[27 January 2011]
Bad things are bound to happen whenever Neil Hamburger, the long-running alter ego of former punk rocker and zine publisher Gregg Turkington, attempts to infringe his bumbling presence upon the mainstream. His hilariously awkward brand of purposely inept stand-up has made has made him a minor cult figure in the underground comedy scene for over a decade now, where fans delight in his ill-timed delivery (typically thrown off even further by his non-stop nervous throat-clearing habit), eye-rollingly corny punch lines, and oily mixture of smug self-satisfaction and sad-sack desperation. Put him in front of an audience not immediately in on the joke, though, and the mood tends to range between uncomfortable and downright hostile. His occasional appearances on Jimmy Kimmel are usually met with stunned silence and twitchy confusion among the show’s studio audiences (truthfully, their uncomprehending reactions are as much a highlight of these appearances as anything Neil does), while his performances at various music festivals are largely spent dodging both the deafening boos and physical debris thrown at the stage.
When Tenacious D, the musical comedy duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, toured in support of their 2006 feature film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, they took Hamburger on the road with them as an opening act. If Hot February Night—the recording culled from an early-2007 performance and only now given wide (albeit, in typically perverse fashion, vinyl only) release via longtime label Drag City—is any indication, fans of the D were no more receptive to Neil Hamburger than those present at any of his other brushes with wider exposure. Without physically doing the math, I’d estimate that a good half of this 32-minute recording is spent hurling insults at the audience and baiting hecklers with teasing false starts (“It is such an honor to share the stage with Tenacious D…’s crew!”) and unsnappy comebacks (“I’m making $25,000 tonight for telling these jokes! What do you make for cleaning the oil off of the pan at McDonalds?”). Almost like a sick-joke version of Elvis Presley’s legendarily awful stage banter compilation Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, Hot February Night plays like a stand-up comedy album consisting mainly of the things (flubbed jokes, dead air, angry heckles) that would typically be cut.
Releasing such a train wreck of a performance is a typically Hamburgerian move, though, given that the comedian’s entire persona is like a grotesque parody of stand-up clichés and showbiz narcissism. With his hacky catch phrase (“But thaaaaaat’s my life!”) and celebrity-targeted gags, all delivered in the unsavvy “why did the chicken cross the road?” format, ranging from seemingly random (“Why does God give people AIDS? So they have an airtight excuse for getting out of having to see the latest Robin Williams movie.”) to deliberately offensive (“Why did Colonel Sanders’ daughters absolutely refuse to eat KFC’s extra crispy fried chicken? Because it brought back too many painful memories of their late father’s foreskin.”), the Australian Turkington is quite obviously using Neil Hamburger to cast a jaundiced eye at the toxic mixture of neediness and antipathy at the heart of much American entertainment. His assault on the conventions of the typical nightclub act is like a lower brow but no less deftly satirical spin on Andy Kaufman’s lounge lizard persona Tony Clifton or Sandra Bernhard’s performance art meltdown in her brilliant 1990 concert film Without You I’m Nothing.
Yet, Hot February Night proves once again that the comedy album might not be the ideal format for the Neil Hamburger experience. For the joke to really work, we need to actually see the character, with his persistent pout, greasy 1950’s math teacher fashion sense, and his armful of drinks that he regularly sloshes onto the stage during his performance. An audio recording of Neil Hamburger is essentially just a record of his awful jokes. Even in his combative relationship with the audience, clearly audible here, something is lost. On record, no matter how much we hear them, the audience is always going to feel distant and abstract; only when we can see him interacting with them is his resounding lack of chemistry with his audience genuinely palpable. Though his career predates the technology by a number of years, Neil Hamburger might be the ideal YouTube personality, where clips of his performances and TV appearances can be (and are) passed around as treats for his fans and “WTF” curiosities for newcomers.
Another problem with Hot February Night specifically occurs due to the significant lag in time between the show’s recording and its release. For as much as he keeps returning to favored targets (Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, McDonalds), a good deal of his jokes thrive, at least somewhat, on topicality. Even coming only two and a half years after its recording, jokes about Britney Spears and Dick Cheney, while actually funny, already come off as somewhat musty. Even more so, references to the then-recent passings of James Brown and Gerald Ford not only feel out of date but even cruelly irrelevant. Unlike his recent batch of provocatively tasteless jokes following Michael Jackson’s death, which manage to bristle uncomfortably against the singer’s complicated legacy, Brown and Ford’s relatively cemented reputations simply aren’t fraught with enough lasting conflict to lend these jokes any resonance. In this age of Palin, Bieber, and Jersey Shore, Hot February Night already feels as dated and moth-eaten as Hamburger’s wardrobe.