzel has more in common with Neil Hamburger then I’d noticed.