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Friday, September 24, 2010

Neil Hamburger interview

America's Funnyman, Neil Hamburger, plays tonight at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver with Tom Green. But this interview was conducted back in June prior to a headlining gig he did at the Biltmore:

Neil Hamburger – June 30, 2010

“They started chanting the word, ‘Ass-hole’ and they never let up. Half an hour of people chanting ‘asshole’ at you. Now, the same thing happened to Pope John Paul II when he played there, so I know that these things do happen.” – Neil Hamburger

Guy MacPherson: Hello, Neil Hamburger.
Neil Hamburger: Yes, yes, this is Neil. How are you doing?

GM: Good. Are you a morning person? You don’t strike me as a morning person.
NH: Well, you know, when the show that I’m doing finishes at around 7 or 8 in the morning, usually I’ll stay up afterwards, you know? We did one of these Indian casinos. They had me doing seven shows a night. Can you believe that?

GM: I don’t believe that, actually. Is that true?
NH: Yeah, we had a 7 o’clock show, we had an 8 o’clock show, we had a 9:15 show, we had an 11:45 show, we had a 1:15 show, and then we had a 4:15 show, and then finally a 6:15 show.

GM: Where was this?
NH: This was in Elko, Nevada.

GM: Wow. Those Indians are slave drivers.
NH: Well, they are. And I got fired after the 9:15 show because they weren’t happy with the quality of the performance, you know?

GM: Seriously?
NH: Seriously. This is a bad business to be in, entertainment.

GM: How do they break that to you, something like that?
NH: They tap you on the shoulder, just like in a cartoon.

GM: And say “scram”? “Am-scray”?
NH: “Mr. Hamburger, your services are no longer required.” You know, with a slight American Indian accident.

GM: I don’t know much about your backstory. When and how did you get into show business?
NH: Well, you know, it’s something that you fall into, much as the same way you’d fall into an open manhole and end up right in the sewer. I started out when I was just in high school doing comedy open mics, thinking, you know, this was my future. And it was my future, in a sense. But not quite the future that I dreamed of. I mean, at this point I’m having to do nearly 400 shows a year just to keep afloat. It’s not the most lucrative field.

GM: Certainly when you play Madison Square Gardens it’s gotta be fairly lucrative.
NH: Well, you’d be surprised. Those guys had an avocado dip backstage that was spoiled. You know, that’s in my dressing room.

GM: You gotta get a new rider.
NH: I don’t think there’s any rider that asks for spoiled food. But here you feel that you’ve really made the big time and then you take a mouthful of this stuff and you’re dialling 9-1-1. I mean, this is very poisonous.

GM: How did that show go? I’ve seen you in a couple different venues and people aren’t the friendliest when you’re on stage. At least the times I’ve seen you. Were they behind you 100 percent at Madison Square Garden?
NH: They were, uh, quite negative. We have to be honest. They started chanting the word, “Ass-hole” and they never let up. Half an hour of people chanting “asshole” at you. Now, the same thing happened to Pope John Paul II when he played there, so I know that these things do happen.

GM: How do you go on from that?
NH: The show must go on. You just keep telling your goddamn jokes.

GM: Have you had a show where people have just been on board with you totally?
NH: We’ve got a lot of those shows. We really do. But a lot of times those are going to be your smaller headlining shows. Now, a Madison Square Gardens opening slot, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

GM: Was that with Tenacious D?
NH: Yeah, exactly. So you’re dealing with their crowd. If I were to open for, say, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, it would be the same problem. These kids come out, they see their heroes and they’re all stooped up on God-knows-what and somebody else takes the stage. Now, I don’t take it too personally because if you went to see Tenacious D and let’s say The Little River Band came out, they’d get booed off the stage as well. And those guys, as we know, have had many hits.

GM: Yes, they’re classics. When you played here with Tenacious D, that was your last time in Vancouver, right?
NH: I believe it was, yeah. We haven’t been up there in a while.

GM: And before that I saw you at the Railway Club.
NH: Yeah, and that was just a few months before.

GM: You play all over the world, and you’re “America’s Funnyman”. How do you translate to the other countries?
NH: Well, you know, when we play places like Malaysia, it doesn’t translate. It’s a disaster. When we play places such as England or Canada or Australia – I’ve done 15 tours now in Australia – it’s no problem. People are people all over the world. They love to laugh. You may have to alter some of the jokes slightly. I had a joke about Panda Express, which is a very bad, very poor quality Chinese food chain down here in America. And we were up in Toronto two shows a couple weeks ago and we had to change the joke to be about Manchu Wok, which is a low quality Chinese food chain up in Toronto and perhaps in Vancouver as well, I don’t know.

GM: I don’t know, either. I can’t help you on that one. But that’s the kind of dedication and professionalism that we can expect from you, that you will take the time to adjust your jokes.
NH: And to do the research. A lot of these comedians show up at the show and they’re stoned out of their minds. And they come out and they just start telling jokes about – well, they’re not even jokes. They’re just long tales about what they had for breakfast that morning and about what the stewardess said on their flight there and about how they need to do their laundry. And they’re just going on and on about their horrible, horrible lives. And of course the audience at large is waiting for a joke. You don’t get it. You don’t get it. You just get this annoyance. And so we’re trying to do the opposite. We give the people as many jokes as we can cram into the show. And we feel that that is treating the audience correctly. And I’m sorry that some of these so-called alternative comedians or even some of the more popular ones feel that a performance should consist of a recounting of all the horrors in their horrible lives.

GM: You are a master of the riddle, which has fallen out of favour with a lot of stand-up comics.
NH: Well, because these guys are lazy bums, you know? They can tell one riddle at the end of five minutes talking about their underwear or the zipper on their pants or a conversation they overheard on the bus. And that’s very cheap comedy, I think. I think that if you’ve got five minutes, then we want 40 jokes.

GM: How many are in your arsenal?
NH: At this point we must have ten thousand.

GM: Wow. So you have like a big Rolodex in your brain?
NH: I can’t afford a real Rolodex so it is in my brain. Although I guess over at some of these 99 cents shops they do have knock-off Rolodexes but the cards don’t move very smoothly. So it’s probably better to either use the original brand, the Rolodex itself, or just use your brain.

“I’m sorry that some of these so-called alternative comedians or even some of the more popular ones feel that a performance should consist of a recounting of all the horrors in their horrible lives.” – Neil Hamburger

GM: Is there one country that really gets you more than any others? Or is it as you say, people are people?
NH: Well, I would say that none of them do, in a sense. But we do pretty well in Australia and America and Canada and England. This summer I’ve got a bunch of shows in Scotland and Ireland. So we try to bring this wherever the English language is still in favour. Now, we would not try to take this tour, say, to Bulgaria because I’m not convinced that it would translate.

GM: That’s probably wise. You have good handlers and advisers.
NH: Oh, those guys would send me to Mongolia, I tell you. They don’t care about anything. What can you do? You gotta keep doing the shows wherever you’re sent, you keep trying to put on the best show that you can. Guys like Carrot Top come out there and he just basically – I mean, not literally but basically – defecates onto the crowd. And, you know, that’s no way to treat an audience.

GM: You open for a lot of rock-n-roll bands. Do you enjoy that type of music?
NH: Well, let’s face it, it’s no Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. It’s always so loud. It always has to be loud, you know. And of course a lot of these kids, I think the loudness has shaken something loose in their skulls, you know? And you get people vomitting and that type of thing and it’s all very acceptable in that scene. A lot of these guys don’t take the trouble to put on a clean change of shirt and pants, let alone a suit and tie. If I’m on a tour with a rock-n-roll band, it’s gotta be one that understands the basic tenets of showmanship. Some of these guys I wouldn’t accept the show. Some of these guys are real slobs.

GM: These guys obviously really like you and respect you, even if their audiences don’t.
NH: I have no idea. I’d like to think that. I’d like to think that. But some of these guys are great guys. Some of the music is quite palatable. But sometimes I get offers to play with some of these people and let me tell you, you have to turn it down. Now, I’m not going to turn down much. We had an offer to perform for a roofing crew who was paid to put a new roof on in this senior citizen’s housing complex. This was in summer. This was in Alabama. I mean, it was not a great gig. These guys, I guess they do the roofing all day and then at night they crack open a couple of beers and they want some entertainment. And so the foreman of the roofing crew decided to bring in a comedian. I was available, inexpensive and in the area. So we did that show and it was, you know, not the best show that I’ve taken. So you just don’t know. Some of these rock-n-rollers, sometimes their crowds are quite nice. Good kids. Sometimes these kids are loaded out of their minds throwing up rum in all directions and throwing sharpened coins. I mean, you get some real jerks. Some of these little kids you just want to step on them, they’re such assholes.

GM: You mention bad shows you’ve had, but is there one that stands out as a particular lowlight in your career?
NH: Well, you know, some of the bigger ones with Tenacious D that didn’t go as planned, some folks might say that was a lowlight: You had people booing at your for 45 minutes straight. But I say it wasn’t so bad because, you know, you get used to that sort of thing. At least I got paid with a show like that. At least there were some folks there. But some of the real low ones are you drive for ten hours and you show up at this nightclub and your first thought is, well, this place is burned to the ground. This is not a functioning club. It looks like the skeleton of a building. And then you realize that it is a functioning club and that’s where you’re performing. And you walk into the building and it looks like, you know, a tornado’s hit it and there’s a couple of surly guys with cut-off sleeve shirts sitting there and that’s it. And at the end of the night they say, ‘Well, we can’t pay you because nobody came but we do have a leftover omelet in the refridgerator that we could thaw out for you for your drive.” That’s a bad show and we get that more often than you’d expect.

GM: Is there a particular highlight of your career where everything was clicking?
NH: Yeah, I did some shows earlier this year with a rock-n-roll group called Faith No More. We did some shows in Australia and in San Francisco and I really had a good time. These guys really treated me well and it was just the kind of class act that you would like to be associated with. I don’t know if it was quite up there with if I got asked to tour with what’s left of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, or the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra even, but it came damn close. And these guys, you know, do wear suits and ties on stage. And it was a real good time.

GM: So I guess that’s what keeps you going on, in hopes that there are more gigs like that.
NH: We did a show with one of these punk... the hate sort of music. And these guys, you could see yellow under their arms. They’re wearing white t-shirts with their own band on it and they’ve sweated so much it smells like these guys have a no-shower policy. I went and used my own money – and I’m not getting paid much to do this, let me tell you – I went and used my own money to buy these guys some of these little sanitizing wipes and gave it to them backstage and said, “Why don’t you freshen up with this before you go out and perform for this crowd that paid money to see you?” And these guys just laugh at you. You know, that’s not the type of gig that you want.

GM: I didn’t realize that you had a shower policy.
NH: It’s just that I believe that as entertainers there are certain unwritten rules to how you conduct yourself. And when these guys are younger, I’m trying to mentor them, as you might say, and give them a little bit of advice from some of the things I’ve picked up. And one thing I’ve picked up is that an audience doesn’t like to have a trash man come on stage, you know what I mean? So I’m trying to give these kids some advice to help further their career but a lot of them aren’t interested.

GM: I see you’re on Twitter now. That doesn’t seem to jibe with your old-school mentality.
NH: No, it doesn’t, really. But this is a popular thing I was told I had to do.

GM: Are you handy with the computer?
NH: Not really. I mean, I have to borrow computers but nowadays everyone has a computer. It’s as simple as you stop at a truck stop and there’s a coin-operated computer there. These computers are everywhere. And most of the bands that I work with are travelling with computers so you don’t need to own one; you can borrow one. And that’s when I send out these little messages that the kids seem to like. There’s no pay for it, that’s for sure, but you can advertise things on there. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the websites, the Twitter websites, that Pringles has or TGI Fridays or Pepsi-Cola, but they all have Twitter sites where they send out little advertising messages. And so we’re trying to do the same thing. But of course for me the best advertising message would be a joke.

GM: That’s right. And then people go, “Hey, this guy’s funny. I’m going to go see him when he comes to town.”
NH: You’d like to hope that. You really would.

“I’m trying to store as much as I can because at these nightclubs, these guys change their mind as to whether or not they’re going to give you free drinks. And if you set it down on something, who knows who’s going to put something in the drinks so it’s better to hold it close.” – Neil Hamburger

GM: You come on stage with two or three drinks.
NH: It’s something like with a camel has a hump to store the liquid. I’m trying to store as much as I can because at these nightclubs, these guys change their mind as to whether or not they’re going to give you free drinks. While they’re pouring them, you wanna get them, you know, and hold onto them. And if you set it down on something, who knows who’s going to put something in the drinks so it’s better to hold it close.

GM: And what’s your drink of choice?
NH: Well, we drink a mixture. A bit of vodka, is a good one. Some soda water, a bit of lime juice, maybe ten percent Clorox bleach because a lot of times they don’t wash the glasses so it’s good to run that through the whole system.

GM: You have a bit of a phlegm problem. Have you seen a medical professional about it?
NH: Well, I don’t think I do. But I don’t always have the time or the finances to seek medical treatment. But a lot of things, a lot of cancers and things like that, will cure themselves if you eat well. So we stick to strictly canned fruits and things and stay away from some of the deep fried things that a lot of the comedians eat.

GM: You joke a lot about celebrities. You’ve been on Jimmy Kimmel, you’ve achieved some fame. Have you met any of the celebrities that you’ve skewered over the years?
NH: Well, I’ve met a lot of celebrities. Usually if I meet them I haven’t skewered them because if I’ve skewered them I don’t want to meet them. The people I have something to say about, a lot of these people really are vermin. And if you were given a chance to meet Mussolini or Hitler, you probably wouldn’t want to because those are very, very bad people. You take somebody as rotten as, you know, a Britney Spears or a Smashmouth, I mean, I really would not like to meet those people. They’re very unpleasant people.

GM: But the way you’re hanging out in Hollywood, it could just happen. You could be at the same place and they could say, “Hey, I heard what you said about me.”
NH: I was in a restaurant not so long ago and a friend of mine spotted one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sitting at the table across from ours and said, “Neil, there he is. There’s your chance.” Now, of course, one of my biggest hits in this business, one of my successful routines is my 15 minutes with the Red Hot Chili Peppers jokes. And in a sense, it would be worth saying hi and getting to meet these people in person, but in another sense what’s to stop them from taking one of their tainted syringes that these guys carry around and stabbing you with it and the next thing you know, you’ve got Hepatitis B. So I got right out of the restaurant before they noticed me. That’s called self-preservation and you see that amongst all the animals in the wild.

GM: Is there a celebrity now that you’ve added to the act? Because they’re always making the news.
NH: Well, we get jokes about all the up-and-comers. Justin Beiber, of course, is very popular right now. He’s one. There’s a few comedians out there I dislike that we’re telling jokes about, but of course I can’t give their names in an interview because these guys sit at home in their boxer shorts drunk as shit looking on Google to find any mention of their name.

GM: Ah, David Cross.
NH: But if I say so-and-such is a real dirt bag, then the next thing you know I got that guy on my case. But it’s a fairly anonymous thing to do on stage in Vancouver so we can tell it like it is there. The internet destroys everything. On the internet these guys track you down. And of course whatever jokes I’m planning on doing in Vancouver, even if I wrote them the night before in Seattle, some piece of shit asshole films it on the cell phone and puts it on YouTube, the whole damn show. So there’s a lot of people that stay home. They say, “Well, I’ll watch last night’s show.” With this cell phone shoot. For free. That’s what kills it.

GM: How is the Neil Hamburger we see on stage different from the Neil Hamburger we see at home? I know comics have an exaggerated persona on stage. Do you have hobbies? What do you do on your down time?
NH: Most of those guys’ exaggerated persona is on stage, and then on stage they seem likable. Most of these guys, I’ll tell ya, the minute they get off stage they’re the biggest pieces of shit you ever met. Most of them; not all of them. But as for me, what you see is what you get. Now, I would say that my personality didn’t used to be like my stage persona, but I think I’ve been on stage so much that they’ve become one and the same. And I have so little time off. I suppose when I’m not on stage, as you notice the cadence of my voice is wearier and a little more tired. But on stage you’ve got to really give it your all and really throw something into it. But off stage there’s an exhaustion that sets in. It’s sad, really. And of course off stage I’m not telling as many jokes. In fact, off stage I sort of use it as a chance to be quiet and to hopefully get some sleep.

GM: Do you have family?
NH: Well, you know, I wouldn’t call them family as such. When you’re estranged from your family, is that really family? It’s an interesting question. And I’m sure that when I get sued by another member of one of them it’s a question that the courts will address.

GM: Do you get recognized when the tux comes off?
NH: I’m trying to stay as undercover as possible. It’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to do. I’ve got a couple of, I guess you’d call them polo shirts that some executive donated to the local leukemia society and I was able to purchase these things at a greatly discounted price. This is casual business attire, shall we say. So if you’re taking a bus or something like that you’re not going to want to wear a tuxedo so I go with casual business attire.

GM: But on stage it’s always a tux or a suit of some kind.
NH: Well, yes, because this is a job. Would you be happy if you went to the courtroom and your lawyer was dressed in a NOFX t-shirt? Clearly not. I think courtroom attire is the minimum of what you should wear on stage because these people in the audience paid good, hard-earned money to see this. For you to come out dressed like a slob, I think you owe these people a refund.

GM: Is Hamburger a stage name?
NH: Yes, that’s a stage name. Everyone in show business has a stage name. Robin Williams, that’s a stage name. His real name is Piece of Fucking Shit Vermin Joke Stealer Dog Breath. And I had my real name, which, of course, was Neil Double Bacon Cheeseburger, which is much too long of a name. So we had to shorten it for show business and go with just the simple Hamburger.

GM: What can you tell me about Hugh Phukovsky?
NH: He’s a great guy. We’ve done some shows together over the years. When I’ve got a show in Vancouver, that of course is the go-to guy you want on the bill because he’s really one of the quality comedians, I think. Not only in Canada but in all of North America. And why that guy hasn’t gotten his full due and why doesn’t have a mansion, I don’t know. The same, I would say, for myself. And then you’ve got Carrot Top, who’s getting five figures a night to go out there with a suitcase and dump it on the stage. You really have to wonder where the justice is, when guys like Hugh or myself are struggling so badly.

GM: But Hugh will wear a grimy t-shirt when he’s on stage.
NH: Well, that’s part of the act. That’s the thing. If it’s part of the act, then go ahead. Now, the minute that it’s not part of the act, I’m going to be on his case and tell him you’ve got to wear something reasonable. Now, I’m assuming the grimy t-shirt is in fact a new t-shirt with stage grime on it. You know, they use stage make-up to make it look grimy. I’m going to have to assume that’s not really a grimy shirt because I don’t think a professional of his calibre of professional comedian would go out on stage looking like a dirtbag unless they were playing a character. If you’ve ever seen Abbott & Costello, you’ll see that sometimes those guys will have soot on their face because they’re playing miners. That does not mean they are miners or that they would come out on to a stage with soot on their face. But if you are a miner working in the coal mines you will have soot on your face. In the case of Abbott & Costello, it wasn’t real soot. It was, in fact, stage make-up.

GM: Point taken. Also on the bill here is someone named I Kandee. Do you know anything about him?
NH: Well, I don’t know who I Kandee is. I guess we’ll find out. But I have to assume it’s another quality act. We’ve had some real problems with some of these awful bands slipping onto the bill. Some of the local bands. And these guys, they can’t play, they can’t sing, and it really wears out the audience. By the time I take the stage everyone wants to go home. So hopefully, and I’m assuming that I Kandee is a quality act to have been added because this type of venue is very thoughtful about what they put on the bill when some of them are not thoughtful. So we do appreciate that we will be at a thoughtful venue.

GM: How did this gig come up? Did somebody approach you or did you say it’s time to go back to Vancouver?
NH: I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but it definitely was time to come back to Vancouver. We had not been there for, oh geez, almost three years, I think. But then on the other hand, I know there was a time where I think I did six shows in the space of a year there. So things come and go and it was time to get back.

GM: Pretty soon after here you’re going to Edinburgh. Will that be your first time there?
NH: I have not been there. We did a show in Glasgow, Scotland, some years back but have not done a show up in Edinburgh. We’re making up for lost time because I’ve got seven shows in seven nights. That certainly gives people a chance to catch the act.

GM: I heard that over there it’s tough for American comics unless they put down their country, and that’s probably not something you’d do.
NH: I don’t think so. I’m not putting down the country to get a cheap laugh. There’ll be other things I would put down to get a cheap laugh. You know, if you’re putting down Limp Bizket to get a cheap laugh, well, they certainly deserve it. You know what I’m saying? And as for America, this is the place that I live and work and it has been very hospitable to me. And for me to go there and knock it just so these drunks can get a cheap laugh, that’s something I would never do. Now, I’m happy to put down certain American icons, if that helps. We don’t have any reason to McDonald’s or something of that nature. That is something that I’m happy to put down because let’s face it, the food is poor quality.

GM: That’s debatable.
NH: No, I’m sorry, it’s not debatable. And if you think it’s debatable, I suggest you reserve the last quarter of this article and you go and order one of these Egg McMuffins and do an unbiased review of it and see how it goes. I think you’ll find that it’s real crummy food. Now I hope that because McDonald itself sounds to me like a Scottish type of name, hopefully in Edinburgh they don’t have an affinity for that. But I suspect that they probably feel that the name McDonald has been tarnished by this American fast food chain and thus we’ll be on the same page.

GM: I look forward to watching you in Edinburgh on YouTube, and seeing you live in Vancouver.
NH: Well, let’s hope that the YouTubeskis stay the hell out. But they don’t. I was looking up Carrot Top the other day just to see what the competition is doing. Somebody’s got a video of him urinating behind a dumpster, behind a Taco Bell dumpster. And you know, that’s something you really have no right to post. It’s not his show. It’s a private moment. But somebody posts it and that’s the problem with the generation of YouTube. And then of course if you want to get any of this stuff yanked, you’ve got to submit a blood sample and your first born child. It’s really a bad situation.

GM: Why is it you said you wouldn’t talk about other comics, yet you’ll throw out Carrot Top? What do you have against that guy?
NH: Carrot Top has been talking shit about me for as long as I can remember. So the gloves are off in that war. I think he’s actually one of the finer comedians out there going out there, but for him to go on stage as he does night after night and say these horrible things about me, I mean, that is really, really uncalled for.

GM: I didn’t realize he was doing that. That is uncalled for.
NH: Well, I haven’t seen it, but I’m assuming he is. So we’re going to have to put an end to that war and perhaps team up. Maybe for a commercial.

GM: Maybe he could open for you.
NH: Well, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d ask that. As far as I’m concerned, he does have a little bit more lineage and should probably be the headliner, but I will tell you that to open for him would be something I would love to do.

GM: I heard he has a home in Whistler.
NH: He probably has a home in every city on the map because the man is overpaid.

GM: True enough. Okay, well, thanks so much for talking with me. I’ll see you here.
NH: I will see you there. Thank you so much for writing about me. And of course please tell the truth. Don’t colour it with lies, as a lot of the journalists do these days.

GM: Well, that’s what we’re taught.
NH: Well, I know it is. And I would hope that you can break through that and thus put yourself in a better position to win the Pulitzer prize.

GM: I’ll try. It’ll be hard.
NH: See what you can do.

GM: Okay. Thanks so much, Neil.
NH: Thank you. Good bye.

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