Saturday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m.
So you’re about to talk to a comedian who plays a comedian on stage: a bitter, offensive, gross-looking, not-that-funny-but-still-funny-in-a-weird-pitiful-is-this-really-happening kind of way. Then, a thought flashes into your head mere minutes before the interview: Will you be talking to the character or the guy playing him?
The character in question is Neil Hamburger
, a comic persona created by 46-year-old, Australian-born Gregg Turkington. On stage, Turkington (as Hamburger) rocks a tuxedo, gigantic glasses, a hideous comb-over and a spiteful scowl, often cradling a trio of drinks that get spilled on him and the stage throughout his performance.
Known for playing in front of hipster crowds at rock venues rather than comedy clubs filled with what he calls “the pig type of audience,” Hamburger’s anti-comic style consists of spouting off one-liners and question-and-answer zingers that aren’t so much knee-slappers as coarse, dark-humored groaners. This is when he’s not loudly coughing up phlegm, which is practically his built-in mechanism for cutting off hecklers.
But something very interesting happens when you speak to Hamburger, who claims to be calling from a shopping center in Paso Robles, California. (Sears Auto is working on his car so he can get to the next gig.) The more you talk to him, the more you realize he has a comic philosophy that many comedians who aren't parody characters, from Chris Rock to Louis C.K. to the recently departed Joan Rivers
, share: to be brutally, daringly honest on the mike.
“It’s hard to spit out jokes with venom when you’re not feeling it,” he explains. “And you do want to put on an honest performance. And if there’s absolutely no real rage directed at the subject of the joke, it starts to feel a little bit, you know, phony, and then the whole thing falls apart. The next thing you know, you’re telling jokes about squirrels and rabbits to an audience of two children.”
Like most comics who are real people more than personas, Hamburger’s comedy is mostly about raging against the mediocrity machine. He takes wicked glee in slamming celebs who do subpar work. (One infamous routine has him spending several minutes tearing Steven Tyler a new one.) But he’s also been known to take it easy when he runs into his victims. He had one vicious joke aimed at the late Robin Williams, which he started to push out of his act shortly after he met the man.
“About a year before he died, I shared a bill with Mr. Williams,” Hamburger remembers. “He came right up to me and said he was a big fan and knew my act very well, which surprised me. And I thought, ‘Wow, this guy, he’s heard these jokes, these horrible, horrible cheap shots that I told at his expense, and he’s still a fan.’ That’s a classy entertainer, you know what I mean?”
But don’t get it twisted—Hamburger, who will star in his own movie, Entertainment
, next year, can still be an unforgiving son-of-a-bitch on stage, railing against “ghastly entertainers of the present” in his act. And that’s what Neil Hamburger is all about—the salty, nasty alter ego of one performer, who speaks to the salty, nasty sides of those who are willing to go down that dark road with him.