Since making his first recorded appearance performing a phone prank on an Amarillo Records compilation, stand-up comedian Neil Hamburger has released three albums (America's Funnyman, Raw Hamburger, and Left For Dead In Malaysia) and a handful of singles that have established the hapless comic as perhaps the funniest, most vital proponent of anti-comedy since Andy Kaufman. The Onion recently spoke with the reclusive Hamburger to discuss his past, his present, and his big plans for the future.
The Onion: How's it going?
Neil Hamburger: Oh, pretty good. We've got the Match Game going on in the background, on the TV. It's sort of an old favorite that I wish they'd bring back, because I think I could probably be a panelist. So I'm kind of taking a look at that. My show got canceled here tonight.
O: It seems like there's been a rash of cancellations of your shows recently.
NH: We've had some problems, yes. But we're hoping that my new management will get it together. I don't want to make any predictions, but we need things to run smoother.
O: Have you been approached to appear on the new Hollywood Squares yet?
NH: Well, I didn't know that they had a new one. Is Peter Marshall still involved?
O: I think Peter Marshall might be dead. [He's not. ed.] Whoopi Goldberg is the star of the new one. They also have a new version of The Gong Show on the Game Show Network now.
NH: I don't think I'd really fit in on that. The Gong Show seems more geared toward amateurs, and, you know, I've performed at some of the top clubs. But Hollywood Squares is something I should probably get my management to look into.
O: How long have you been performing, anyway?
NH: Well, we're getting into the 15-year range now, and we're hoping that the next 15 will be better, but, you know, we take what we can get.
O: It sounds like you got in right at the height of the comedy boom.
NH: I guess so. But it certainly didn't seem like that. There were a lot of problems initially, but we're ironing them out now and we're looking forward to a great 1999.
O: How have things changed since you started in the business?
NH: I think back then, audiences were a lot more polite. Now you've got a lot of people who'll just talk through the entire set.
O: How do you deal with hecklers?
NH: Well, you just plug on. When you're making records, you just hope that they'll edit it off the tape, and that's the best way to deal with them, for posterity's sake. But when you're faced with them in the moment, you just have to thank the Lord that they don't have microphones, too. It's impossible to keep up with them, anyway, and you can't really be nasty or you won't get invited back for another booking.
O: Do you have any zingers that you like to use when confronted with hecklers?
NH: Well, I did have some of those, but they tended to get me into trouble because some of these people are violent. A lot of times you're performing in more alcohol-oriented venues, so we keep the zingers to ourselves and hope for a violence-free show.
O: You recorded your last album in Malaysia. What was that experience like?
NH: I haven't actually heard this album yet, but it was not the best audience that I've had. I think it's just that people there are too preoccupied with their problems, politically, to be able to really relax and enjoy the show. And, you know, they don't speak English, so that's another problem, since these jokes tend to do pretty well with an English-speaking audience. If not for that, I think I would have really brought the house down and had a really great time. But it's a beautiful country, and people are people wherever they are, and people love to laugh. It was a great experience.
O: Well, they say that comedy transcends all language barriers. Have you found that to be the case in all your international travels?
NH: I've found things to be pretty much the same in terms of the audience's reaction. But I can't say that it's always been transcending boundaries, generally.
O: On the Malaysia album, you had sort of a falling-out with your manager, Art Huckman. What was that all about?
NH: Well, I wouldn't call it a falling-out, exactly. We're not working together. I have this new management, and they don't have as much of a hands-on approach as Art did. Art comes from a long showbiz tradition. As a matter of fact, he handled the estate sale of the late McLean Stevenson recently. He passed on and Art got to handle a lot of his stuff. Not the awards or anything, but Art got to handle his clothing and some of the furniture, some of the things the family didn't want. Art got to handle that stuff, and I think that was fairly lucrative for him. Art was a great man and I'm hoping we can work with him again, but for now we've got this new team, and they don't have as much of a hands-on approach, which may be better. Because Art had a lot of enemies in the business, as well as a lot of friends. But we just keep on going, because this is going to be a great year.
O: Some of your humor revolves around swinging and stuff of that sort. Did you ever go through a sexually experimental phase in your life?
NH: Well, you do want to keep up with thingstrends and things, so your routine doesn't get stale. At the time, Art Huckman seemed to think that the swinging market was a group that we could market the act to. We had some bookings in that type of venue, and we sometimes pointed routines in that direction. But naturally, I tend to be more of a family man, and more recently, I've chosen to be alone. So that's not something that I have a lot of expertise in. But I can certainly tell a good joke about it.
O: On your last album, you did a parody of Snoop Doggy Dogg. Are you a big fan of rap music?
NH: Well, that was something that my daughter was listening to. It wasn't really something that I really had any personal experience with. But a lot of this rap music is based on comedy routines, so in that sense, I worry that people will turn more to rap music and less to comedy, which would be bad. You certainly don't want your customers to go elsewhere, or you'll be out of a job. I would hope that a lot of this rap music will die out so it won't take away a lot of my audience. So I'll just leave it at that.
O: You also do a lot of material about your ex-wife. How has she reacted to you doing material about your lives together?
NH: Restraining orders. That would be my one-word answer to that. You know, she never really appreciated a lot of the jokes before we were divorced, and now that we are divorced, her sense of humor has really evaporated. Hmmm. Unfortunately, I'm unable to perform in the Los Angeles area because of the subpoenas and legal papers, but, you know, a lot of this can help with the material. I got a lot of new jokes out of it. And as long as I can perform them in places like Kansas, you know, it's not like the guy at the pizza place is going to tell my wife or anything.
O: So, would you say that being an entertainer put a strain on your marriage?
NH: Yeah. Well, not for me, because I can perform all year, but some of these people, some of these wives or whatever, they expect more out of you. I felt that I did a good job, but she felt that I didn't.
O: On your new album, you talk about being depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Have you ever tried Prozac?
NH: Well, I haven't tried Prozac, per se, but possibly I've tried it in a generic form. Because, you know, a lot of these generic drugs, they save you a lot of money, and for the most part they're just as good. You know, I've read some articles about this. It's not like the canned peas, where the quality isn't there with the store brand and you want to stick with the Green Giant. I actually bring a lot of canned foods on tour, because sometimes you can't eat until after a show, and in smaller towns, things shut down. So I carry with me an electric hot plate and some utensils. You have a lot more control over the direction of your life if you carry these things.
O: Have you ever had a religious experience?
NH: Well, you know, that's something that I'd like to deal with on my next album. It's gonna be more religious in nature, and it's going to be called Laugh Out Lord. It has to deal more with the religious thoughts and beliefs I have that I thought maybe I should do something with. So why not cash in and make a record out of it? We did this X-rated humor, and we brought in some people with that, but we're still looking for a break. You know, this is a very Christian country.
O: Do you think that the people who got into Raw Hamburger will embrace this new side of Neil Hamburger?
NH: Well, I hope they can come along. This is why I have a new manager. Because Art, with his AA and everything, didn't have the time to do the studies where we find out if people would prefer the Christian humor to the more adult humor. We'll go in that direction. My thing is to make people laugh. The details don't matter as long as I'm free to tell my jokes. You can take a joke about a hooker and turn it into a joke about Jesus, just by changing a few words. But the intent is there, which is to ease people's burden with laughter. I've been in this business for a long time, and I could conceivably take the whole Raw Hamburger album and rewrite itjust take a few words out here and there and make it into a Christian album.
O: Or you could just get somebody to remix your last few albums.
NH: Then I wouldn't even have to record them. You know, if the record company thinks that would work, then I'm all for it.
O: You've toured extensively, so you must have come into contact with a number of your fans. How would you describe the Hamburger demographic?
NH: Well, it's small. There aren't many of these people. They aren't necessarily short. You'd be surprised. I'd say they're people that love to laugh. Of course, we all do, so conceivably this demographic could include everyone. Because of the type of bookings I've had recently, I'd say it tends to be people that enjoy pizza. We have a lot of bookings in pizza parlors, and that's good, because, you know, you get a pizza in addition to your fee, and sometimes, if they've screwed up an order, you get another pizza for free, as well. Because they'll throw it away otherwise.
O: Have you ever considered giving up stand-up comedy?
NH: Well, I've considered it, but it's not really something that I have any choice about. I just keep plugging along.
O: Have you always known that you wanted to be a stand-up comic?
NH: I can't say that. No. But I knew that I was fated to do that when my psychiatrist suggested I try it as a form of therapy. You know, when you've got two things that come together like that, you need to go for it.
O: A lot of your comedy seems therapeutic in nature. Would you agree with the theory that all comedy comes from deep emotional pain?
NH: Hmmm... Well, I don't really want to comment on that, because these younger comedians out there, they try to take your ideas and run with them. I just don't want to give anything away. I mean, I could give you my opinions on that and tell some jokes of my own, and then, before you know it, I'm out of another booking.
O: Are you worried about people stealing your material?
NH: Well, you know, they steal your material, they steal your bookings, and they steal the limelight. And a lot of these people, you know, their ideas don't come out of nowhere. And I recognize a lot of these people. I see them in the audience at my shows, or maybe buying my records over the counter. But you can't be too careful. I wish it weren't like that.
O: Have you thought of copyrighting your jokes?
NH: Yeah, we copyright everything. Which is part of the problem, part of the reason that right now I'm living out of a storage locker. You've got the copyright attorneys, you've got the divorce attorneys, and you've got the managers, and they all want a piece of the pie, and when the piece of the pie is literally a piece of pie, then there's not that much to go around. I'm just glad that we've got the records, and they could be hits. So if you're in a position to tell people to buy this record, that would be great. I could live with that. This is a good show, and there's no reason we couldn't be doing better.
O: Is there any sort of story behind how you got your "That's my life!" catch phrase?
NH: I had noticed that all the top comedians had their own original catch phrases, so I tried to come up with one of my own. Most of the good ones were already taken, but mine wasn't, so that's the one we stuck with. You know, sometimes it doesn't go over so well, but thatttt's my life!
O: What were you like in high school?
NH: That was a problematic period for me, but you just keep plugging away. In a way, it was because of all the taunts I received in high school that I built up the strength to do what I do on stage.
O: Have you ever considered going into film?
NH: Of course. You know, I've got more than a few catch phrases. "That's my life," I think would make a good film. And you could see how a film like that would come together in a heartbeat. My dream would actually be to have one of these catch phrases made into a film, and maybe build up a bigger reputation.
O: How about television?
NH: Well, we had a TV special that we aired. I don't know if you saw that. We had some problems with it. It aired... Well, it never really aired. What happened was, we spent a lot of money on it. It was an inheritance that my wife had gotten [while] we were married. We spent quite a bit of money on the guest stars and on the sound stage, and we filmed a pilot for a variety hour, which I think could have done quite well. But we sent the tapes out to get duplicated at this place to save some money, and the company went bankrupt. And it turns out that they weren't even doing it themselves; they were sending these tapes off to Taiwan. They were in Taiwan, we didn't have any sort of back-up copy, and somehow it ended up airing in Korea. And we tried to piece together a new version of the special using cutting-room material and outtakes, but it didn't really have the same zing.
O: With all the touring you've done, what is your favorite place to play?
NH: Well, you don't want to single one out. They're all great. I guess I'd have to say that my favorite is... If you want to say the city you're in for this interview, you know... If you want to fix it, you know, rewind the tape or whatever.
O: Well, we're distributed in different cities and online, so we could just edit the interview differently for each city. You know, we're in Chicago, Denver, Madison, Boulder, Milwaukee...
NH: Well, those are all great cities. I haven't been able to get a booking in some of those cities, but I've played some of the outlying areas, and a lot of the outlying areas are great. A lot of the people who live in the outlying areas live there because they can't afford to live in the cities. So, we're all in the same boat. So, you know, buy my record.