Western Music and Variety With Neil Hamburger and The Too-Good-For-Neil-Hamburger Band Dir. Steve Moramarco

[Drag City; 2009]

It is becoming increasingly more fascinating to see where Gregg Turkington is going with his brilliantly crafted Neil Hamburger character. Starting out as a great oddity and confusing/frustrating audiences, Hamburger has slowly gained notoriety among the likes of Tom Green -- who gave him a show, Pooside Chats With Neil Hamburger on his website-- and even Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, a duo whose sensibilities and adoration of the genuine and fringe in the medium of comedy parallel the basis of the entire Neil Hamburger character. Initially, Neil Hamburger was just a very bizarre take on the average failed touring standup comedian: various sets and interviews revealed his sordid relationship with his ex-wife, his boast of touring 364 days a year, and his cringe-inducing material seeming to come from a very out-of-touch, bitter old man buying the latest People off the newsstands at his local grocery. You could just imagine the backstory of his younger days, trying to craft a perfect five minutes for Carson and actually listening to the agent who told him “celebrity jokes are where the money is!”

Several releases and television appearances later, Hamburger is becoming very much the type of figure Turkington would have written about in Breakfast Without Meat, the zine in which he wrote during the 80s, where he covered various outsider art-type squares the likes of Tiny Tim. Hamburger has a long string of comedy album releases, has appeared in compilations, appeared in films, and even released a country album last year. His fans have a very odd and adoring relationship with the comedian, and everything he does seems to be gimmicky and contrived. But that’s part of the joke, right? Like all bad comedians, Neil is simply doing bad things for bread, at the whim of his agent and whoever hires him. It’s a comment on these circumstances, or at least that’s what fans will bring home every time the man is discussed.

The problem is Neil Hamburger the comedian is slowly becoming better: his jokes are getting funnier in a more sincere way, and laughing at his material is becoming less of an “I get it because I’m smart” scenario and more a gut reaction to something genuinely humorous. His material is becoming more blue, something an old and embittered road comic wouldn’t necessarily do, and he’s doing sets in places like Comedy Death Ray, where people “get” the humor and where he isn’t heckled off stage. It all serves to dampen the allure of such a strange and seemingly sincere, real figure, and the release of his country album left me torn. Yes, this is a dumb gimmick that any weird and old celebrity of yesteryear would do, thus making it funny -- and yes, it is done without a single tongue in a single cheek, just a weird novelty album by a comedian and thus making it even funnier. But it also wasn’t good. The music was generic, and Neil Hamburger’s delivery, while humorous and strange, wasn’t enough to carry an entire album of novelty country songs. The second my fandom of something becomes an endurance test is when I begin to question things.

Now we have Western Music and Variety With Neil Hamburger, a concert DVD filmed at Radio Recorders in Hollywood last year. The show opens with an introduction by disc jockey, novelty/outsider music enthusiast, all-around weird guy Dr. Demento, and what follows is a very long set of strange little ditties by Neil Hamburger and his backing band, consisting of members Prairie Prince, Atom Ellis, and Dave Gleason (if those names harbor any significance to you whatsoever, cool), only briefly segmented by two short sets of jokes. The songs are twangy little numbers -- Gleason is a real beast on the guitar -- and the lyrics are funny in their own Hamburger way. They speak of old country/western standbys, like losing your woman, depression, drinking, and the like. One of the true standouts of the entire 87 minutes is Hamburger’s interpretation of The Bee Gees’ classic “I Started a Joke,” performed in a sing-talky way like all the others yet remaining -- believe it or not -- affecting. However, the songs can get a little too long, the musicians can be too indulgent, and the jokes starts losing their humor. One begins to wait for the song to be over, for the whole series of songs to be over, just to start hearing jokes again.

And the jokes. Hamburger’s new material is absolutely stunning in their conception and ability to turn the average setup-punchline joke on its head. He’s still jabbing at the publicly celebrated, yet this time he’s making jabs at less obvious choices (Smashmouth, Anthony Kiedis, Tupac). The jokes are filthier than anything he’s written in the past too, and sometimes they hardly make sense. Turkington’s experimentation with Hamburger’s humor is being done right in front of us, and it is fascinating to watch.

But the small patches of jokes don’t seem to last long enough, and when the songs come back in, it gets disheartening. The feel of the entire presentation is particularly odd. It's grainy and looks like it was shot on old film, but it is painfully obvious that it is basically an HD effect, which I guess is yet again the point: everything is contrived, from the ham-fisted songs to the jokes to the way it was filmed. In between songs, the band members have little banter, with one guy setting the other up for some mildly humorous and very corny jokes, like vaudeville or something.

The special features contain two music videos -- both of which are almost completely unwatchable -- an entire cat-themed set he did at the Cat Hotel, and a very bizarre musical performance he did as promotion on the Chicago cable access show Chic-A-Go-Go, which was actually very entertaining. These little touches add to the entire feel and presentation of Neil Hamburger’s career. However, I can’t imagine a Hamburger fan actually purchasing this. To what lengths will one go to prove s/he gets it? At a certain point, who cares? I’m absolutely certain there’s someone interested in Hamburger’s music career, probably the same type of person who craves fringe and novelty. But this is simulacrum. Perhaps worth one view and an approving head-nod, but then what?

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