America’s Funnyman Opens Up
Jun 01, 2011 #36 - Music vs. Comedy
Of all of the comedians who traverse the landscape stretching between the music and comedy scenes, it’s possible that none has become more synonymous with that intersection than Neil Hamburger. Wearing a tuxedo and a greasy comb-over, the alter ego of Gregg Turkington emerged in the early ’90s and became a curiously cranky counterpoint to the sardonically detached underground comedians of the era, delivering question/answer jokes in poor taste and with bad timing. As such, he was as much performance art provocateur as conventional comedian, and his shows became legendary for his ability to get under the skin of those who weren’t in on the joke, often trading insults (and sometimes thrown drinks) with those who were interrupting his shows. For whatever reason, many of those who actually were in on the joke were musicians, and Hamburger’s show became a daring choice as an opening act for bands such as Trans Am, Guided By Voices, and The Melvins. Along the way, he became a go-to guest for Tom Green’s House Tonight, released a country album with 2008’s Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners, and got heckled and booed all around the world. (In fact, at 2010’s Reading Festival, Hamburger had to be removed from the stage for his own safety due to thrown items and fans who were storming the stage.) Always in character, here Hamburger reviews the relationship between music and comedy, examines the heckler mentality, and explains why Britney Spears should be institutionalized.
Matt Fink: How are you doing today, Neil?
Neil Hamburger: Oh, we’re hanging in there, considering the circumstances. It’s a difficult time for entertainers. But that’s okay. It’s not your concern.
I’m sorry to hear that. Is that because of the economy?
I’m just saying these are hard times. Probably mainly for me, but for some other comedians and musicians, as well.
So you’ve always toured with a lot of bands and have a lot of fans in the music scene. How did that come about?
We did an album by the name of America’s Funnyman with the Drag City label, so, of course, they’re a music label. Thus, by doing the album, we were getting a lot of music listeners. From then on, it continued in that direction. The next few albums were selling mainly to these music people. The standup comedians, if they make albums at all, they are a different type of album and generally are on these weird record labels. The logo is some sort of chattering teeth or something, which really is not very appealing for most folks.
Do you think there’s something specific about your act that appeals more to music fans?
I think that a lot of them have had a chance to see the show. Yeah, I have a lot of these music kids that are excited with what’s going on with the show, but by the same token, I sure have had a lot of music fans who have wanted to kill me and were throwing things. I probably do have more music fans than most comedians do, but I’ve also got probably more detractors in the music community, if you can call it that.
Is there a different dynamic when you’re sharing the stage with musical acts as opposed to other comedians?
It’s one thing if I’m playing one of these musical clubs, and I’m headlining there, it’s always going to be a good show. But when I’m opening up for one of these fad bands, and I’ve done a lot of them believe me, I’m pretty much prepared for the worst. Sometimes it has been the living end for true horror for some of these shows that I’ve done, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
Why do you think some audiences react so badly?
With a lot of these kids, it’s a setup. I did a show at the Reading Festival, and I was set up, because the kids were there, and they want to see these hell bands. They want to see Limp Bizkit and Guns n’ Roses and that sort of thing, so the moment someone comes out in a tuxedo, it has very little to do with what I’m saying and has everything to do what they’re expecting and wanting to see, which is a bunch of dirty, longhaired scumbags ineptly playing this garbage music. If someone comes out in a tuxedo, they start booing and throwing things before the first word is out of my mouth, and, of course, when people are throwing things at you, the first word that does come out of your mouth tends to be a little on the negative side, perhaps even a bit belligerent. So the whole thing starts out on the wrong foot.
Sometimes I’m surprised. We did a series of shows with Faith No More last year where there definitely some detractors, some negative nellies, but there were also plenty of my own fans there, and the level of antagonism was much less than expected. I did a couple of shows in Australia last year with Bad Religion and NOFX. That would not seem to be a good pairing, and so I told them immediately I did not want to be doing those shows, because I’ve done plenty of shows with these punk rock-type bands, and it’s just a recipe for having bottles thrown at you, and after a couple of years that gets a little old. So I turned these shows down, but they were very adamant that they wanted me to do them. So, eventually I was approached by their teams saying, “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. If you’ll do the shows, we’ll guarantee that no glass is served to the punters,” as they call them in Australia. “All the drinks will be served in plastic cups, and no one will be given a water bottle with the cap on,” because that’s another thing that they throw. So I went ahead and did the shows, and, honestly, it wasn’t that bad. Maybe not having things to throw helped. Maybe these kids have grown up, because, honestly, the guys in these bands look like hell. They look like they’re in their 90s. So you’ve got a bunch of 90-year-old bald guys playing this music to a youth crowd, and the youth crowd has grown up, and a lot of them look like they’re going to be on their first liver transplant, as well. They get a little bit more well behaved.
These 16-year-old kids—that’s where you get your worst crowds. The younger ones will always be trying to impress their buddies, and they’re willing to throw something. That’s always the worst, and that was the worst at the Reading Festival. I think it was a 4:00 slot, and at the last minute, I had got their early, and they said, “One of the other comedians who is performing on this stage is running late. Would you mind switching slots with him?” I always try to be an accommodating person as an entertainer, so I said, “Sure. Not a problem.” What they didn’t tell me was that the guy I was replacing is the most popular comedian in England and is their equivalent to Dane Cook. So when the MC says “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to see whatever his name is? Well, he’s not here!” and he pushes me out on stage to do some jokes at the expense of Limp Bizkit, you can see how this is not going to go well. But it wasn’t as demoralizing as people thought.
Do you think there’s any truth to the notion that people who don’t like your comedy probably don’t like themselves?
I’d like to think so, yeah. Let’s face it. How many times have you gone to see a band that you love and you have to sit through two horrible bands until you get to the one that you actually paid to see, and, generally, you use that as a chance to talk to friends and have a drink and just relax and maybe complain slightly amongst yourselves? People are very patient with an awful opening band, no matter how awful it is. But with a comedian, even though we are emitting less decibels through the sound system, it really brings out the worst in people. They have to make their mark, and they have to comment and make sure that the comedian knows their displeasure. I don’t know what to say about it, except that a lot of them probably have severe drug problems or, like you say, self-esteem problems.
Would you say you have more friends in the music scene or the comedy scene?
I would say that I despise most musicians and most comedians, but I do have some very good friends who are both. I would say that I probably have more musician friends than comedian friends, but I would also say that the disdain that I have for awful musicians would exceed the disdain I have for awful comedians for no other than the music is awfully loud.
Do you ever think you were simply born a few generations too late and that your act would have been more ideal for the Frank Sinatra generation?
I would like to think so. That’s certainly a nice daydream to have, but we have no evidence of it.
You also made a country album [Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners] a few years ago, so you’ve also mixed music and comedy. Is it more difficult to write songs than jokes?
Well, they have to rhyme, I’ll tell you that. With that album, we were trying to do what used to be known as a “personality album,” where you’ll have one of your great stars, whether it be Telly Savalas or William Shatner or David Hasselhoff, and, essentially, you’re giving fans another way to know this artists that they love so much. It’s like a souvenir for them. With that sort of album, you’re trying to capture the personality of the artist. No one is going to like an album if it’s completely unrelated to your personality, as Bill Cosby found out with a series of jazz piano albums. I was lucky enough to have some good musicians to guide me along the way, because let’s face it, I’m not a Pavarotti. I’m not a Phil Collins. So we did a country album in the style of a specific era of country and western music. These musicians that I was working with really knew their stuff, and they wanted to get the Bakersfield sound circa 1969, 1970, so that was something else we were looking at in terms of recording everything on tape and not digital. So, obviously, that’s very different than doing a comedy record or doing a comedy show. The nice thing about it is that when the record was completed, we did a few shows—probably less than a dozen—with a full band, 90 minute variety shows with a few songs and a few jokes and a few songs and a few jokes, like how you’d get in the old days. It wasn’t a concert, it wasn’t a comedy show—it was a night of variety entertainment. Not everyone wanted to see that, but we did the best we could, and we feel that we put on a legitimate show.
It seemed like you got a pretty good response with that album from country music fans.
I would like to think so, but likely not very many, because I think that when people see a comedian is doing music, their first impulse is to say, “I don’t want to hear that.” They don’t give it a chance. It wasn’t a novelty album by any means, but, unfortunately, some of the folks that discussed it would say that it was a novelty album. But it really wasn’t. It was a very serious album with laughs along the way. There were no song parodies. I saw a review in a major publication that said we were doing song parodies, but there were none on the album. The few legitimate country fans that did speak to me about the album were very happy with the record. But I think it’s one of those things that people are happy to dismiss. Most comedians that do music will do it as an add on at the end of album, whether it be Andrew “Dice” Clay or Sam Kinison. Jerry Lewis did several records with his serious vocals and then several albums with comedy vocals.
Were there particular challenges that come along with a comedian making a music release?
You do want to try to stay in tune. Nowadays for most of your singers, you get your Courtney Loves and Britney Spearses. They can come into the studio hopped up on pills, just belching into the microphone, and belching out of tune, and these technicians can solve that digitally so they sound like Maria Callas. In our case, we weren’t going to use any of that trickery. I was just going to sing. Yes, the voice might be rough by some standards, but at least it is a true, honest representation of my vocal style, whatever you think of it. At least we have that going for us.
I follow you on Twitter, and I’ve noticed that you occasionally get into little dustups with the followers of different pop stars, like Britney Spears.
Most of those people are saying “Neil, why are you picking on these kids?” but most of those Britney fans are in their 30s and are completely demented and aggressive. I’m getting death threats from these people, and they’re hardly acting like the sweet teenagers that people would have you believe that they are.
Do you think they just can’t take a joke?
I think that you have to be delusional to be following somebody who really has no talent and is a complete mess and is making records that are substandard by any human being’s standards. You look at these people’s Twitter handles, and they’re “Britney’s Army” and “Obsessed with Britney.” They are unhinged, these people. If you point out any problems with some of her performances where she’s lip-synching the whole time, which, to me, is not something that anyone should be paying for when you have entertainers who are giving their all. You have these people who go out there and mime over what really is truly ghastly music, that’s not adequate. And to get paid what this woman is getting paid for stinking up the place, you have lines of people standing and demanding refunds at the end of the show because it’s so wretched. To defend these people as if it’s some kind of war, where they’re tried to defend the leader of their country against fascism, these people really go nuts. You should see some of the death threats that I’m getting for saying that Britney Spears is eating at Carl’s Jr. a bit too often. They’re very angry people.
Does it make you angry to see talentless people make so much money when you have to work so hard to make a living?
Well, it’s not the first time that it’s happened. I think we all know that. In this case, it’s fine. She has made her million dollars, but this is a woman who is no longer equipped to be on stage. She should be in a padded cell somewhere. These people think that they’re supporting their hero, but basically they should be trying to defend her from this management that she has. These people will strut her out onto stage, clearly mentally ill, clearly with severe drug disorders and unable to sing or dance or perform in any way. And they’re pushing her out there in her underwear. If you do that with most mentally ill people, you’ll be imprisoned, and you should be. The mentally ill don’t belong on the stage in their underwear. That just isn’t right. These people are so eager to have their concert experience that they’re forgetting that this is unacceptable. That’s society today.
Do you think she’s being taken advantage of?
I think she is, and I think her fans are willing accomplices. They should be ashamed of themselves. She should take her damn money and go somewhere and get it together and stop torturing us in the meantime with this music. What would you think of a person who went to a state mental hospital, broke in at night, kidnapped someone from their room, stripped them down to their underwear, and threw them on stage to lip-synch to someone else’s vocals? That’s a crime that you would go to prison for. In this case, these people are lauded for it. To my way of thinking, it’s not the best situation, and if a comedian can’t make a couple of jokes about a situation like that, I’ve died and gone to hell.
It sounds like you see your criticism as calling attention to someone who needs help.
I’d like to think of it like that. But like I said, a lot don’t.
So what sort of future projects can we expect from you?
We wanted to do an album of I guess you could call it disco, an old style disco album like KC and Sunshine Band used to do. We were also talking about another country and western album, and there are always live comedy records and those types of records, too. Right now, nothing is in the pipeline. We had an incident in Asheville, North Carolina, recently that involved an attack by a deranged fan, and it was all recorded. There has been talk of releasing that because it’s such a frightening document. You never know. Some musical tours will come along, and if the folks in the band are nice people and it makes sense, I’ll often do these sorts of shows.
There are definitely musical tours that I would not do regardless of how nice the folks might be. Sometimes you’re just risking too much to go out and perform with these people. We did a show in Richmond, Virginia, last week, and at the show were some folks from the show Gwar, which is a very popular rock and roll-type band. And they ended up giving us a tour of their complex and showing us where they make all their costumes and that sort of thing. That was a real delight, because they were real nice people. But that’s the type of band where their fans don’t like anybody but Gwar, and anyone who opens up for them is strung up by a rope and hung by their necks until they are dead. That’s the thing that you always have to be careful about, even when the musicians themselves are nice people. It was the same with Tenacious D, when those guys where by the side of the stage every night cheering me on, and in the meantime people are throwing everything they could think of and screaming their lungs out trying to get me to stop. That’s what we’re up against. I’ve been playing with these bands for over 12 years or something. It does get a little bit old. They’re real sourpusses, people who really don’t want to have fun. They just want to make a mess of the evening for everybody.
I’ve read some people who say that you actually relish those sorts of negative responses.
That’s something that I’ve read, too, but I don’t see why anybody would really like something like that. It is nice to have a variety of types of audiences, different sorts of folks, rather than just playing for these comedy club creeps, who, a lot of them are stockbrokers who work for the very companies that are pursuing me and saying that I owe them money. Some of these banks and bill collection agencies will send their very employees out to comedy club as a morale boosting thing. Well, it doesn’t raise my morale to perform for these vermin who are not only after me but after so many of my friends in the world of comedy and music, because, as you know, there’s a lot more money to be made in foreclosing on people’s houses than in telling jokes or singing songs.
(The opinions expressed in this interview, especially those about Britney Spears, are those of Neil Hamburger and do not reflect the opinions of Matt Fink, Under the Radar’s publishers, or Under the Radar as a whole.)
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