Neil Hamburger is an interesting character. A stand-up comedian, Mr. Hamburger specializes in jokes that are, well, not funny. In fact, his style has been called "anti-comedy".

However, in some twisted, ironic way, he can be very amusing (Or maybe his fans are just extreme masochists.) And don't think this is one of those tongue-in-cheek things. Neil delivers his jokes with an attitude that makes you truly believe that he finds his own stuff funny, and perhaps this is where the humor lies.

It's not suprising that Neil's albums are distributed on Drag City, known for its unusual artists and interesting tastes.

When his audiences aren't heckling him, they're just talking through his performance. In fact, one of Neil's albums, Left for Dead in Malaysia, features him doing standup in front of a crowd that doesn't even speak English.

i just got a chance to see neil hamburger tonight, opening up for trans am. i must say i enjoyed it quite a bit, although i seemed to be one of the only ones who "got it"

to add to pziemba's description, his act seems to be that of a bad 70's comedian, ill-fitting rumpled suit, a wilted flower pinned to it, stringy greasy hair laying flat on his head, out-of-style glasses, he repeatedly coughed and cleared his throat into the microphone just to annoy the crowd. a rimshot would have been appropriate afer every joke.

some of my favorites:

  • why are m&m's filled with chocolate?
    because it would be illegal to fill them with shit!
  • why did kfc change its name from kentucky fried chicken?
    because they were embarrassed by kentucky's low SAT scores
  • why did the chicken cross the road?
    to take pictures of princess di dead in her car
  • any blink 182 fans here tonight?
    jeers and boos from crowd
    (with complete deadpan seriousness): really? well you look like a blink 182 kind of crowd.
    if you'd ever seen the crowd at any post-rock show you'd understand
  • after losing his place while ostricizing some hecklers:
    where was i? was this the religous part of the set or the humorous part of the set? oh that's right, it's the religous part.
    he then goes on to tell a jesus joke that i won't even dare repeat lest i be cursed or nuked
  • after pausing a while, looks at a piece of paper he has with him:
    no, that one's not funny.

i get the feeling this is losing a lot in my telling, you just have to experience his delivery to get the full effect. do yourself a favor, if you ever have the chance, go see neil hamburger

In getting tickets to a Guided by Voices show, I happened to talk to the venue’s booker about Neil, whom GbV had chosen as their opening act. "I don’t know about this," the booker said. "I hear he's really hard to get off the stage. They tell me people throw bottles at him." Luckily for the booker, Neil started on time and left promptly, which left me feeling a little ripped off from the real Neil Hamburger experience.

I've since learned that Neil will sometimes wait and wait and wait beyond the start time, then take the stage and do his horrible act, which becomes quite the endurance test. It’s probably how he draws such vicious heckling. That trick works only if the audience isn’t prepared for it ... and being a Bay Area native himself (as far as I can tell), Neil probably figured the San Jose and San Francisco crowds were inured to his act. In fact, many of them "sang along" with his catch phrase. (But Thaaaaaaat's my life!)

There's a very Andy Kaufman kind of unreality around Neil. To wit: He claims his year in Australia, touring with Mr. Bungle and with Oz act Frenzal Rhomb, was done in order to escape legal problems back home. In several interviews available on the Web he mentions a TV special taped for Taiwanese TV, but says the project was scrapped and wound up on Korean TV instead. He has claimed repeatedly that he doesn't like doing the R-rated material ("It's this club that demands it," he told us at The Fillmore). Allegedly he's got an album of religious humor in the works, called Laugh Out Lord.

True or false?

To my knowledge, he's never been interviewed out of character (he denies there is a character), and I've found no background info on him. He got his start in 1992 on the Amarillo Records compilation, Great Phone Calls, in which he telephoned a comedy club and spontaneously auditioned by reciting some of his Henny-Youngman-from-hell one-liners. His album Left for Dead in Malaysia was recorded in Kuala Lumpur before a non-English-speaking audience; you can imagine the effect he had on them. Pizza parlors were apparently his main source of gigs for the early years -- at least that's what he says in interviews -- but he's been adopted by the indie-rock/avant-rock crowd and has opened for plenty of bands like Bungle, GbV and I Am Spoonbender.

As for the act itself ... Aside from the questionable jokes, his pacing is amazingly bad. Long bouts of coughing and/or clearing his throat don't help. For hecklers, he's got some stock responses that are just as bizarre as the jokes.

Thing is ... his act been running through my head ever since I saw him. And to respond to cody ... if that Jesus joke is the one I'm thinking of (the version we got was "What's the difference between Jesus and Tom Cruise"), you were right not to print it here. :)

You really have to see Neil Hamburger once. You don't know what you're missing -- whether that's good or bad, you decide.

-- WFMU interview:
-- The Onion (a real interview):
-- SF Weekly:
-- Very Neil-like interview at Crimewave:

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