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It's no cakewalk being America's Funnyman. Just ask Neil Hamburger.
"These people are degenerate gamblers," he says, speaking about the hostile audience in his recent concert DVD, Live at the Phoenix Greyhound, filmed at an Arizona dog track. "And face it: A lot of them have serious drinking problems. So when they're confronted with a comedian, just a simple, hardworking guy trying to lighten their burden with the gift of laughter Well, let's just say they don't respond well at all."
To hear Hamburger tell it, few respond well to his valiant attempts to deliver this particular gift. And despite warm reactions during his last Houston visit ("a lot of whooping, some hollering") he doesn't seem sanguine about the prospects for his upcoming show on January 29 at Walter's.
"I'm hopeful, but this whole tour has been a disaster." Hamburger lets out a baleful sigh. "Of course, I could say the same thing about the last two decades. I just have to keep on working in hope of eventually paying off my alimony and bank loans. Plus I owe a lot of money for delinquent payments on storage lockers all over the country."
Hamburger claims that he performs 365 nights a year. "There are some nights that I don't work, but those are cancellations. It doesn't really count as a day off when you drive 800 miles to a club only to be told your services are no longer required." But, to paraphrase Hamburger's most famous catchphrase, thaaaat's hiiis liiiife.
Hamburger's speaking voice, which can be heard on five CDs released over the last eight years on Chicago's Drag City Records, is the flat moan of the perpetual loser, equal parts tired resignation and pre-emptive apology. On stage he slumps and slouches, nursing tumblers of booze that he hides unsuccessfully under a shiny tuxedo jacket, punctuating his shameless onslaught of one-liners with deafening fits of coughing.
"I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen," he simpered midway through a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. "I've been saddled with some substandard material." After his next joke bombed he blithely blurted out, "Hey, I've got cancer."
The astute reader might protest at this point that something's not adding up here. I mean, if this Hamburger guy is such a hard-luck case, what is he doing with multiple releases on one of the hippest indie-rock labels out there, not to mention appearing on national television?
There are no simple answers. Those who have spent their lives with one ear glued to the ground might remember the earliest appearances of "Neil Hamburger" in a series of early-1990s prank-call tapes (reissued in 2000 on Ipecac Records as part of the Great Phone CallsCD) in which "Neil" typically and hopelessly harasses employees of comedy clubs to book his act sight unseen. Back then there was no earthly reason to believe that any such person existed, and the incompetent comic was largely presumed to be the off-the-cuff creation of an ex-member of defunct San Francisco area dada-rockers the Zip Code Rapists.
By 1996, though, this comedic shade appeared to have developed corporeal form. After a few seven-inch vinyl records with titles such as Bartender, The Laughs Are On Me, Drag City, home of Will Oldham, U.S. Maple and early Pavement, signed Neil Hamburger and unleashed the full-length America's Funnyman CD onto an unsuspecting and apathetic public. Even for those in the know, this marriage of record label and oddball comedian was more than a little weird; stranger still was the recording itself.
America's Funnymancultivated a deliciously queasy, tense vibe, capturing the hapless Hamburger living out of suitcases and storage lockers, depressed and on the verge of divorce, doggedly forcing the aforementioned "gift of laughter" onto unwilling recipients and then inexorably collapsing into abject self-pity and suicidal ideation, while never quite giving up. In a way, this funnyman's dedication in the face of persistent horrible failure could be seen as a vision of the American dream gone horribly awry. His story begs the question, What if we "believe in ourselves" and stick to our guns in the face of impossible odds and still have nothing to show for it?
Provocative stuff. And funny, too, at least for those with a streak of ironic sadomasochism in their comedic tastes. Of course, when Hamburger had just one CD, there was still little reason to believe that he was an actual person, as opposed to a character. And in all honesty, this remains the case to this day. It doesn't seem to matter much, though. By the time of his 1999 CD, Left for Dead in Malaysia, on which a desperate Hamburger can be heard performing an increasingly sodden and existentially pointed concert in front of a non-English-speaking audience in a foreign land, Hamburger had attained the status of a modern, digitally disseminated, folk legend -- a Stoop-Shouldered Tale, if you will. Watching his development, one was hard-pressed not to think of Andy Kaufman, that tireless perpetrator of mainstream hoaxes. Specifically, one is reminded of Kaufman's old-time-showbiz lounge lizard alter ego Tony Clifton, a loud-mouthed, larger-than-life, entirely fictional loser who forever denied any affiliation with Kaufman. Which brings us back to cancer.
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