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I'm a Loser, Baby

What motivates Neil Hamburger? Unpaid bank loans, alimony and delinquent storage locker accounts.
James Hunt Tsai

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 Calls CD) 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 Funnyman cultivated 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.

"The cancer is real," Hamburger confirms when pressed on the subject. "But it's undiagnosed. Just a general cancer, all over. I know because of little signs, like if I drop a hammer on my foot it hurts more than it used to, that kind of thing."

When informed that Kaufman's unproduced screenplay for The Tony Clifton Story climaxed with the title character dying of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles (spookily, the location of the real Kaufman's actual death of real lung cancer a few years later), Hamburger is circumspect. "I believe that people do put themselves in the way of things like that through the choices they make." As an example of this sort of karma in action, Hamburger cites an obituary he recently read about a guy who ran a mortuary all his life. "This man surrounds himself with death for years and years and then -- bam -- at age 92 he's gone. I mean, if he'd chosen a career as a baseball player, he might still be with us today."

On every one of his CDs, Hamburger is bedeviled by unresponsive or outright hateful audiences who leave him swinging from a noose of dead air, marinating in his own flop sweat. Strangely, though, people at many of his appearances on the material plane do actually laugh, and laugh hard. A standing-room-only appearance attended by this writer at Chicago's Rainbo Room in early 2001 was chockablock with convulsed and happy customers.

"I have very little to do with the content of the actual records," Hamburger avers in the face of this seeming contradiction. "These recording-executive types put out what they think is the best product they can muster, and for some reason they always seem to record me on the night I'm playing a pizza stand in front of four people in Pueblo, Colorado, for instance, as opposed to some hot showcase full of hip fans. I don't know why that is."

Hamburger admits that appearing on Jimmy Kimmel has increased attendance at his nightclub concerts, but in his typical, negativist style he immediately zeroes in on a downside. "I think it was a guy named Albert Einstein who had a theory, something about a pyramid, which I believe applies here. There's simply more dissatisfaction the higher you go."

So will success spoil Neil Hamburger?

"No, I believe that's impossible. How could it? I've already been completely destroyed by failure. Ruined, left to rot. The worst that success could do to me at this point is make me into the human equivalent of one of those horrible petrified apple necklaces you see around people's necks sometimes. Have you seen those things? Just terrible."

Terrible indeed. And on this subject, at least, we know that Neil Hamburger is an absolute expert.


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