Comedian Neil Hamburger evokes a sort of sympathy as he slouches about the stage mumbling anti-jokes. Much like Charlie Brown he gives off a sad-sack vibe that makes one root for him, perhaps even want to hug him. That is, of course, unless you are one of those who don't get the joke and wish simply to hit him with an empty beer bottle. The joke is that Hamburger is more about concept than comedy.
James Hunt Tsai
Neil Hamburger isn't a terrible comedian; he just plays one onstage.
When I first saw Hamburger, I paid little attention to the tuxedoed man catching hell from what seemed like an unusually tough crowd. The pure hatred he attracted soon caught my attention, though, as he told one bad joke after the other (if one could even call those bombs "jokes"). I'd been to Trees on new-band night, but I had never seen anything this failed before. My mind attempted to wrap around this wretched spectacle of an opening act. "No one could be this horrible," I thought. "How did he end up on this bill?" Finally, the epiphany came: "Neil Hamburger is as much a bad comedian as the band GWAR is from outer space." He's an actor playing a terrible comedian, not a terrible comedian.
Hamburger's origins vary a little story to story, but the gist is the same. He claims to have begun comedy as a form of "performance therapy" either while in a program for troubled teens or at the advice of his therapist. "They would make you talk about your problems onstage at a comedy club open-mike night," Hamburger says. "Despite the fact that the small audience wasn't particularly receptive, from the first minute I was hooked!" He counters that tale with another: "I was forced into it by The State. And, from the outset, it wasn't so much an attraction. It was more a feeling that there was nothing else for me, that I'm in an endless loop." He also claims that past managers have advised him to get out while he still can, but he continues soldiering on. Part of this could be that the team behind this man drives him like a machine. Literally. "My current management is pretty automated," Hamburger says. "I speak to them pretty rarely. They're based in Fresno, California, but I think it's mostly a computer program that generates bookings at pizza parlors and such."
He also has a reason to keep going, he says: "I have too many famous taglines to quit now; someone has to be out there 365 days a year, 365 years a century saying these things." The "things" he refers to are such trademarks as the declaration "Thaaaat's my life" or the "Zipper Schtick," which have anchored past shows such as gigs warming up crowds for bands like Trans Am, Guided By Voices, Mr. Bungle and Tenacious D. "That has put me in front of audiences I would not reach on my own, even if all they did was boo," he says.
Hamburger claims to drive 800 miles between shows, live in roadside motels, survive on lots of fast food and canned fruit and asks nothing more than a pitcher of water and a chair to sit on when he arrives. "Nothing ever changes," he says. "You just keep plugging away." At least that's the story he's sticking to.