Neil Hamburger: Western Music and Variety with Neil Hamburger

[7 October 2009]

By Joshua O'Neill

Western Music and Variety with Neil Hamburger will be shelved under COMEDY, alongside DVDs by George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld and Weird Al Yankovich. Go ahead, watch it all the way through – you won’t laugh once. But that’s okay. Hamburger – or Gregg Turkington, the deep-cover actor who portrays him – couldn’t be less interested in chuckles. He’s after bigger – or at least stranger – game.

But what game is that, exactly? He wants to irritate you, that much is sure. Between his sour, pinched face, his broken comic timing and his baffling jokes (“Why are M&Ms filled with chocolate? Because it would be illegal to fill them with shit.”), watching or listening to him perform is an almost viscerally unpleasant experience, and intentionally so.

He’s been doing this absurdist anti-comedy bit for a while now, and it’s possible he’s beginning to run out of steam. Thus we have Western Music and Variety, in which he dons a bolo tie and Stetson hat and attempts a fairly straightforward C&W western album in his tuneless, warbling screech, punctuating the between-song banter with lines that are less jokes than inexplicable howls of hate. (“Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, finally joined the Mile-High Club… Yeah, he raped a woman in Denver!” Buh-dum-ching.)

The bathos of the Hamburger persona feels surprisingly natural in a country music setting. And unlike the jokes, a few of the songs are actually sort of funny. At the very least, we can be grateful that there is now a song entitled “How Can I Still Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right To Cry)?”

But ultimately, the humor is incidental. Hamburger is less a comedian than he is a piece of performance art, a character study. But it doesn’t quite work because he leans too hard on the jokiness of the persona, always reaching for the broadest possible bit of loathsome self-mockery, to the point where Hamburger is clearly a shtick, a one-note joke, not a character we can believe in or engage with.

While Andy Kaufmann’s anti-comedy persona Tony Clifton, Hamburger’s closest analogue, was every bit as vile and hateful, he also seemed eerily familiar. Like most great satire, he was a recognizably figure—the narcissistic, rageful small-time club performer whose overwhelming arrogance and self-love are exceeded only by his self-hate—pushed barely beyond the boundaries of reality. Turkington, in his eagerness to annoy and disgust, has pushed his Hamburger character too far—he’s continually clearing his throat, gargling phlegm into the microphone, hocking his loogies into the same drink from which he continues to sip.

For all the praise he gets from fans and magazines, for all the talk of meta-comedy and envelope pushing, Hamburger is an archetype older than Sophocles: he’s the fall guy, the stiff, the bufoon. If we laugh, it’s out of relief – bad as we might feel, at least we’re not him.

The most compelling moments are when Hamburger drops the pretense of humor and lashes out at the crowd in authentic anger. “Fuck you, you son of a bitch! Fuck you, you zipper-lips!” he roars at an unamused audience member. There’s something real in his tone, something authentically vengeful and horrifying, and for a moment we can see that the real appeal of Neil Hamburger isn’t comic, it’s tragic.

He follows each laughless joke with a weird little beaten-dog whimper, a high-pitched, closed-throated squeak that betrays the bottomless pain underneath the snarling hate. There’s something there – I’m just not sure whether it’s worth digging through all the irritation and unpleasant mugging to find it.

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