In getting tickets to a Guided by Voices
show, I happened to talk to the venue’s booker about Neil, whom GbV had chosen as their opening act
. "I don’t know about this," the booker said. "I hear he's really hard to get off the stage. They tell me people throw bottles
at him." Luckily for the booker, Neil started on time and left promptly, which left me feeling a little ripped off from the real Neil Hamburger experience.
I've since learned that Neil will sometimes wait and wait and wait beyond the start time, then take the stage and do his horrible act, which becomes quite the endurance test. It’s probably how he draws such vicious heckling. That trick works only if the audience isn’t prepared for it ... and being a Bay Area native himself (as far as I can tell), Neil probably figured the San Jose and San Francisco crowds were inured to his act. In fact, many of them "sang along" with his catch phrase. (But Thaaaaaaat's my life!)
There's a very Andy Kaufman kind of unreality around Neil. To wit: He claims his year in Australia, touring with Mr. Bungle and with Oz act Frenzal Rhomb, was done in order to escape legal problems back home. In several interviews available on the Web he mentions a TV special taped for Taiwanese TV, but says the project was scrapped and wound up on Korean TV instead. He has claimed repeatedly that he doesn't like doing the R-rated material ("It's this club that demands it," he told us at The Fillmore). Allegedly he's got an album of religious humor in the works, called Laugh Out Lord.
True or false?
To my knowledge, he's never been interviewed out of character (he denies there is a character), and I've found no background info on him. He got his start in 1992 on the Amarillo Records compilation, Great Phone Calls, in which he telephoned a comedy club and spontaneously auditioned by reciting some of his Henny-Youngman-from-hell one-liners. His album Left for Dead in Malaysia was recorded in Kuala Lumpur before a non-English-speaking audience; you can imagine the effect he had on them. Pizza parlors were apparently his main source of gigs for the early years -- at least that's what he says in interviews -- but he's been adopted by the indie-rock/avant-rock crowd and has opened for plenty of bands like Bungle, GbV and I Am Spoonbender.
As for the act itself ... Aside from the questionable jokes, his pacing is amazingly bad. Long bouts of coughing and/or clearing his throat don't help. For hecklers, he's got some stock responses that are just as bizarre as the jokes.
Thing is ... his act been running through my head ever since I saw him. And to respond to cody ... if that Jesus joke is the one I'm thinking of (the version we got was "What's the difference between Jesus and Tom Cruise"), you were right not to print it here. :)
You really have to see Neil Hamburger once. You don't know what you're missing -- whether that's good or bad, you decide.
-- WFMU interview: http://www.wfmu.org/LCD/20/hamburger.html
-- The Onion (a real interview): http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3511/avfeature3511.html
-- SF Weekly: http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2000-09-13/music2.html
-- Very Neil-like interview at Crimewave: http://www.supersphere.com/Zinetropa/Print.html?ID=CrimewaveUSA&NAME=neil