The world of stand-up comedy is a bold and treacherous one at that. Take it from me, someone who’s actually been there! Well in all honesty, I’ve never actually been on-stage performing live, in front of some sauced-up crowd at a nightclub – although I have walked past the Improv and Comedy Store a few times – and Foster Brooks once vomited on my shoes. And I’m sure that must count for something? Either way, anyone with an occupation where you have to entertain or perform for crowds of strangers, use your off-the-cuff wit (if you have any at all), all the while getting heckled by some annoying prick (or bitch) who’s only there to “cut-loose” at one of their co-workers birthday parties – well, those folks should probably get an award or trophy of some sort. I’m talking about stand-up comics, not actors in dinner theatre.
“You know, a sales award for breaking some sort of sales record in the local town; I don’t know how many copies we’ve sold here in Iowa City?” deadpans Neil Hamburger seated in his wooden booth at The Mill. “Perhaps enough to warrant some sort of awards ceremony?”
It’s a brisk November evening at The Mill in Iowa City, Iowa, aka “The Heartland of America!” And though there will be no award ceremony for excellence in sales tonight, this is where I find one of today’s most talented and hilariously underrated stand-up comics – the ever-elusive Neil Hamburger.
“They’ve got a Salmon and Penny Pasta Special tonight. Although I’m not going to eat any of the food.” He explains. “I think [the food] is probably pretty good. I mean this is a big place. It’s all wooden seating – it’s probably got seating for three hundred people and there are all these wooden booths built into to it. So it’s sort of a sit-down show, but an odd one, in that the tables aren’t all facing the stage. A lot of people will be facing each other eating? So I don’t know what’s gonna happen here?”
Not exactly your typical comedy club, but then again, Neil Hamburger is definitely not your typical comedian.
“I have never played at The Mill before in my life.” He remarks sarcastically. “So I’m excited.”
Most patrons of comedy clubs and listeners of comedy albums aren’t really that familiar with who Neil Hamburger is. The name rings a bell, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Though with five albums already under his belt, and a collection of 7” singles (one of which is entitled ‘Tribute To Princess Di’) Hamburger is certainly no stranger to the stage or album charts.
“We’re looking into doing some Country Western recordings.”
After sifting through my Penny Pasta Salad, I suggest that perhaps he should do a cover of “Jack and Diane” to see if that gets the ball rolling? >”Hey, if you’ve got a band that you wanna put together to back me up on that, and get us a recording contract with Geffen, or just about anybody really. I’d say let’s do it; let’s get that thing on the charts!” He pauses for a moment, and wistfully looks around at the heavily wooded room in which he’ll be performing in a few hours and states, “If we could tap into that market, well the sky’s the limit!”
He seems to be one of those comics that are constantly “on.” Dressed in his standard uniform tuxedo, Neil represents an era of comedy that has long since disappeared in this age of irony and cynicism. His shtick is simply that – an obviously contrived routine, which he employs night after night. He wears his trademark comb-over like a crown, while cradling several drinks in his arms – operating his microphone with restricted movement as to avoid spilling his cocktails.
But what kinds of people (besides you) really know who Neil Hamburger is? What kinds of fans attend his shows? “Our fans are good people,” Neil ruminates. “Good hometown people. But a lot of them don’t have the big incomes. We tend to have a lot of the less fortunate in the crowd. Now, if we could get some of these billionaire tycoons to the shows?” As he brings up the subject of billionaires, I query as to if either of the Hilton sisters has seen his show? “Those girls yeah, if you know them, see if you can get them to the show. If they wanna do a little dance or something as the opening act, hey I’m not gonna stop them.”
And who would? Probably Mr. Hilton.
“I would love to do work out a deal with the Hilton Hotel people to do some sort of endorsement for their product in exchange for free rooms. Because, ya know, that’s your top end Hotel.”
When asked about his ties to the Hilton Empire he deadpans, “Well I’ve stayed at many Hilton Hotels, so I feel that I’m very familiar with this family.” Adding, “When you end up in one of those, you know you’ve made it.”
What would seem to be a much more fitting endorsement for Neil Hamburger would be from the Phoenix Greyhound Park, where he filmed his latest offering of side splitting humor, his DVD “The Show Must Go Off!” Though unfortunately, his annual stop at the Phoenix dog track has been…rescheduled? “In the lounge there they have a lot of other functions that happen in there.” Explains Hamburger. “Whether it’s a bachelor party or (pauses), God knows what? It was just booked out for the day we wanted.”
Adding “Somebody will probably fill it in with another show, probably not as good of a show either. It just means that’s its one more night that I have off. Which is a rarity! Occasionally they can’t find something and at the last minute I end up with a night free to watch HBO at the Hotel Room. ”
Hamburger’s cult status amongst the underground world of music is more than likely where the sole source of his audience is derived from. Often headlining for bands that exist on “the cutting edge” of rock! Hamburger has shared the stage with Will Oldham, Smog and oddly enough The Foo Fighters. I suppose I’ve opened for a number of bands?” Reminisces Hamburger. “Everyone from M000r. Bungle to Tenacious D to Guided By Voices – remember them? GBV? Remember their hits?”
There are very few comedians in touch with today’s music scene, and fortunately Neil Hamburger is one of them. He’s called the staunchly independent Drag City label out of Chicago his home for many years now and doesn’t seem a need to move onward or upward. “There’s been talk of another album and another DVD, and we’re hoping to get those projects underway. I know Drag City has been compiling some rare footage for a deluxe DVD package in the future at some point. All I can say is you just wanna keep an eye on the marketplace and see what comes up on offer. And if it’s more Carrot Top by all means pass on it. If it’s Neil Hamburger, please do yourself a favor, and do me a favor and buy the thing, cuz’ it’s gonna go out of style soon, and the stores won’t even carry it and then what? Then where am I?” Although his words sound bleak and obtuse – bare in mind it’s all part of his act.
He recently appeared on the fledgling “Jimmy Kimmel LIVE” show on “some corporate network” and has since been asked to make another appearance in early November 2003. “I mean this is a showcase really,” explains Hamburger. “A national spotlight is put on you, and you gotta do the best you can do. So this is a real good opportunity, and we’re of course hoping that we can help boost the ratings of this show a bit, because I know they do need it.”
And how does appearing on Network television favor in Mr. Hamburger’s book? “You have a few drinks, get on T.V. tell a few jokes, ya know? Doesn’t that sound good to you? It sure sounds better than getting kicked in the old uh – you know what I’m talking about.”
Not once during our conversation did Neil Hamburger utter a single curse word. Not once did he elude to any wild sexual tales of being “on the road.” Even when I brought up the Hilton sisters, all he could think of them doing was a “little dance” as his opening act! Well, at least that’s what he told me – his thoughts however, are his own private Iowa City.
His ability to stay in character is uncanny. Exuberating the kind of vibe that only a few great comedians like Andy Kaufman or Lenny Bruce can, I ask Mr. Hamburger if he has any Springer-esque final thoughts? “I don’t wanna give final thoughts because, ya know – I’m not sick. I do think it would be good if you could somehow encourage these kids to be a little bit more wise with how they spend their time in the next few years. Because I think that a lot of these video games and television shows and all that, is not as good as just attending an old fashioned comedy show.” “When one comes to your town, especially one featuring ‘America’s Funnyman’ Neil Hamburger; if you could somehow plead with these kids, encourage these kids to get outta the house and come out and laugh and laugh and laugh until their sides split and they need stitches to keep their guts in. Ya know what I’m talking about?” I agree and nod my head. “That could make the world a better place.”
As I sorted through the remains of my “Penny Pasta Salad”, I realized that this may be one of the only times I may actually come this close to greatness. Not just that kind of greatness you can get on a key-chain at some annual Catholic Charities picnic-sack-race-giveaway. But the kind of greatness that approaches you in a Tuxedo with several cocktails in hand and a comb-over that should be trademarked.
We exchanged our blessings and farewells as I headed off into the night air. As I walked away, Neil uttered several words that will always remain with my journalistic heart and me. “You think anyone’s gonna read this?”