The comedian cuts a figure that could be molded from Play-Doh or mashed potatoes: greasy comb-over, fashion-backward tuxedo, curvature of the spine, phlegmy voice, sullen bottom lip jutting out from his five o’clock—last Tuesday—shadow. He’d be a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion—if, in the past 50 years, he’d succeeded at anything. As it is, he’s the picture of misery, the embodiment of failure and unending embarrassment, the guy that keeps talking trash long after he’s been beaten and left for dead. More than 10 minutes of the guy’s act is enough to reduce you to a feral, drooling, toe-chewing, feces-tossing animal.
Hamburger creates awkward moments like spiders weave webs. Already visually repulsive, he cradles one or more drinks—spilling more than he swills—while trying to hold a microphone and affect an air of confidence. With no concept of timing (perhaps a casualty of his phlegm problem) or taste, he clumsily strings together nonjokes and cheap insults based on easy pop culture targets like Madonna, Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson and … well, these ladies.
Q: Why did God send Terri Schiavo to hell?
A: For the sin of sloth.
Q: Hey, did you guys hear the one about the paparazzi with the heart of gold?
A: He stole it from Princess Diana as she lay dying in her car.
You fidgeted a bit, didn’t you? If you’re not in on the joke, you really have to stifle the gag reflex. Hamburger is such a convincingly down-on-his-luck, lame-ass, hapless, belligerent, drunk lounge comic that before you sputter even nervous, charitable laughter, you’ll squirm, cringe and entertain thoughts of beating feet before Hamburger’s black cloud pours its nappy rain on you. Therein lies genius; there’s an art to this onslaught of wanton hackery. It’s just not the skill that Hamburger is trying to demonstrate per se.
“Oh, I just plow through it,” Hamburger says of his approach. “Like a steamroller, you know? I’ve got my jokes and I’m gonna tell ’em in the order I wanna tell ’em, and these people can sit there and suck lemons. And, uh, relax and have a great time and accept that it’s gonna be a wonderful night filled with laughter and gaiety and joy. And obscenity. And, uh, cheap shots.”
Hamburger is a construct of Australian-born jack-of-all-trades Gregg Turkington. While not a closely guarded secret, it’s something you’ll never get Hamburger to admit. In order for the premise to work, the fourth wall must remain intact. Admitting it’s a joke just lets the air—and the fun—out of it, so for the past 11 or 12 years, Turkington has gone to great lengths, like rarely going out in public as himself, to keep up the façade. Hamburger dismisses Turkington altogether, refusing to acknowledge him as even a Col. Tom Parker figure. “There’s a lot of weird stuff that comes in over the Internet. Some of the sickies—you overhear things in public restrooms … and I don’t know where that’s coming from.”
After a couple of comedy releases on his own Amarillo Records, Turkington debuted Neil Hamburger with the 1996 album America’s Funnyman (Drag City). He’s since become a cult hero, releasing a slew of 7-inch singles, EPs, LPs and DVDs while touring the world and making appearances on TV (as a Fox News pundit) and in films (Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny). He also hosts the online talk show Poolside Chats as part of TomGreen.com. Suddenly a lot more people are in on the joke.
“Yes, the offers are coming in at a dizzying rate,” Hamburger says, adding he’s had to turn down a “pretty prestigious” gig at an Elko casino—doing comedy and washing the employees’ cars—to field these requests.
Surprisingly, he cops to feeling good about it. “Some of these guys … they sit there in their lonely room with no phone and no mailbox and no offers coming in. And that’ll drive you crazy. Trust me, I’ve been there. Many years ago, when I used to live in a storage locker. Having these sorts of offers coming in, it really does give you a feeling of relief.”
But before he starts to sound too upbeat, Hamburger reminds us he’s staying close to his roots.
“[I] have a phrase I’ve been using: ‘America’s $1 Funnyman.’ And, uh, I think that’s accurate. I really do. Everyone can’t be expensive. You do meet people who are on a budget and [need] budget entertainment. And that’s what we provide. It won’t be a dollar in Salt Lake City, but often it is.
“We really do everything we can with the limited amount of energy and resources that we have to make this a night to remember.”
NEIL HAMBURGER w/ Pleaseeasaur @ Mo’s Neighborhood Grill, 358 S. West Temple, Sunday Nov. 11, 10 p.m., 916-7418