Neil Hamburger

America’s Funnyman

(Drag City)

By Jay Ruttenberg

There’s not very much comedy left in stand-up comedy. Everyone with any insight or charm has his own sitcom by now, and with all those cable television channels to fill, any dimwit with a cheap sport coat and a spiral notebook (for his “societal observations”) can now turn a buck kvetching about airplane food and sex.

So for years I’ve waited for a stand-up comedian to come along and build an entire act around making fun of stand-up comedians. Shoot down once and for all those hilarious zingers about furtively buying a pack of rubbers at the quickie mart only to be exposed by the vociferous price checker, oafs who leave toilet seats up, cabbies with unpronounceable names and poor grammar, Wheel of Fortune contestants. But with the exception of one Jerry Seinfeld-hosted Saturday Night Live skit and the occasional Simpsons dig, stand-up’s glaring inanities go unchecked, probably because the people responsible for execrating the jokes are the ones cracking them in the first place. This leaves America in the old “who’s-gonna-protect-us-from-the-police?” lurch: Who’s gonna make fun of the comedians?

Although he never quite gives contemporary stand-up the smack in the face it so deserves, the fictional Neil Hamburger takes some prisoners via the nearly extinct format of the comedy LP. Hamburger, the creation of prolific Bay Area quirk rocker Gregg Turkington, is presented “onstage” gauchely delivering a god-awful performance. Turkington (whose better-known endeavors include the Amarillo record label, the zine Breakfast With Meat, and the band Zip Code Rapists) is only alluded to in production and copyright credits, and even stays in character for interviews and the record’s spelling-disabled liner notes, a “Special Edition!” of “Neil Hamburger Newsletter.”

He initially adopted the persona for some bits on an Amarillo crank-call compilation (Hamburger telephones comedy clubs attempting to get booked), but as a full-fledged character Turkington/Hamburger takes an approach to parody perhaps more familiar to his musical contemporaries than his comedic ones.

The 44-track, half-hour-long America’s Funnyman places the comedian on various bottom-barrel nightclub stages across the country. In a geeky Mister Rogers tone, he stumbles through feeble stabs at marriage, celebrity liver transplants (“The way my career’s been going lately, if I needed a liver transplant I’m sure I’d go immediately to the end of the list”), and frivolous lawsuits. Predictably he’s greeted by mostly unsatisfied audiences who respond to the comic’s ineptitude with either complete reticence or puerile heckling.

Occasionally, however, Turkington grants his character an idiotically delighted audience, and this is where America’s Funnyman hits the bull’s-eye. After all, the funniest part of the Saturday Night Live Seinfeld satire was the studio audience’s reaction: the crowd seemed to miss the point, laughing at the intentionally bad jokes rather than at their intended banality. What’s really weird about bad comedians is how hard the American public laughs at their oh-it’s-so truisms.

When Neil Hamburger blurts out the word “condoms,” his ersatz crowd goes wild. “I said it,” he continues. “Condoms? [audience giggling] I went into the store to get a few of them and you just can’t do that without causing a scene….The cashier looks at me and says ‘Oh, would you like a salami with those? [roars of laughter]….Or a couple of doughnut holes? [clapping] How ’bout a jar of peanuts? [ohhhhh!] Or maybe a package of Ding Dongs?’ [more giggling] Well of course I was humiliated, but–that’s my life! [intense clapping and woooing].” When the comedian attempts to rouse his audience by pointing out that the show is being recorded, the crowd goes uncontrollably wild in an attempt to get immortalized on tape, culminating with a man storming the stage and barking “METALLICA!!!” directly into the microphone.

Ironically, Neil Hamburger fails when Neil Hamburger fails: the frequent album segments in which the comedian bombs can be downright agonizing. In choosing the persona of this relatively tame, middled-aged failure, Turkington makes things a bit too obvious, taking a path already paved in gold by Bill Murray and Andy Kaufman, among others. Unfortunately the bulk of the album is devoted to Neil Hamburger’s failure, and while it can be somewhat amusing on the weight of its awkwardness, it’s mostly a chore to listen to. Deliberately provoking far more cringes than laughs, the record becomes confrontational.

“The lines are close enough to parody to allow the audience to laugh, but many find themselves squirming,” Nat Hentoff wrote–not about Neil Hamburger, the alleged worst comedian of all time, but about Lenny Bruce, the alleged greatest. Both Bruce and Turkington are products of their times, and more specifically of those times’ musical vanguards. Lenny Bruce emerged not from the traditional stand-up scene but rather from a jazz background. His work, steeped in jazz’s improvisation, hipster jive, and overall dexterity, was found threatening to comedy. Turkington comes from indie rock, and his work is bathed in that genre’s wink-wink snottiness, calculated sloppiness, and inchoate irony. Like Bruce, Turkington is best when he turns the focus back onto the American public. But where Bruce’s racially progressive jokes made his audiences uncomfortable in order to teach them something, Turkington’s extended prank just makes us uncomfortable.

Both music and comedy have hit a brick wall; they’re both struggling to advance after the boundaries they once relished shattering have all been, well, shattered. Subversive comedians and musicians alike must work harder now than ever to raise society’s collective eyebrows. Nothing’s shocking; it is no longer enough just to be brazen and ugly or to record in your bedroom or even to be Devo. In underground music, as the pool of options dries up, we’re left with a film of irony that threatens to smother the craft; it’s visible as the disingenuous smirk plastered on the mugs of Urge Overkill, Ween, Man or Astroman?, and the Railroad Jerk Blues Explosion. America’s Funnyman eliminates the oft-superfluous music and gets right to the point.

It’s especially appropriate that Turkington has enlisted Neil Hamburger in Drag City’s army. Many independent record labels define themselves by a sound, but Drag City’s melting-pot roster is united by a shared pursuit of irreverence in the face of the mainstreaming of underground music. Former Slint bassist Ethan Buckler deserted punk rock for the arguably more provocative goofball funk of King Kong; Palace and Pavement have encouraged their own mystique with pseudonyms; Royal Trux and the Silver Jews started out making consummately abrasive records, pushing the limits of what indie-rock’s self-proclaimed open-minded audience would tolerate.

Neil Hamburger manages all of the above without even picking up an instrument. But while the aesthetic message is successfully transmitted–hell, it’s hammered home–the transmission itself is almost worthless: America’s Funnyman is basically unlistenable–as it has to be to validate its thesis. America’s Funnyman is a 35-minute one-liner.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Neil Hamburger album cover.