Neil Hamburger “We do have all the old jokes, but they’re on scraps of paper. You know how, if you stay at the Best Western, you get a little notepad by the side of the bed? We’ve got literally thousands of these types of scraps in old supermarket bags in a storage locker.”

Interviewee, illustrated by interviewer.

If not for Neil Hamburger, America’s Funnyman, we likely would have never made it through the horrors of 9/11. If you need proof: Well, we’re still here, right?

Tireless in his efforts to entertain, Hamburger has used his tasteful and uproarious comedy to bring joy to people worldwide through live shows and albums, and has selflessly lent his name to struggling operations like Drag City Records and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. He will be starring in a film next year, Entertainment (directed by The Comedy director Rick Alverson), in which Hamburger will yet again help friend “poor” Tim Heidecker live his dream of being “in the pictures” (strangely, Hamburger bears a striking resemblance to fellow Heidecker collaborator Gregg Turkington, whose Amarillo Records label brought us releases by Anton LaVey, Sun City Girls, and the immortal Harvey Sid Fisher in the 1990s). Hamburger’s newest record, First of Dismay, is available now from Drag City.

TMT had the chance to speak to Hamburger over the phone. It’s lucky I was able to get through to him: Apparently, there had just been a robbery outside the See’s Candies near his home! It’s also lucky I was able to hear through all the yuks on my end well enough to transcribe it!


Aside from the robbery, how are things going today?

Pretty good. Y’know, we’ve got a million shows to do all the time, and of course you get some of the bad air and things like that and everyone gets sick, but we just keep pluggin’ away.

Perhaps it’s just persistence, but you’ve been making some pretty good gains in popularity these last few years. Other than persistence, is it a change in management, maybe…?

Well, when you do hundreds and thousands of shows, you’d like to think that you pick up a couple of fans. Now, even if you only pick up 1 percent of the audience, if you do as many shows as I did it’ll still add up. We’ve also toured with some great acts, and played some of the cities where nothing happens. When you come to these towns, where nobody goes there ever but you go there over and over again, sometimes they appreciate it. They say to themselves, “This guy really cares about us here.” That can work out well, too.

So management hasn’t changed in recent times?

Not really. We’re still dealing with all kinds of crooks and things like that. Some of these guys you can’t get off your back, and if you owe them money they’re always going to be breathing down your neck. That’s just one of the problems with this business.

Are you still in contact with (early manager) Art Huckman?

Yeah, a little bit, but that guy’s got his new business and he seems to make more money on that then he ever did with me. He liquidates the estates of some of these deceased celebrities. Not the good things, the good items… Say, Joan Rivers passed away, and the family might sell some of her fur coats, her awards, her personal library of books, all these treasured mementos from a wonderful career. Art will go in after all that stuff is sold, and buy the coat hangers, any sort of food that was left in the fridge — a half stick of butter, he’ll take that — and sell those low-level. If you want a souvenir of Joan Rivers, it’s very expensive to buy an award she received from the New York Press Association, but not so expensive to buy a can of peas that she had in her cabinet, which she never got around to eating.

That’s the type of thing he does. I don’t know that he’s working for Joan Rivers, that was just an example.

We like to have different types of shows on different types of nights. This isn’t a Britney Spears act, where somebody flips a switch on a tape recorder and the act mimes to it. Anything can happen; we have shows that are 180 degrees different from the previous night’s show all the time.

Sure. I saw a Craiglist ad where they were selling what they claimed had been Jim Morrison’s garage door. I wonder if Art had anything to do with that?

That’s the type of thing that he would get involved with. Have you heard of a rock & roll group called Grand Funk Railroad? He was selling a parcel of dirt from the guitarist’s backyard that they had divided up into plastic bags. Their big song, “We’re an American Band,” I guess was written within 100 feet of this dirt. I don’t know, I don’t think they made a lot of money on it, really. Then again, it doesn’t cost that much money to put dirt in these plastic bags, so y’know, it’s a living.

It’s mostly profit, if they make anything.

A lot of this stuff gets thrown in the trash. I think that’s how he started. Who was the guy… it wasn’t McLean Stevenson, or maybe it was…? Anyway, Art had gone through his trash, and he had gotten a lot of junk mail after he died. You know, you get these little envelopes with coupons for discounts on oil changes and stuff like that? I think if you had one of these little Value-Paks, or the latest edition of the Pennysaver, addressed to Ernest Borgnine, that’s the type of thing you might frame. He was selling stuff like that.

So, you mentioned Joan Rivers. I saw you in Portland on Sunday, and I noticed that there were no jokes about Joan Rivers or Robin Williams. Is it because you favor these celebrities more than others, or are you getting more sensitive to the recently deceased at this point in your career?

No, you just want to believe what’s coming out of your mouth. If you’re up there, as some of these comics are, and you’re just talking 100 percent rubbish — and you can certainly make a good living out of that — but you can’t stand behind the jokes, then what do you have? In the case of someone like Joan Rivers, I enjoyed her act, I’ve got no bones to pick with her. She’s the sort of person, herself, who would make jokes about the recently deceased, so it’s not a question of whether it would be in poor taste, but sometimes you just don’t have the stomach for it. Your heart’s not in it. I don’t want to do a joke like that if I don’t personally find it funny in the moment.

In the case of Robin Williams: We had some of the nastiest, most vile Robin Williams jokes ever told. Unfortunately, maybe a year ago, Mr. Williams came up to me and told me what a big fan he was, and how much he loved the act! We just thought, “This guy is a classy sort of person,” to say this even though we had jokes at his expense.

Now, if you ever read an interview with Robin Williams, you will see that he also made jokes at his own expense over some of the films that he made which were of poor quality. Some folks choose to make garbage movies and television shows, others don’t, but he certainly did… But he was willing to bad-mouth these things at a later date.

It definitely takes the wind out of your sails to tell these types of jokes when you realize that the guy that they’re about not only likes them, but he’s dead. That’ll definitely take some of the joy out of it.

Most definitely. There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you: now, I’ve been following your recording career for a decade and change, and I’ve noticed that your voice has changed quite a bit over the years. Is that an effect of your being ill? What precipitated that?

It only “changes” if you’re listening to the records out of order! If you listen to them one after another, you’ll see that it’s just changing with the passage of time, as anybody’s does. If you listen to one of these old George Carlin records from the 1960s, before he was even swearing, and you listen to one of his records from the 1990s, it sounds like not only two different people, but two different types of comedian.

The fact is, we (comedians) are out there onstage all day long. The passage of time wreaks havoc with our throats, the smoke and the nightclubs and things like that. Also, as styles change, we change with the styles. If you listen to a Pink Floyd album from when they first started, and then listen to an album from the 1980s, you’re not hearing a single thing about it that’s similar, are you?

That’s just the way it goes. I certainly haven’t sat down, flipped a switch and changed. The passage of time will change us all. I’d hate to listen to a recording of your voice from 20 years ago, because I dare say it would be quite different whether you know it or not. When I made those early records, I was a young man, and I’m anything but that now.
How is your health holding up these days?

Well, every time you walk into one of these filthy cesspool nightclubs and handle some of the disgusting equipment that they have, you’re taking your life into your own hands. I’ve had a cold for the last week… I made a mistake and used somebody else’s microphone, so In addition to smelling that night’s pizza on the end of the microphone you also pick up whatever horrible things they’ve got brewing in their throat and tonsils. It’s just a hazard. As far as I know, though, I have a few years left in me.

I’m glad to hear it, and I’m sure all of your fans are glad to hear it.

I hope. I mean, some of them would like to see bad things happen, because these are the same people that cheer when a heckler throws a rotten tomato onstage.

That was another thing I noticed at the Portland show: You used to lay into hecklers a little more aggressively. You still did a little bit — and it was called for — but I noticed a little more dismissiveness. Was that just the night, or are you turning over a new leaf?

No, it’s not a new leaf, it just depends on the night. Sometimes, you get a crowd where five out of six of them are real a-holes that can’t shut their goddamn traps, and you end up spending half the show hollering at these creeps! The next night, you might have a crowd that’s enthusiastic and, for the most part, pretty agreeable, and if you get one rotten apple you don’t want them to spoil the whole bunch. So, you might say a couple of things, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel like the right show to go off the deep end with all that sort of garbage. Y’know, the spewing of hatred, the throwing of drinks, throwing chairs at people, all that kind of thing.

I think you might find, if you went to the very next show, you might get some of the lynching that you’re apparently looking for in a live comedy show.

We had some of the nastiest, most vile Robin Williams jokes ever told. Unfortunately, maybe a year ago, Mr. Williams came up to me and told me what a big fan he was, and how much he loved the act! We just thought, “This guy is a classy sort of person,” to say this even though we had jokes at his expense.

Well, now, I didn’t say that…!

Well, some people like it that way. We like to have different types of shows on different types of nights. This isn’t a Britney Spears act, where somebody flips a switch on a tape recorder and the act mimes to it. Anything can happen; we have shows that are 180 degrees different from the previous night’s show all the time. Portland, of course, is a very accommodating crowd.

You mentioned Britney Spears, which brings me to my next question: it’s established that you don’t have much love for current popular music, but since Tiny Mix Tapes is a music-focused website, I’m contractually obligated to ask you if there’s any current music that you like.

Well, I’m sure there’s somebody out there. When I was flicking the switch on the TV, I saw a guy who comes out and plays the piccolo, the flute, the fife and all these different instruments and he does a great job at it. I don’t know his name, but I think he’s from Europe or something. It seemed like a real good act, so I would definitely recommend him.

It’s amazing that somebody as awful as even a Christopher Cross sounds real good compared to these slobs that you see out there now. They couldn’t play “Happy Birthday” on a piccolo if somebody put a gun to their head! Unfortunately, you then combine that with these asshole record executives who only want sign these children, to make records for children… and by children, I’m talking about some of the most horny, degenerate people alive, not the type of children that you would think! They’re not signing Bugs Bunny to make records for children anymore, they’re signing some drug addict who just drank a gallon of sperm before they went into a recording studio! To make a record for a child? To me, that’s a disgrace.

I agree wholeheartedly. Back a few years, though, you expressed an interest in disco records, and you even made a disco song (“Endless Roll”) for your new record. What are some of your favorite celebrities, aside from yourself, who have made disco records?

Geez… y’know, I feel very strongly that any of these disco records tend to be very, very good records, because you have these giant orchestras that are brought in to spruce up the sound. Sometimes, you have these little rock & roll bands, soul bands, and they sound fine on their own, but then you bring in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the whole thing really takes off!

That’s why you have these dirty garbage bands, like your KISS — you know, Gene Simmons and KISS — the only good song they ever made was a disco song, as you know. As anybody knows. Even the Rolling Stones… there aren’t too many people who are as disgusting as them, but they made a couple of disco records and you find yourself tapping your toes to that stuff. On the other side of the spectrum, Chevy Chase tried to make a record back in 1980 that sounds like garbage, absolute garbage.

There’s the Ethel Merman disco record, of course. Everybody’s enjoyed that. We were personally very inspired by KC and the Sunshine Band and their records, which really gave way to us recording a song in that style for our new album.

We would have recorded more disco songs, but quite frankly, we just didn’t have the time in the studio to do that. They take up a little bit of time, when you have to bring in the horns and all that sort of stuff, instead of just having some asshole press a couple of buttons on his keyboard. These guys have gotta wet the reeds on the clarinets and saxophones all all that kinda stuff, it’s a long process.

Well, I’m glad that you at least managed to get “Endless Roll” out there.

We had a day to record all these songs, because our guys were only in town for a short amount of time. So, I was happy that we got that one down, and the others too. Thank goodness for that.

Indeed. Well, I have a couple questions phoned in to me by others for you. My sweetheart wanted me to ask you: What does Tim Heidecker smell like?

Well, you know, it depends on the time of day. Early in the morning, it’s going to be a bouquet of roses, that type of thing. Later in the day, it’s more like a basket with mangoes, kiwis… some of the sweeter, more fragrant fruits that you get in a tropical environment. Either way, these are very delightful smells.

You’ll find that the celebrities who do the best job are the ones who smell the best. When you stand around somebody like a J. Lo or a Ryan Seacrest, or Simon Cowell, it smells like somebody bought a jar of sauerkraut and let it roll around in the trunk of their car during a heatwave, and then there was a crack in the glass and air got in, so when they open up the trunk they fall down flat on their back from the stench of the spoiled sauerkraut!

That’s why a guy like Simon Cowell wears those white t-shirts that don’t even cover up his armpit half the time: if he wears something more colorful you start associating those colors with the stench. For instance, if he wears a green shirt, it will remind you of the green mold that would grow on a container of old fried rice that you left out in the back seat of your car for a month. So, y’know, there’s a strategy behind that.

If you’re up there, as some of these comics are, and you’re just talking 100 percent rubbish — and you can certainly make a good living out of that — but you can’t stand behind the jokes, then what do you have?

Someone else asks me to ask if you have any good Bob Dole jokes in the archive.

Wow, y’know, I’d have to look that up. We’re not on the computer, our system… you know, some of these comics hire some jerk, some slob, to come around and record every show they do and then enter everything that happened into some stupid computer program!

We don’t do that. We do have all the old jokes, but they’re on scraps of paper. You know how, if you stay at the Best Western, you get a little notepad by the side of the bed? We’ve got literally thousands of these types of scraps in old supermarket bags in a storage locker. I could go through it and find the old Bob Dole jokes, we probably had half a dozen of them, but unfortunately none of them really ring a bell. I don’t know if we recorded any of them on some of the early records. I feel like we might have, but I haven’t heard those records in some time, and I just don’t remember.

I would never ask you to go through the bags just for a Bob Dole joke.

Well, y’know, I wouldn’t mind retrieving some of those Bob Dole jokes and doing them again, because obviously there’s some interest.

What’s next for Neil Hamburger?

Well, we have a newish album out, so I guess some time after the record’s been out for a few months we’ll have to fly out to Chicago and help the haul all the unsold copies to the landfill. Probably January or February they’ll give up on them, and they’re gonna need help getting those things out there.

We’ve got a film in the can (Entertainment), a motion picture that we have put together that we’re pretty excited about. We’re hoping it will hit the theaters sometime next year, it’s all being cut together currently. It’ll be a really feather in the cap to get that thing out there. It’ll do my work for me: If people are sitting there watching your movie, you can be lying in bed sick, but you’re still entertaining the folks. That’s why they created movies.

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