A show about nothing

For the last several years, sitcoms have been a plateau in heaven for stand-up comedians. You log a few years on the road, start surfacing here and there on basic cable, and before you can say “Norm McDonald,” you have your own show.

But a milquetoast half-hour of safe-mode laughter probably isn’t in the cards for funnyman Neil Hamburger, whose humor has always been a difficult kind of genius. Every comic’s had an off night, but Hamburger’s had an off career. For more than a decade, he’s scuttled his act painfully across stages in singles bars and bowling alleys, his nightly hustle for laughs usually ending awkwardly in the audience’s thunderous silence. In fact, it’s rare for Hamburger’s blend of off-color celebrity humor, divorce jokes and observations from the road to elicit any laughter at all, as the frequent pauses on his comedy albums proves. His punch lines fall to the floor, killed by angry quiet. So why does he do it?

In a way, he doesn’t. Hamburger’s actually the alter ego of Gregg Turkington, underground satirist and jester, author, occasional band member and impresario of Amarillo Records, which has released records from Mr. Bungle and Anton LaVey. Turkington’s been performing as Hamburger since at least 1996 and the America’s Funnyman LP. The album established the bit, which finds Neil wandering through a string of terrible one-liners and nowhere stories. He’s generally ignored, but occasionally there’s a heckler. That’s a good sign; at least someone’s listening.

There’s some question whether these albums are even performed live, where shtick ends and the method comedy aesthetic begins. But it really doesn’t matter. Turkington has so completely taken over the Hamburger persona that, by now, the sweaty, tuxedoed standup’s been willed into existence. He’s a real, and real unfunny, comedian. Which is funny. Right?

Hamburger’s newest recording is a bit of departure. Great Moments at Di Presa’s Pizza House traces the rise and fall of the family restaurant in “California’s Central Valley,” where Neil did a weekly showcase. Interviews reveal the history of Di Presa’s and sketch out the trajectory of Neil’s career, as he went from telling jokes in its main room to a triumphant appearance on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Show.

Great Moments is often as captivatingly queasy as Hamburger’s standup albums. Sprinkled with greasy humor and riding on a mishmash theme of idealized Americana and stand-up comic struggle, a listen tends to cause the same feeling of unsettled indifference you get when you spend a sunny Saturday getting sucked into shitty documentaries on the History Channel.

Metro Times caught up with Hamburger and asked him a couple of questions in anticipation of his upcoming Detroit show. He’s as funny in print as he is in person.

Metro Times: Your tour to support Great Moments at Di Presa’s Pizza House starts out in Detroit before heading into Canada. Any reason for booking the Motor City besides the proximity to our northern neighbors?

NEIL Hamburger: At a lot of gigs I play, the locals just sit there with sullen faces, staring blankly ahead. Detroit has always been different. The people love to laugh. There don’t seem to be any problems in your town.

MT: Tell us about your role in Tenacious D’s upcoming feature film.

Hamburger: It’s a bit of a stretch for me. ... I play a failed comedian, coincidentally, also named Neil Hamburger. I’m on stage, getting a lukewarm response from an audience at an open-mic show, moments before Tenacious D hits the stage for the first time. You know who else is in the movie? Meat Loaf and Tim Robbins.

MT: Finally, what do you look for in a lady friend? Women in Detroit wonder.

Hamburger: I would like someone who would listen to my albums, and give them a chance. My ex-wife just put them down in the basement, still in their shrink-wrap.

Maybe in the future, Neil Hamburger will have a sitcom too. A disproportionately foxy actress will play his wife, and she’ll nag Hamburger pleasantly while the laugh track responds uproariously to his glum exasperation. Random children will appear and disappear, and neighbors will never knock when they come through the kitchen door. It’s the future, and it’s sidesplitting. Everybody Loves Hamburger!


Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Japanese punk rockers the Spunks.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Culture articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.