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 isnt in the cards for funnyman Neil Hamburger, whose humor has always been a difficult kind of genius. Every comics had an off night, but Hamburgers had an off career. For more than a decade, hes scuttled his act painfully across stages in singles bars and bowling alleys, his nightly hustle for laughs usually ending awkwardly in the audiences thunderous silence. In fact, its rare for Hamburgers 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 doesnt. Hamburgers 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. Turkingtons been performing as Hamburger since at least 1996 and the Americas Funnyman LP. The album established the bit, which finds Neil wandering through a string of terrible one-liners and nowhere stories. Hes generally ignored, but occasionally theres a heckler. Thats a good sign; at least someones listening.
Theres some question whether these albums are even performed live, where shtick ends and the method comedy aesthetic begins. But it really doesnt matter. Turkington has so completely taken over the Hamburger persona that, by now, the sweaty, tuxedoed standups been willed into existence. Hes a real, and real unfunny, comedian. Which is funny. Right?
Hamburgers newest recording is a bit of departure. Great Moments at Di Presas Pizza House traces the rise and fall of the family restaurant in Californias Central Valley, where Neil did a weekly showcase. Interviews reveal the history of Di Presas and sketch out the trajectory of Neils career, as he went from telling jokes in its main room to a triumphant appearance on ABCs Jimmy Kimmel Show.
Great Moments is often as captivatingly queasy as Hamburgers 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. Hes as funny in print as he is in person.
Metro Times: Your tour to support Great Moments at Di Presas 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 dont seem to be any problems in your town.
MT: Tell us about your role in Tenacious Ds upcoming feature film.
Hamburger: Its a bit of a stretch for me. ... I play a failed comedian, coincidentally, also named Neil Hamburger. Im 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 shell 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. Its the future, and its 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]