Neil Hamburger wears the self-appointed crown of "America's Funnyman," but he's not very funny by most people's standards.
His greasy comb-over, sour face and clumsy timing eludes the typical humor of the late-night talk-show circuit, although he appears awkwardly at ease on boob tubage ranging from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" to Fox News. Hamburger's stage persona resembles an exacerbated lounge act riding a misguided high horse, while winking as if he has just let you in on a secret.
Without a hint of irony, he lists Abbott and Costello and Frank Sinatra Jr. among his heroes. But when asked about such pioneering subversive comics as Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, he responds matter-of-factly, "I haven't worked with either of those guys ... ."
Hamburger alienates audiences until they have no choice but to laugh at such discomforting jokes as "What do you get when you cross Sir Elton John with a saber-toothed tiger? I don't know but you better keep it away from your ass!" That's one of the better ones, often followed by his signature phrase, "But thaaat's my life!"
The deliveries and punch lines of his material fit like random puzzle pieces, and he always stays in character. When he calls to do an interview, the caller ID reads Gregg Turkington – a name associated with shock-punk band the Zip Code Rapists, and the obscure Amarillo Records imprint. But when his nerdy voice rambles on about hecklers spraying cyanide gas and killing 200 people at one of his recent shows in Stolen Penny, Neb., there's no mistaking the inimitable Funnyman.
"They said this sort of thing would purge your inner demons," Hamburger says, recalling the vocational advice given by a psychiatrist that encouraged him to try stand-up in the 1990s. "It hasn't purged my demons, but I did get a career out of it."
For his latest release, Hamburger applies his craft to country songwriting with the album Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners (Drag City). The album features 10 maudlin numbers performed by several musicians, including members of pop-rocker Todd Rundgren's band. In true Neil Hamburger form, songs like "Jug Town" and "At Least I Was Paid" blur the lines between comedy and honest country music; and "Three Piece Chicken Dinner" encapsulates the hardships of life as a comedian. "The words are just so true," he explains. "Sometimes you put everything into a performance and you have these people cheering for you and when you go to get paid they say here's some dinner, that's all we've got."
The album represents Hamburger's attempt to follow in the footsteps of what he calls "great personality records" by the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Telly Savalas and David Hasselhoff.
The bold musical offering has received mixed reviews. His Drag City labelmate, country music icon Will Oldham of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, however, has nothing but good things to say about the Funnyman until the topic of his country album comes up.
"It's bullshit, and it's not funny, and it isn't cool, either," Oldham says via e-mail. "Did he think that was a good idea? To make a 'music' record? He should go back to doing what he does best, which is straight comedy, and leave the music making to those of us who have worked really hard to get where we are today. Where do you file that shit? 'Country'? 'Comedy'? There is no empathy in this new work. I wish he would cut it the fuck out and tell some jokes."
Hamburger's explanation is simple. "We wanted to do something different. Comedy albums don't sell, so we hired a team of investigative researchers and they said that people are buying recorded music on the album format, which was a real eye opener."
Oldham's advice: "It's not what he's good at. His strength is in telling jokes. Tell more jokes, Neil!"
That's exactly what he plans to do on tour, tell jokes and steer away from the high and lonesome musical interludes, although he may lip-sync a song or two.
"The show must go on," he says. "Great entertainers are always committed to helping people forget their troubles, so sometimes you have to put your own troubles on the back burner."
But thaaat's his life.
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