Neil Hamburger’s standup comedy often feels more like performance art that is primarily intended to make you uncomfortable. What would that be like live and in person? When Hamburger came to Richmond Music Hall last month, Ryan Kent went to find out.
The elephant graveyard for suits is the thrift store. Mostly you’ll find hangered sports coats of the tweed variety. Multiple shades of the corduroy blazer, some with patches on the elbows. Yellowing tags from the businesses of yesteryear, a large portion of which were previously worn by King Kong. The jacket and pant combinations are usually from long dead department stores. When televisions were still considered furniture, men wore suits like these. Men like Phil Donahue and Geraldo Riviera. Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Newt Gingrich.
Sometimes Naval and Marine dress uniforms are mixed in. Maybe even a random hazmat suit. Then, suddenly, you strike gold. Not that you’d necessarily buy this suit – but you feel a distinct sense of pride with the atrocious piece of shit you’ve just now laid your hands on. Enough so that you’re compelled to show it to someone else. Anyone else.
Sometimes this happens to be the person thrifting with you. Or maybe you just decide to bother the man across the aisle in the ugly sweater section. Needless to say, you’re holding up the burgundy groomsmen tuxedo with black, satin lapels like it’s your firstborn. The tux also happens to be in your size. And it’s only $25.
At the register, you use your credit card because that’s what people do when making impulsive purchases they’ll want to forget about later.
I really didn’t know what to expect before seeing Neil Hamburger perform at the Richmond Music Hall on November 18, but I knew he’d be wearing an awful suit. Gregg Turkington developed the Neil Hamburger persona sometime back in the 90s. A misanthropic, opinionated, badly dressed, badly groomed, ill-mannered, ill-informed asshole, he wears suits that look like they were lifted from the stock room of an After Six during the Ford administration. His shellacked combover looks like it’s an oil spill. Sometimes he’s carrying three drinks at a time, wandering around on stage, telling bad jokes into the microphone.
Hamburger had a small part in Ant-Man, which I vaguely remember because I vaguely remember Ant-Man. He’s had cameo performances in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny and the newly released Ghostbusters: Afterlife. A feature-length film, Entertainment, which was loosely based on the Hamburger character, was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. In a weird twist, the film’s director, Rick Alverson, lives here in Richmond.
As Hamburger, Turkington has released a dozen or so albums and a handful of EP’s since 1992’s Great Phone Calls Featuring Neil Hamburger. Some of these aren’t the easiest things to listen to. The live album Hot February Night was recorded during Hamburger’s performance opening for Tenacious D at Madison Square Garden in 2010. Boos are hurled like tomatoes from the audience as he repeatedly baits them by introducing the band, only to continue on with his act. The heckling starts pretty early on, and it doesn’t take long for the atmosphere to get uncomfortable. Even being in on the joke has a pain threshold. You can only cringe but so many times. At 33 minutes and one second, Hot February Night seems like it lasts for an entire year.
For Hamburger, it probably couldn’t have gone any better.
There’s been stories told of the Melvins playing one-note shows to packed houses. Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby to a pissed-off crowd. Norm McDonald getting fired from SNL. I recognize the humor, but I’d much rather be told the story of the event than be there to witness it. Art doesn’t always come off easy, especially if you’re dicking with an impatient audience. That can end up being bad news. People are nuts.
So I wasn’t sure how this evening was going to pan out. Was Neil Hamburger going to purposefully be anything but funny? Was he going to make it uncomfortable enough for people to leave? Was the audience going to turn hostile from being antagonized? I didn’t know if I wanted to sit through that kind of a bomb. Maybe it would be better to hear about the show instead of walking back to my car, feeling indifferent after having seen it for myself.
Anyway, I decided to go to the Richmond Music Hall, and it was worth it. I found an empty table somewhere in the middle of the club, but by the time Hamburger went on it was standing room only.
Wearing a gold sequined tie and matching vest, Hamburger began by crankily asking the audience several questions about celebrities ranging from David Lee Roth to Criss Angel in his familiar, “Why?” which the filled tables happily answered with their own response of, “Why?”
“Why did Eric Clapton, legendary, legendary, 26-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Eric Clapton, add a spoonful of semen to his cup of coffee in December of 1968?”
“Why” the audience asked in return.
“Well, because he was out of Cream.”
You get it. This went on for a bit. Throughout each joke or whatever you call it, Hamburger would obnoxiously clear his throat just shy of casting a loogie out onto one of the tables in the front row. The persona was an entire thing, and the audience was dying. It wasn’t simple standup or a one act play. Calling something “performance art” has a groan that comes along with it, but I don’t know what else you’d call a Neil Hamburger act. It’s more than just a middle-aged man delivering marginally funny jokes.
Maybe genius is an acquired taste. As silly as it sounds, I felt like I was seeing something important. Like an industry secret on the verge of becoming mainstream. The same way craft bartenders sang the praises of Fernet, or how music journalists passed notes about Nick Drake before Volkswagen used Pink Moon in a commercial.
Hamburger followed this with a long tirade about the business practices of Gene “Fucker” Simmons and other members from the original lineup of KISS. Going as far as to say “Scheming Gene” only wore face paint because he was ugly. Claiming Simmons named himself “Rat Man,” named Ace Frehley “Robot Man,” and named Paul Stanley ‘Egypt Man.” Peter Criss was named “Cat Man” after his asshole was sewn shut so he couldn’t sell any unauthorized KISS merchandise.
I couldn’t help overhearing a woman’s voice in the audience. “Only the guys are laughing.”
She was mostly right, but by the end of the show that voice was laughing too. The repetitive punchlines of bad jokes reminded me of body shots thrown by smart boxers. Wearing down the opponent until the opponent is exhausted. My first experience with Neil Hamburger was much like this type of boxing match. I listened to a string of jokes he did about Anthony Keidis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. By the end of the bit, I was in pain. Hamburger had wiped the floor with me.
A half-hour into the set someone made the mistake of blurting out the punchline to a joke and Hamburger spent the next five or ten minutes really making them wish they hadn’t. Unless, of course, this person blurted out the punchline on purpose to provoke a rant, which would then make their alleged faux-pax actually brilliant. People were holding their sides. All of us there, ground into individual beef patties.
Hamburger was probably only up on stage for another fifteen minutes.
I walked to his merch area right after the set. A few cassettes of 1996’s America’s Funnyman and 2000’s Great Phone Calls were visible behind the table. Vinyl copies of Still Dwelling, First of Dismay, and Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners were shrink wrapped. A 7” split record with Margaret Cho was also available, along with enamel pins and DVD copies of Entertainment. I was hoping to buy some hideously designed white t-shirt I could stain and wear for years, but I didn’t see any t-shirts. As I turned to my right, walking quickly in my direction was Neil Hamburger, coming to peddle his own “souvenirs.”
He got behind the table and started laying the vinyl out. Immediately my eyes landed on the mostly black cover of 1998’s Raw Hamburger. It seemed like the only copy, and I’d never heard the record before.
“That’s a RealDoll on the cover,” he said.
He said the vinyl was $25 but he only accepted cash or money transfers. No credit cards.
“I can sign it, but the only thing is you’ve gotta unwrap it and take the plastic off.”
I gave Turkington the $25, unwrapped the vinyl and handed it back to him. He leaned over the cover and signed “Neil Hamburger” in silver Sharpie. We took a photo and for a split-second afterwards we made eye contact. Right then, I wanted to ask Turkington if he’d ever second-guessed the Hamburger persona. Had he ever once put on an ugly suit, shellacked his combover, looked in the mirror and asked, “What the Hell am I doing?”
But the moment ended, like most brief interactions with a stranger do. I wasn’t quite sure if the guy was still in character or not, so I didn’t ask Gregg Turkington anything except for how much his records cost. A line had formed behind me and had formed quickly; that was a good excuse to get out of there.
Walking back to the car, I thought about the $25.
Sometimes it’s a really good idea to have cash. Even if it’s just on an impulse.