Neil Hamburger descends upon the Fringe with a surprise for his critics
Controversial stand-up talks Tenacious D, hecklers and Mel Gibson
This article is from 2010.
With a characteristically phlegmy cough, Neil Hamburger clears his throat and recalls his last Scottish gig, opening for Tenacious D in Glasgow. ‘I sure got a lot off my chest there,’ he reminisces. ‘Though of course, they got even more off because they were quite loud and angry in their hatred towards me.’
When I saw ‘America’s Funnyman’ in Dublin, two thirds of the crowd left before he finished his set. In a soiled tuxedo, hair greased across his scalp, Hamburger’s ill-timed celebrity-baiting quips and sick non-sequiturs aren’t to most tastes. With the catchphrase ‘but that’s my life!’, this washed-up showbiz lag scratches a painfully funny living from dying horribly. Bands such as D and Faith No More employ him as a warm-up, knowing that the hostile reaction he provokes make them look better by comparison. Apparently, they’re ‘some of the nicest people in showbusiness. Sometimes, you’ll share a bill with rock’n’roll bands that are just complete dirtbags, shooting up all kinds of drugs, crystal meth or whatever, right there backstage’, he fumes. ‘A lot of bands nowadays, they don’t even write songs, they come out and shit onto a plate and that’s supposed to be entertainment. I won’t work with that type of band’.
Audiences who hurl fruit and coins – a double-edged supplement to his meagre performance fees – might not appreciate that while ‘everybody talks about some guy throwing a banana at Neil Hamburger, they don’t hear about that heckler feeling a trickle of blood on the back of his neck, the last thing he feels before he hits the ground. I’ve got a sniper on my payroll who used to work for Bob Hope. You have to remain competitive.’
Happy to sign autographs for his own fans, he reflects that ‘if they could just get together as a gang, they could go out with a noose and take care of some of the comedians who ruthlessly steal my bookings. Hanging by the neck, that would be fine by me. Showbusiness is becoming the Wild West in terms of frontier justice taking precedent over politeness.’ Originally forced into stand-up by his therapist, ‘to purge some of my demons’, he still enjoys telling a joke ‘at a cocktail party, a wedding, a funeral, someplace folks are gathered, laughing their fool heads off. Even when folks don’t laugh, which happens quite a bit, there’s always the promise that one day they will laugh again and that’s what keeps you going. That and the financial ruin I’m trying to dig myself out of’.
After recording punk, country and prank phonecall albums – with a disco longplayer forthcoming – his poorly negotiated contract finds him gigging upwards of ‘375 gigs a year at this point’. Describing himself as a slave, Hamburger is currently being sued by Prince, Prince’s fans, his former management, record company and ex-wife, who’s run off with a ‘creepo dentist’. Like so many of us, he’s still adjusting to the passing of Michael Jackson. ‘I had a lot of jokes at his expense,’ he admits. ‘But I retired them because it would have been completely inappropriate. The minute he died, I stopped doing them. However, I have replaced them with a new, ten-minute-long Michael Jackson tribute. And I think anyone who is a fan … well, some folks might not like it … but generally, anyone who is a fan will appreciate the love and care that went into it.’
Besides, there’s always Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski to talk about. ‘Well, let’s face it, those guys have severe mental illnesses,’ he says. ‘They’re out there literally spewing; whether it’s bodily fluids in the case of Polanksi, hatred in the case of Gibson, or both fluids and hatred in the case of Lindsay Lohan. The jokes write themselves. A lot of comedians just read directly from Mel Gibson’s transcripts. Others see Polanski as an easier target and are backstage at the Edinburgh Fringe molesting young children. It’s really worked out for us in the entertainment industry.’
A successful Edinburgh might mean ‘cleaning my tuxedo every 20 shows instead of 50’. But Hamburger craves recognition now, before a crowd missile proves fatal. ‘You hear about these guys, they pass on and the next thing you know, their music is in commercials or their comedy is on television. Meanwhile, they’re burning in hell with the Rolling Stones that died. Unfortunately, things are not looking up for me.’
Neil Hamburger, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 16–22 Aug, 11pm, £12 (£10).