Where's the Beef?
Anti-comic genius Neil Hamburger is traveling from Detroit to Pittsburgh, and his cell phone service is failing miserably. After the third disconnection, he issues this apology: "We passed some skunks back there. The smell was too strong for the satellite. I stuck some Ding-Dong wrappers on the antennae. I hope they work. They're very expensive."
Now, snack-cake wrappers may not seem like much of a luxury. But when you've made a living telling jokes in pizza parlors for the past decade, very little goes to waste. "Last week, we played Geno's... Gebo's... something like that," he recalls. "I demanded a pitcher of water to go. They wouldn't let us keep the pitcher! The guys in Canned Ham (Hamburger's opening act) have big hands, I've got big hands -- but by the time we hit the Ohio Turnpike, it's all over the seats!"
Such indignities are common for Hamburger, who until recently lived in a Laverne, California, storage locker. "It got seized by the storage company, and I lost all my possessions," he says sadly. "All the contents were sold to the scrap plastic factory." Among his vanished treasures were thousands of comedy cassettes that Hamburger was attempting to sell at a chain of truck stops called Love's, hoping they'd be stocked next to the Johnny Rebel tapes in the display case. "They were water-damaged, but they were still sale-able!" he complains. "I researched the truck stop situation and found that glory holes, hastily drawn pictures of penises, and speed were a large part of it. But Love's didn't seem to appreciate the truth. At least [the tapes] did come out -- if by coming out, you mean being melted into dishwashing liquid."
Tragic it may be, but as Hamburger says, "Thaaaaaat's my life!" Despite the pizza-parlor mishaps and his recent eviction, his profile has risen dramatically, especially when you consider his humble beginnings on tiny indie label Amarillo Records. Amarillo was best-known for putting out records by Satanic Bible author Anton LeVey until it released 1993's Great Phone Calls, a hilarious collection of prank calls highlighted by a preternaturally upbeat, high-pitched Neil phoning San Francisco comedy clubs ("Hey, what's going on Friday night there? Cancel it! NEEEIIIILL HAAMBURGER'S IN TOWN!"). While the record kick-started his career, media accusations that Neil Hamburger is actually the stage name of Amarillo owner Gregg Turkington have haunted Hamburger ever since. "I don't know who that is!" Hamburger whines. "I just don't understand. A lot of these people, these journalists, they stretch the truth. You probably work with a lot of these people. They have no scruples. You give these guys obituaries to write and before the paper comes out, they're at the [dead] man's house -- having sex with his wife! They'll do anything! They're disturbed people!"
It's no secret that show business and family life don't mix. By the time his third album, Raw Hamburger, came out, Hamburger's wife had left him for her dentist. While his drop in self-esteem and musings about suicide and depression were to be expected under the circumstances, there was a surprising side effect: His voice dropped a full octave. "In the time since the divorce," he explains, "what happened is, in addition to the heartbreak and the garnishing of the pay, the testes tend to back up with reproductive fluids. Which can lead to a change in timbre in the human voice. There's a documentary on the Discovery Channel about it."
His new voice led him on a career path with more highs and lows than a manic-depressive mountain climber. Neil's fourth album, 1999's Left for Dead in Malaysia, was recorded in a Kuala Lumpur bar in front of a completely silent, non-English-speaking audience. The album ends with the karaoke machine cutting Neil off midway through his set of horrific jokes about Montezuma's revenge and the Spice Girls. "That was not good," he says. "I'm very sorry that the record label chose to release that." The next time Neil traveled to the South Pacific, he performed at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. "It was a big rock festival with Foo Fighters and some of the other bands who have enriched all our lives," he cracks. "P.K. Harvey and Jane and His Addictions. You wouldn't wish some of these people on your worst enemy, but they do entertain the kids. Plus, you get the heat and the cardiac arrest. They had a sprinkler system, [but] as far as I know, they use urine for all they care about these kids. But playing in front of 50,000 people -- that's something to show these people at the pizza parlors we play at."
And Hamburger has recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! After his performance perplexed the mouth-breathers in the audience, he shared the couch with Yoko Ono. "It was mind-blowing to be so close to so much fame and talent and money," he enthuses. "After the show, I was getting some stuff signed, and she was so nice and we got along so well that you might see a Double Fantasy II with Neil Hamburger! I think it would be more of a comedy record. Let's hope so. Or else I'll have her career."
In the meantime, Hamburger continues to tour behind his latest work, 2002's tremendously conflicted Laugh Out Lord. A string of George W. Bush punch lines is bleeped out, while religious jokes rocket past the blasphemy threshold ("Why did God invent Fleetwood Mac? Because he was high on PCP. Why did God invent the Internet? So he wouldn't be seen buying his gay pornography in public. Why did God make homosexuality a sin? Because his boyfriend said it would be more of a turn-on that way"). To Hamburger, it's just show business. "God is a marketing gimmick. Any of your chart-topping records by the Backstreet Boys or whomever, they all refer to God as a PCP addict. I find it vaguely offensive. But the show must go on. If George Burns was still alive, he'd be telling these jokes. Luckily, I'm still alive. So I'm telling these jokes."
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