Laughs, Love and Life
by Tom Scharpling
If laughter is good medicine, then stand-up comedians are travelling doctors, roaming from town to town, dispensing their comedic cures. Metaphor firmly in place, that means performers like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher are highly-skilled specialists. Conversely, a comedian like Neil Hamburger is the guy who checks your blood pressure at Pathmark.
Armed with just his wit and an old-fashioned entertainment aesthetic, Mr. Hamburger plays 350-plus engagements a year at clubs, lounges and pizza parlors across America (not necessarily in that order). While he might be hanging for dear life onto the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder, his dedication to the profession is absolute.
His comedy might not be as perfect as that of the Jay Lenos and Tim Allens of the world. They've got their acts down to a well-timed science, drawing laughs at precise moments. Neil's jokes are more like low-grade fireworks - just as likely to draw groans as applause (and possibly take a finger). His act is of the "warts and all" variety - never perfect, but always real.
That's not to say that Neil Hamburger lives in the ghetto of Outsider Art - he is not "the Jad Fair of comedy". While the Elite dig Mr. Fair's intentions, you'd be hard pressed to get Joe Lunchpail to put on Music To Strip By after a hard day in the factory. Neil doesn't play to a specific scene. While his records are released by "indie rock" record labels, his goal is to have his comedy heard by all people. Like the title of his most recent album states, he does indeed strive to be "America's Funnyman".
(The following interview was conducted via pay telephone as Mr. Hamburger was in the middle of a U.S. tour.)
Neil on ... The Formative Years
LCD: Tell me about your early stand-up experiences.
Neil: Lots of open mikes, birthday parties, that sort of thing. There was a bit more "blue" material. That's what people wanted, and I had a real sense of desperation in those days to get the career going. Now the tides are turning again, and we may add that sort of material to the set once again.
LCD: What comedians influenced you when you were starting out?
Neil: Rich Little is great, of course...Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters. A lot of the TV sitcoms are pretty funny and have been a big influence - any of them that you can name have been a big influence on the comedy of Neil Hamburger.
Neil on ... Life on the Road
LCD: Describe a typical day in the life of Neil Hamburger.
Neil: Well, we have a show to do, so there's no time for a "typical day". Tonight we're in Carson City, which is nice. It's a big show, that's the capital of Nevada. A lot of times we take the smaller shows though, in the smaller towns. You have dinner, then you do the show, and that's pretty much it.
LCD: What is the easiest type of crowd to please, and what is the hardest type to please?
Neil: I'd say the smaller crowds are generally easier, because they can't make as much noise and try to drown you out during your routine. I like playing the nightclubs and the comedy clubs as opposed to these pizza parlors where they don't have a stage per se - you're just kinda stuck in the corner. But you never know what'll happen. It's been a great career overall.
Neil on ... Laughter and Inspiration
LCD: It's your job to make all of us laugh. Where do you turn when it's time for you to laugh?
Neil: Hmmm...have you ever seen Dorf On Golf? Tim Conway - he's real funny - I always try and keep up on his current releases. Rich Little has been an influence. Yakov Smirnoff is quite funny. And especially all of the current comedians out there. I can't keep track of their specific names because they're all so good that they're nearly interchangeable.
LCD: What is it that allows you to take things from everyday life and make them funny?
Neil: Well, you keep up on things. Whether it's current news events, or current slang - "lingo" as they call it - the movies....I try to see as many movies as I can. Performing as often as I do, which is about 350 shows a year, I rarely get the chance to work out any bugs that might hamper a routine, which means I always keep a bottle of insect repellant alongside my gin and tonic.
LCD: What's the most recent movie you've seen, and did you create any new material from the experience?
Neil: Oh yes. I saw one, the new one, oh, what is it called. Very, very exciting. And I think there could be some Oscars, the acting was tremendous. But I can't remember the name. It'll come back to me. Well, it's so popular right now, you probably know what I'm talking about...but yes, I think I'll end up with some new material from it. It's always good to keep current, on top of things.
Neil on ... The Business End of "The Business"
LCD: How did you get the title 'America's Funnyman'?
Neil: The public never actually voted on it. That was actually more of a management decision - a gimmick if you will. I think it's great though. I'm gonna keep using it. But basically it's just a gimmick. My manager has spoken to the copyright office about setting it up as a legal thing, but we haven't heard back from them.
LCD: Based on the content of your album America's Funnyman, your life seemed to be bottoming out around the time it was recorded. What was going on and how are you doing now?
Neil: You know, that album was taken from a handful of shows during a winter tour last year, and though it is very representative of my routine last year, I think the people that produced it must've used some of the more depressing segments purposely, because I get asked that question a lot.
Yes, things were tough. I was going through a painful divorce, and quite frankly, attendance at a lot of the shows was not what it could've been. But I've always been gifted with laughter, and that has seen me through some rough times. Right now I'm doing what I always do - taking the jokes out on the road and performing almost nightly. Some of the problems in my personal situation have not yet been resolved.
LCD: Why do your records come out on "indie rock" labels?
Neil: I don't really know why. But I'm glad they do, so that they can put their whole promotions department to work on just one comedian. If they had all sorts of comedians on the label, they probably wouldn't have as much time for me, or as much loyalty. This way they can really do a bang-up job. Great people.
But I like a lot of the new music. Of course, my personal taste is for Country and Western, like Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond, those guys, that sort of thing. But I don't mind Kenny G. or some of the other new music either. Have you heard that song "Smooth Operator"? That's the sort of newer thing that I hope catches on more as a trend. I don't know who it is. And Jimmy Buffett, I guess that's not strictly "indie rock", but he's done some great records over the years. I have his cassette.
LCD: The "Top 10" list on the America's Funnyman album was censored. Why?
Neil: Right. Well, we were going for a certain audience with that record. I didn't make the decision - that was a management decision. Actually, the people who put together the record, because I just do the shows, and then other people take the tapes and edit them together, and you never know what they're gonna do.
But now if you've seen the show lately, you'll see that we let fly with an occasional R-rated zinger now and again. It just depends on where the show is. Yesterday we had an afternoon show at a junior high school assembly, so there you're gonna keep it clean - you stick to the political material or sight gags. You don't talk about personal problems or impotence or whatever it might be.
LCD: I heard a rumor that there is a Neil Hamburger television special in the works. Could you tell us more?
Neil: It was wonderful. We actually produced an hour-long TV special for national syndication. The show had all kinds of guest stars - it was kind of an old-time variety show starring myself.
It was an introduction to the public what I'm about. It featured songs and skits and routines, all kinds of things.
Unfortunately, the company in Taiwan that we contracted out to make the half-inch or three-quarter inch masters for the syndication company went bankrupt, and our master tape was taken by the Taiwanese government and sold by the bank that seized all their holdings. So we don't know where it ended up. All we know is that the show was aired in India and South Korea.
So what we're trying to do is reconstruct the show using the out takes and the early edits, but this is difficult, so we may have to film again from scratch. We still have a good script, but a lot of money was put into this and with the tape being lost, the investors are a little reluctant to do it again.
LCD: Tell me about the competitiveness of the comedy business.
Neil: Well, let me state right off that I love today's comedians. Funny, funny stuff. They're a great bunch of people, too. Very talented. But yes, sometimes you get into a situation where they will try to take your bookings. You're booked at a club or pizza parlor, you drive 400 miles to get there, and you're off the bill because some comedian with stars in his eyes has slipped the owner a fifty dollar bill for your slot. It can happen.
Neil on ... Comedy
LCD: You utilize many different styles of comedy in your act (jokes, social commentary, physical humor). What are the talents required to master each of these brands of humor, and how did you develop the skills?
Neil: You learn by doing. That's the only way. There are bound to be some bad shows along the way, until you perfect the craft. Physical humor is especially difficult to master. I've been getting more and more interested in it lately, as today's audiences seem too sophisticated sometimes for the simple joke, it just doesn't get them laughing. So you have to try something else. Pull out the eggs and the balloon animals, or whatever you come up with.
LCD: Regarding social commentary, what boundaries do you set for yourself?
Neil: The only boundary is my own lack of knowledge regarding current affairs. I'm always willing to offer social commentary if it will get a laugh.
LCD: Where do you see the future of comedy heading? Will computers be involved in comedy's future?
Neil: I hope not. If I can quote the Constitution here, I think comedy is of the people, for the people, by the people. Computers will never be able to make people laugh - they don't have the timing. I don't know. Can they program in the timing? Or the passion a comedian has for his own material? Maybe it could happen. But it shouldn't. I'd be out of a job.
Neil on ... Showbiz
LCD: How did you meet up with Art Huckman, your manager?
Neil: Huckman approached me after a show in Needles, California, and offered his services. He's Hollywood all the way. Art has worked with a lot of the greats - maybe it will rub off! He was semi-retired from the business after losing a couple of lawsuits, but he saw something in me and I am grateful. He is behind my career 100% for now. He's been my manager for 2 years now, which must be some sort of a record! Sometimes he seems a little tired.
LCD: Which performers do you consider your peers? Any "showbiz secrets" you can disclose to us about your celebrity friends?
Neil: Well, I don't like to discriminate - they're all my peers. So much great entertainment, so many comedians out there. I love playing the same club with a big-name act, like Cook E. Jarr, who I did a show with in Las Vegas, or Lorna Luft, whose act I've always admired.
Lately though, I've been playing a lot of the smaller clubs, outside of the big cities, which is fine, but it makes it hard to get the "showbiz secrets". But I'll tell you what: Jerry Van Dyke, Dick's brother, is supposed to be a great guy with a heart of gold. And here's a great story - Bert Convy, before he passed away, was known to make secret runs in the middle of the night to get chocolate shakes at McDonald's. Never even told the wife, just slipped out the back door. Wonderful!
Art Huckman met Freddie Prinze, the comedian from "Chico and the Man" just a couple of days before he died. He talked to him at a Vons Market in Century City, he was in line behind him. He called the police after the suicide, with his inside story, offered to testify. But then Art has a lot of great stories of working with celebrities, lots of secrets. Lots of secrets. For instance, he did some work for Rich Little years ago, in the 60's. He's been to Rich's house, that sort of thing. He said it was very tidy.
Then there's Richard Hatch, from "Battlestar Galactica", who I met at a self-help seminar, and he was a very, very nice man. This is a great business. I have to admit, I wish my career was headed more on an uphill slope though.
LCD: Finally, to anybody starting out in the comedy business, do you have any advice?
Neil: Please don't steal any more of my bookings. That is getting to be a real problem. Some of these new comedians are ruthless.
° ° °
- Tom Scharpling can be heard from 8 to 11 pm on Monday nights. He
credits Neil's taped Motivation Seminars for overcoming his debilitating
© 1997 WFMU.