"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."
But for Hamburger at his most depressingly desperate, it's tough to top his 1998 recording Left for Dead in Malaysia. In addition to the usually iffy material ("Why do Pringles factory workers get laid so often? Because they can!"), Malaysia features Hamburger disintegrating before an uncomprehending audience so oblivious, it fires up the jukebox midset. By the end of this 40-minute psychodrama, our beaten-down entertainer is filled with tropical drinks and self-doubt, muttering "Am I through?" into the microphone before leaving the stage.
"That album was a recording of a show I did in Kuala Lumpur," Hamburger recalls. "The nightclub turned into a karaoke lounge at 10 p.m., so I was on at 9, to warm up the crowd I guess. But they didn't speak English, so it felt like I was just talking to myself. It was a nightmare really. My manager got mad because I wasn't sticking to the routine, so he stormed out, leaving me alone with these hostile Malaysians."
The first known Neil Hamburger recording surfaced in 1992 on an Amarillo Records prank call collection titled Great Phone Calls. On the track "(Write My) Name on the Toilet," Neil rings up the local Punch Line comedy club, and spontaneously auditions with god-awful witticisms. Partly due to this first effort, there are many who allege Neil Hamburger is a hoax, merely an alter ego of a certain fringe impresario and former San Francisco resident. Hamburger refutes this -- insisting he started doing stand-up comedy some 16 years ago at the urging of his psychiatrist -- and denies the existence of any sort of Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton subterfuge. Actually, he seems pretty unclear as to who Tony Clifton is. "Is he the guy who confronts the audience members? I don't keep up with a lot of the newer comedians. I'm sure he's fine, though I don't agree with making the audience uncomfortable. These are the people who are paying you to make them laugh."
So who are Neil Hamburger's favorite comedians?
"The dead ones: Those are the greats, because they're gone now. So it's good to show the proper respect, and place them in the historical perspective. But I like all the comedians. I have nothing but good to say about them all. It's a great profession. Except it can be too competitive, and not very friendly. A lot of the people are cutthroat about not giving anyone else a break. And a lot of them don't deserve to make so much money. And they'll steal your bookings! You have to watch out."
While accepting the existence of Neil Hamburger may be akin to believing in Santa Claus, rest assured he will be appearing in the flesh on his current tour. Hamburger, who claims he's performed in Modesto and Tracy in the past, has only this to say when asked what expectant fans should anticipate from his first-ever San Francisco performance: "Whatever seems to work, we will give them more of it."