Not unlike an Us Weekly jammed into a badly weathered tuxedo, haggard comedian Neil Hamburger is both extremely dependent on celebrities and grossly contemptuous of them. Hamburger’s sets of hackneyed, setup-and-punch line jokes with a side of the bitter are built to bomb, and rely on pop-culture references that are either too soon for good taste (look for some Michael Jackson jokes on his current tour) or stale going on oblivious. (Who else is still talking about Smash Mouth in 2009?) Yet this rumpled husk of a comic also proclaims his adoration for good old showbiz and laments its decline, especially when he interrupts his shows to scream at audience members who egg on his pitifully out-of-date shtick. Ahead of tomorrow night's show at Emo's, Decider caught up with Hamburger—whiny voice, phlegmy cough and all—to pick his brain about loving celebrities and savaging their corpses with sick jokes.
Decider: You’ve already got a Michael Jackson joke on your MySpace page: “Please drink Jesus Juice in memory of deceased vocalist Jackson.” Since that’s still right upon us, can you tell us about how you craft material on celebrity tragedies?
Neil Hamburger: The sad thing is [loud cough] that because of his death we’ve had to drop all those jokes from the set, because they’re strictly out of date now. They refer to Mr. Jackson in the present tense, where unfortunately he is in the past tense now. For every Jackson joke we’ve dropped, we’ve got two new ones added to the set. And you do try to be sensitive within the context of the joke, because it’s never funny when one of the great entertainers passes on. But I think Mr. Jackson himself would be the first to agree that the show must go on. And as we have a lot of people coming to my shows in tears or wearing black armbands in the midst of the grieving process, we will do whatever we can to cheer those folks up, you know.
D: You seem to have a lot of reverence for the entertainment industry, yet you do these sick jokes about celebrities. How do you reconcile that?
NH: I think it’s an honor to the great entertainers—to the Bob Hopes and the Stan Laurels—for me to keep with the times and tell the sorts of jokes these crowds want, especially when you look at the types of crowds I’m performing for. These people are druggies, they have horrible, horrible taste in music, a lot of them are suffering from chronic depression, on every anti-depressant you can think of. I’ll tell you, when James Dean died in 1955, if you’d come out with a joke about that you would’ve gone straight to jail! Now, if Michael Jackson dies and you don’t have a joke, you go straight to jail.
D: Last year you started doing jokes on Heath Ledger’s death, but some were red herrings and ended with the somber punchline: “Because of his amazing acting talent.” Is there a comedic point to that? Are you trying to spite people who want sick jokes?
NH: Well, geez, I mean, you sound like the sort of guy that goes to David Copperfield and asks how many rabbits he’s got in his boxer shorts. You know what I’m saying? I mean, you can’t give away the tools of the trade in an interview, that’s insane. Did somebody ask Michael Jackson in an interview to draw out a schematic diagram of how to do the Moonwalk? If they had, one of his thugs would’ve rapped him in the back of a head with a blackjack.
D: You generally add some kind of descriptor to sum up a celebrity in a joke: “Disgraced vocalist Courtney Love,” for example. Is that just in case a few people in the audience aren’t quite as pop-culture-savvy as you?
NH: Well, that’s exactly it, you do have to put these things in the proper context. You do get people who don’t know, but it’s also just another chance to add some color to the jokes. A lot of my jokes consist of two sentences and that’s it. You’ve got your question and your answer, your punch line, but that can be over in six seconds flat. If you add some color, stretch these things out a bit, you really might have something there.
D: Do some celebrities have a longer shelf life than others? You’ve been doing a ton of Red Hot Chili Peppers jokes recently, and that band’s not exactly new.
NH: Still, to this day, it is probably the most requested segment of my set. We’ll often do shows, weeks go by where we don’t even mention them once, then some clown in the front row comes wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt and demands the Red Hot Chili Peppers jokes, and we’ll go with ’em for 15 solid minutes.
D: It’s even more surprising how much you joke about Smash Mouth.
NH: That’s really ghastly music, you know? And a lot of people are upset about it. There is a public consciousness of despair when anything by those guys comes on the radio. I have had people come up to me and say, “Neil, I can’t take it anymore. You’ve gotta quit comedy and devote all your energies to breaking Smash Mouth’s legs so that they can’t tour anymore.” Well, I’m not gonna do that, but I will write some jokes at their expense.
D: You’ve got a pretty traditional idea of who is and isn’t a celebrity. What do you think of people like Jon and Kate, of Jon & Kate Plus Eight, being treated as celebrities?
NH: It’s pitiful, isn’t it? Where’s your training? How much time did they spend in front of a mirror working on their tap dancing? Zero. Whoever goes into the Big Brother house and takes a shower without any underwear on is the celebrity of the week. Whoever goes on the island and eats the most rats suddenly has a recording contract. Some of these guys are even stand-ups. You’ve got the guy on the Amazing Race television show who ate 29 cockroaches in Burma, the next thing you know, he’s booked at a comedy club, and I’m sitting out in the parking lot washing people’s cars for $2 apiece because I can’t get booked. It’s horrible. Somebody gives birth to eight monsters, and suddenly they’re a bigger star than Vice President Biden. More people recognize the eight monsters.