Neil Hamburger on Flat Tires, Carrot Top and Destiny
Photo by Robyn Von Swank
You're never quite sure where you are when you talk to Neil Hamburger. The standup walks a fine line that can leave you dancing between genuine reality and some bizarre universe where you're not sure if the hand you hold in front of your face is real or even your own.
The first time I called the great Neil Hamburger, he apologized and asked if he could call me back because he had a flat tire while driving just outside of Paso Robles, California, and was stuck in some mechanic's waiting room complete with what sounded like a small group of kids laughing and crying in the background. It made me wonder if he was actually in a service station or if his real world alter ego Gregg Turkington was just creating the whole incident to add to the cheap mystique that is America's Funnyman.
Either way, the actual Neil Hamburger will perform live and in person with musician Alvarius B tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Sons of Hermann Hall. He spoke to Mixmaster about his history of performing shows in Dallas/Fort Worth, writing jokes about the Doobie Brothers while touring Australia and (what else?) Carrot Top.
Sorry to hear about your flat tire. I hope it wasn't serious or didn't happen while you were driving.
Well, it's serious in that it's indicative of the general decline in quality of the goods produced and sold here in America, which is a very serious situation.
That's very astute of you. You're like the last of the great road comics. Is that also indicative of your touring?
It's nice of you to say that. We do have some problems due to the shoestring nature of this sort of entertainment circuit, if you know what I'm saying. We don't have the private jets and things like that. I've heard about some of these rock and roll bands where they'll travel with a bus for each guy. We're lucky if we can even get a ticket on the Greyhound Bus. You know what I'm saying? However, you leave that all behind, any sort of bitterness or feelings of unfairness when you step on the stage. Then you give it your all and what it's all about is giving people the show of a lifetime so that they can forget their problems for a little bit and have some fun.
It seems for any comics, it's hard if you want to maintain your name that you have to put up with that kind of thing. Is what keeps you going is getting on that stage or are there other things that drive you?
I've got to say that when you owe as much money as I do, that's what you keeps you going. These guys, they don't mess around. They will show up at the show and they'll break your arms. You know what I'm saying? We've booked as many shows as we can to keep the money flowing to these guys but as for the personal feelings I might get from it, I'm going to leave that to the audience for them to feel good about themselves because I'm long past the point where I can be feeling too good about the situation, especially when I see people like Carrot Top making millions and millions of dollars for sticking a bunch of cans of coffee up his ass or whatever he does at that show.
How often do you write new stuff?
If you went to see the Beatles, you would hope that they would play their hits. So we do have some classic gags that we cycle through and throw a classic here and there to keep them amused. Of course, you get a lot of first-timers at the show, you want to give them the best jokes you have to offer. That said, you do want to keep current. You're always bringing in the new gags, the new jokes and the new bits. I couldn't say that you're doing it on a daily basis [coughs] but you would hope each time you come to a town that you've got quite a few new gags in your arsenal.
Do you get a lot of requests or do you know what they want to hear at this point?
People will yell out for gags that they grew up with, that mean something to them. Sometimes we'll honor the request. Sometimes it's too old or it's obscure. I can't remember what they're talking about but we do have a few jokes that if I don't tell them, people are going to yell for them. It's sometime a relief if someone didn't yell for it because these are jokes that we've told thousands of times. Fortunately, most of the gags in my act are under 30 seconds in length, so if you don't like one, stick around and we've got another one coming right at you. Some of these comedians who are touring the circuit quite successfully these days, these guys have a five minute joke and if the punchline doesn't pay off, you've just wasted five minutes of your time you'll never get back and I think that's quite rude.
Do you feel that a lack of brevity hurts the art of comedy or can it help it in some ways?
Yeah, I do that feel that because these people paid money to come out and laugh. That's the whole point of the evening. They're miserable, retched people with miserable lives. They want to laugh and forget their problems for a few minutes. When I get up there on stage and try to get them laughing as much and often as I can, some of the other comics get up and tell some story about "I woke up and then I went to the bathroom and I went and made my coffee and I went to the supermarket and I did this and this and this..." and 10 minutes in, you finally get their precious punchline except you're not laughing because you've fallen asleep. How this kind of comedy is successful I'll never know, but it is.
Have you tried to tell stories in your act?
I've tried it all. If you've been doing this as many years as I have, I've dabbled in every style of comedy known to man. This used to be a very clean type of act but when I started playing in these rock and roll clubs and these kids, they want the filth talk. So now we do a lot of that. You do have to keep track of what your audiences are looking for.
Have you tried to do a clean show recently?
We get hired to do certain types of shows where that's the appropriate thing to do like a wedding or something like that but usually at these nightclubs, people pay to hear this brazen language. So that's what we offer.
What inspires you to write a joke or come up with material?
Well, you know, you're talking about tens of thousands jokes, so there's no one inspiration. It might have to do with something in the news or something in the public consciousness that you'd like to talk about in the hopes that you can succinctly turn it into a joke. If the Doobie Brothers are on tour as they were in Australia and I just toured Australia last month actually. We did six shows down there and the Doobie Brothers were on tour around the same time. Their posters were everywhere. So we did do a few Doobie Brothers jokes around there. (A child cries in the background)
Are there a couple of kids there?
Yeah, there's a woman here with three kids. I guess they've got an oil change they're doing.
I'm curious how a Doobie Brothers joke would work.
I'll try to do them in the show. I can't do them in the interview. That's not contractually allowed. If you do them in the interview, you spoil everything for everyone and I get complaints from these guys saying "What have you done?" I'll tell a joke day and night. It's not a problem, but these guys, their interests are in this for the thing and they'll find out. That kind of thing. I don't want to pay a fine. I'm already paying for a new tire and it's a re-tread tire.
You do have to write some topical, regional jokes because some of the things you do a joke about like Arby's, [Australia] doesn't have Arby's down there. So you have to replace these jokes. They've got a chain called Red Rooster so maybe you'd tell a joke about Red Rooster. In Australia, Burger King is called Hungry Jack's. It's the same logo and the same menu but it's called Hungry Jack's. In Australia, they don't use the system and weights and measurements that we use so if you're going to talk about a pound of ground beef poisoning someone, you've got to convert it to kilos, which I think it's quite a few more kilos. That's the sort of things you have to do. We have a joke about T.G.I. Friday's that I was going to do, so I actually had to look in the phone book in Australia in order to retain the joke.
Are there things you have tailored for Dallas?
I think at some point, we have had some tailored material for the Dallas/Fort Worth area but unfortunately, I don't remember what it was. Hopefully because we've got some time before we get there, we can tailor a little more material because your town has quite a rich history of things that have happened there whether it's President George W. Bush living there or whether it was quite a large spill of bleach that was on your highway there that caused the roads to be closed down for several hours at one point while they cleaned up the bleach. So those sorts of things could work their way into the set.
So this will be your first time playing a show at Sons of Hermann Hall.
I've been playing the Texas Theatre, and it's quite a nice place. When I was there two or three years ago, I was presented with an award: The Breck Wall Lifetime Achievement Award from DFW Nites. They gave me a trophy and I'll always have great memories of that award.
Is there anything special about playing in Dallas in general?
I'll tell you, I always enjoy playing in Dallas. I know everyone is excited about going to Austin and that sort of thing, but I've always found the crowds in Dallas are some of the best that we have for whatever reason. There's an enthusiasm there that I really enjoy. For a few years, we were playing in Denton instead of Dallas and that was just something that was going on. I'm not sure what it was but they said, no, this is what the people are doing. They're going to Denton. Denton is a nice little town but it is just that, a little town. So we did that for maybe three years in a row and came back to Dallas. The reception was so great, it was as if they really missed me in Dallas. So since then, we've made sure that we come to Dallas each year.
It's weird you mention that because we have another show this week, The Found Footage Festival vs. Found vs. A/V Geeks, that's doing a Denton and a Dallas show.
This is some years ago but we were told that you can't do them both. You've got to do one or the other and at that time, you had the Deep Ellum nightclubs that were all shut down and there weren't many nightclubs available for awhile there in Dallas. So the shows were being booked more and more in Denton but of course, that was a situation that needed to be remedied because you can't have a world class city where people have to go 30 miles away to do a show. That doesn't make sense. So they've fixed that up and now we're back in business and that's a great thing.
Are there comics that you like to watch or do you not pay attention to that kind of thing?
If they're on their way up, that means they're taking work out of my hands. So I'd rather talk about guys who are on their way down or guys who have already established themselves and don't need my recommendation in order to succeed because let's face it, here we're doing an interview about me and to turn it into an interview about these guys really defeats the purpose. If you're interviewing Paul McCartney, you don't want to have him talk about Mick Jagger.
Sorry, I didn't mean it to sound like that. I just wondered because you've been doing comedy so long if there were other acts that you liked to watch or have mentored over the years.
There's a lot of acts that I like to work with and we tour with frequently whether it's Major Entertainer Mike H, Clownvis Presley, Tim Heidecker and JP Inc. This little tour, we've got Alvarius B who is someone I've known for 30 years. That's the thing. You meet these folks while working the circuits and friendships can really last if you're on the same page. There's other people that you do a show with and you want to push them down the nearest flight of stairs.
How did you and Alvarius B meet?
He was part of a group called the Sun City Girls and we had done shows together many, many years ago but with the great entertainers, time goes on and they're still doing their thing and it's still a pleasure to see them and work with them. And that's the case with Mr. Alvarius B. He's not one of these flash in the pans. You've get these acts that come out and the first thing they do on stage is drop their drawers and crap into a bowl and they think that that's some sort of interesting entertainment. Well, it's interesting but it's horrible and you cannot sustain a career doing that. You need to add songs and that type of thing or things to say and Alvarius B, of course, has both.
Are there other musicians or groups that you'd like perform with or are working on performing with down the road?
I'd love to perform with the biggest acts in the world: Julio Iglesias, Neil Diamond, something like that. Then you're really getting into the big crowds. Unfortunately, that's just not available to me for whatever reason. I did do a show last year with none other than Robin Williams so that was exciting, but usually we're playing more with just weirdos and local sickies and that sort of thing.
What does music bring to your show? Does it enhance what you do?
We did a record some years ago called Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners with one of the top bands on the circuit. A couple of years ago, I did another record of songs Duets with Margaret Cho. Now we've worked up some new songs and we're doing another record of songs because the fact is that you want to have a whole variety type of experience when you go out on the town. If you have someone who just tells jokes or just does songs it's no good. Now I'm not Pavarotti or a trained singer, so the songs we include are mercifully few, but we will often open up or a show or a close with a song and leave it at that. The meat of the matter will always be the jokes.
Besides the debt, was there something that made you want to be a comedian?
No, I think it's one of these things where there's no choice and you just somehow end up doing it. You can't explain why it happened, but it was obviously your destiny. For some folks, their destiny is not always the best thing. Some people are managing a McDonald's and that's all they're going to do and that was their destiny. It's not necessarily a good destination but that is their destiny and for me, working the lower level of the entertainment circuit is my destiny and hopefully my loss is your gain because we do try to put on quite a good show, a professional show that we hope will provide some laughs.
Was there another dream job or career?
I'd love to be president of the United States. I'd love to own Pepsi-Cola or something like that or be a brain surgeon. That would be great. Apparently, that's not my destiny.
Do you ever watch or listen to your own material?
I don't have time to sit around and watch that stuff. I'm doing these shows every night of the week, so why would I take my spare time and watch them again? I'm already seeing it as I do it night after night after night and that's more than enough for me.
Is there anything else we need to cover?
I think we've covered a lot of different topics and I just look forward to seeing how you somehow turn it into some sort of scandal because that's, of course, what the media will always do. We have a friendly conversation and then I read this thing that says I'm a shoplifter. I've never stolen anything from a supermarket in my life.
No, not at all. This whole thing is going to literally be a transcript. Everything we're saying now word for word is what's going to appear on the page.
Well, I will believe you on that but we've had guys before where we had a friendly conversation with them and then you read the thing and it's an expose claiming that you've been shoplifting from the local markets. Then the manager from the market shows up at the show and demands to be paid for these sticks of gum and things like that that they said you stole. I don't even chew gum. That was my defense.