Neil Hamburger is served up with a side of yucks
COMEDY DVD/CD When comedian Neil Hamburger appeared in the mid-’90s, he didn't exactly burst onto the scene. He floundered, groaned, and groveled his way through jokes that have often been deemed intentionally bad. "It's so bad it's good!" went the typical assessment of the comedian's act — an assessment that's not only insensitive but also a bit simplistic. Hamburger may not have been the smoothest, most polished comedian, but no one tried harder or battled against longer odds, and his willingness to muddle forth in the face of repeated failure and humiliation was at least mildly inspiring.
Based on his early track record, Hamburger's recent success — appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a role in an upcoming Jack Black movie, sold-out shows at the Hemlock Tavern — has been unexpected. Listen to his earliest albums, 1996's America's Funnyman and 1998's Raw Hamburger (both Drag City), and you'll find there's not a lot of laughter. Groaning, hissing, clanking silverware, and ringing slot machines, yes. But not many genuine laughs. Since those days, his persistent cough has gotten worse, and his jokes have grown more offensive, yet his audiences have grown bigger. The younger rock ’n' roll audiences he plays to have been much more receptive to his hard-R-rated humor as well as his Q&A-style delivery ("Why did God invent Gene Simmons? To boost sales of the morning-after pill") than to the more observational musings of his earlier sets.
The recent Drag City DVD, The World's Funnyman, offers a window into Hamburger's evolution. The feature is more or less a typical Hamburger show circa anytime since 2003, featuring off-color jokes about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other top stars. The highlights of the DVD, however, are relegated to the special features section: two minidocumentaries, Neil Hamburger in Australia and the Canadian-made America's Funnyman, along with a video for his song "Seven-Elevens," from the 2002 album Laugh Out Lord (Drag City). Best of all, though, is the black-and-white cinematic depiction of scenes from Left for Dead in Malaysia (Drag City, 1999), perhaps the darkest and most trying of Hamburger's albums. Basically, the audience doesn't understand a word he's saying, but that doesn't stop him from treating it like any show. After all, as he notes, "some things transcend the language barrier — like a disinterested audience." The credits mention that this is a teaser for a feature-length film entitled Funny Guy–itis. If that's true, then please, someone get this guy a movie deal and finish it, pronto.
There are those who claim that Neil Hamburger is actually the alter ego of former Amarillo Records head Gregg Turkington, but then again, these are the sort of folks who argue that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, that Batman is really Bruce Wayne. There's no hard evidence. Still, some of Hamburger's most harped-upon themes are echoed on Turkington's most recent efforts, on the Golding Institute's Final Relaxation (Ipecac). Coproduced with Australian television producer Brendan Walls, the album is billed as "your ticket to death through hypnotic suggestion." As the extremely creepy narrator, Turkington stresses that certain people are not qualified to participate, including "pregnant or lactating women" and "those who have booked expensive overseas vacations or plane tickets."
Obviously, Final Relaxation is not 100 percent effective — otherwise I'd be writing this from beyond the grave. Still, the disc casts a disturbing enough pall over the listening environment, with Turkington offering up plenty of negative reinforcements ("You will not be able to cook like a television chef. Your time on earth will be spent failing") and bizarre commands ("Please, please break some of the teeth in your head — for me") amid Walls's sickly electronic noises. It's not a laugh-a-minute affair, but like many of Hamburger's albums, it walks a fine line between cringe-inducing ineptitude and head-scratching ridiculousness. And yes, that's an endorsement. SFBG