[21 July 2014]
Stand-up Neil Hamburger shares a few things in common with Sir Les Patterson. Both are characters created by Australians (Hamburger by Gregg Turkington and Patterson by Barry Humphries). Also, Hamburger and Patterson are both dishevelled and uncouth, sometimes physically repulsive, but adept with language, and seem to take delight in the act of provocation.
Hamburger is a perfect subject to review for PopMatters, having a long association with music, opening for rock acts such as Tenacious D and appearing in adverts for Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Turkington himself has previous form in the music industry, playing in a number of bands, and founding the Amarillo Records label. First of Dismay, Hamburger’s 10th full-length comedy album, is liberally peppered with references to pop culture—the jokes often feature well-known musicians, with references to the Jackson 5, Eddie Vedder, Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Limp Biscuit and Frank Sinatra. More significantly, Hamburger is a creature of meta-irony, which is perfectly suited for a review on the internet.
Why so? As Adam Buxton has so wittily demonstrated on his Bug programs, the internet is over-populated with very angry and communicative individuals, and anyone who publishes on the internet should almost expect that their review is hammered with abuse of one sort or another. The internet critic is in a similar position to the comedian. The critic has trolls and flame wars, the comedian hecklers. Both critic and comedian are faced with the potential for great negativity. About half way through First of Dismay, Hamburger rails at the audience: “He laughed…the rest of you get with the program, then we can really have some fun. The burden is not on the entertainer, it’s on the audience to come with a positive attitude.”
The world of meta-irony begins with the starting position that the audience is in on the joke so an ironic position is assumed as the default. Neil Hamburger’s misanthropy is no doubt ironic, because his humour is purposefully at the edge of acceptability (Hamburger himself often groans and suffers along with the rest of the audience, sometimes even whimpering before he tells the joke in what seems something like self-loathing), but the problem we may have is that there is likely to be an element of the audience who are laughing along with Hamburger instead of at his tirade of abusive scorn. This puts us in a difficult position. As David Foster Wallace has pointed out in relation to irony and television, we are responsible as an audience because nobody is forcing us to watch/listen. Moreover, as Lewis Hyde has suggested, irony should only have emergency use and “carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Hamburger is a long distance away from Foster Wallace’s vision of the new anti-rebel, who “may have the childish gall [there’s that word again] to endorse single-entendre values.”
All this may be a too serious analysis of what is, after all, comedy. Ultimately however a provocateur must provoke for a reason. Here it must be to expose, and the method is satire. The reaction to Hamburger from the audience at Tenacious D concerts also suggests his work is an act bordering on performance art, and some audiences may react adversely either because they don’t like the mean-spirited humour or don’t appreciate Hamburger’s jokes are effectively jokes within a joke—i.e. Hamburger himself. First of Dismay is a continuation of this, sequencing cut-ups of recordings of appearances at nightclubs in London, Savannah and Los Angeles with studio versions of comedy songs. It’s a sign of the times perhaps that this approach was taken since the days of selling millions of copies of comedy albums, well recounted in David and Joe Henry’s book Furious Cool, could well be gone. Attention spans are shorter, and as a product, the comedy album is somewhat anachronistic due to DVD, blu-ray and the digital revolution. First of Dismay is therefore very much an add-on to seeing Hamburger live, a souvenir to buy at the end of the night.
Overall the comedy is focused on popular culture, but Hamburger’s targets are wide-ranging, from American Idol, Penn and Teller and Liza Minnelli, and other comedians (Carrot Top), to audience members. The audience seem to very much appreciate the torrent of abuse unleashed upon them, and participate in the cultish call-out ritual of “What?” and “Why?” in the prelude to some of Hamburger’s jokes, in a postmodern parody of the school-yard two-liner. Hamburger self-flagellates throughout, in disgusting and repellent displays of regurgitative throat-clearing. It’s fair to say it’s not easy listening. The material is at times extreme and Hamburger’s sense of humour unpleasant (there’s an obscene joke about Marcel Marceau which is somewhere near outrageous). The music interludes perhaps help to make the album a less brash experience. The accompaniment ensures the experience comes across as more upbeat, even if the subject matter is not. Most are country-ish laments about troublesome times in life such as “Your Town USA” and Hamburger’s takes on Marty Robbins’ “Overhurt and Underloved” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. “Nickel Candy” is a peculiar lament of social decline. “Endless Roll” is a disco complaint letter featuring members of the Germs and Jefferson Starship. The songs are pure novelty, and you have to wonder whether they will bear long-term repeated listening.
Turkington is clearly inventive and brimming over with ideas, pushing the idea of Hamburger, or Hamburger’s ideas, to the limit and underneath it all there’s a punk rock aesthetic that may please music fans. However you have to be able or willing to cope with a full-on assault to the system. It may bring you down to a degraded state of fear and loathing. You can only be thankful that you are not Neil Hamburger. He’s doing it so that we don’t have to. Cathartically appalling, this is the nature of America’s self-titled Funnyman. Something’s rotten somewhere, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?