Through the Grinder

Neil Hamburger slays himself.


PLEASEEASAUR, CANNED HAM Chop Suey, 324-8000, $6 9 p.m. Thurs., June 27

You think you’ve got troubles? You don’t have troubles. Not like comedian and Drag City recording artist Neil Hamburger has troubles.

The self-proclaimed “America’s Funnyman” has had pizza parlor and dog-track gigs stolen from him outright by the top comedians in the business. He has to play far-flung locations every night of the week just to eat. At a gig in Kuala Lumpur—at which, he discovered, not a single person in the audience spoke English—the management fired up the karaoke machine midroutine and bum-rushed him right off the stage (the whole awful night is preserved on the album Left for Dead in Malaysia).

And he dies, absolutely dies, every time he goes onstage.

I’ve said it before, but I can’t help repeating it: Neil Hamburger is to American comedy what the Zapruder film is to amateur moviemaking. Watching him perform, you feel a slow, uncomfortable blend of horror and embarrassment, the kind of feeling you’d get looking into a condemned convict’s eyes while the absentminded warden fiddled with the electric chair’s power cord trying to locate the short.

Hamburger sets up elaborate groundwork for obvious punch lines, which he then proceeds to forget. Doomed routines open with non sequiturs and peter out among the sounds of ice being shoveled at the bar. He stammers and stutters over what should be simple jokes. He once, utterly without warning, called for a moment of silence in memory of George Burns two minutes into his act. (An extraneous gesture: The room was quiet as a morgue to begin with.) He’s been known to plead with the audience to laugh.

Now admit it: You want to see that.

Even a talent as unique as Neil Hamburger’s has a tradition behind it. Though he would deny it—he’d probably just change the subject in befuddled ignorance—Hamburger’s dark humor works the same turf as Andy Kaufman and 1960s confrontation-comedy duo Coyle and Sharp. But Hamburger’s clearest antecedent is the late, lamented Brother Theodore Gottlieb, whose unsettling material dealt exclusively with existential frustration and whose out-of-print albums are long overdue for CD recovery (Gregg Turkington at Amarillo Records, are you listening?).

If you have yet to experience the wonder of Neil Hamburger, prepare to be dumbfounded. You haven’t heard comedic timing like this since the night your drunk roommate fell down the apartment stairs.