The following is an interview with Neil Hamburger I did for a now defunct local magazine in Gainesville called The Satellite. It was published in their June 2008 issue but only partially due to the length. Here's the original interview in its entirety.
That’s His Life: An Interview with Neil Hamburger
In the world of stand-up comedy, there is only one Neil Hamburger. Dressed in a sharp bow tie and tuxedo, a tasteful comb over and a drink or two to keep the blood flowing, Mr. Hamburger has toured most of his life bringing his unique brand of humor and class across the world from clubs to pizza joints alike. He has also made appearances on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, Fox News’ Red Eye, Tom Green Live, and Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job!
We recently had the rare opportunity speak with the man behind the laughs, discussing such topical issues as his new album, the life of a touring comedian, his upcoming show here, and Applebee’s. Be sure to catch his first performance ever in Gainesville on June 24th at Common Grounds. $8 cover, doors at 9:00.
How are you doing this morning?
Oh, you're starting with a tough question are you?
Well, it's been a hard morning because we had a terrible, terrible show last night. Somebody got real sick - you know, in the head, mentally ill - during the show and had to be thrown out of the night club. The guy had I think some sort of disorder. And then of course when you drink 17 rum and cokes, then you really go out of your mind.
Is everyone okay?
Everyone's okay. There was a chair that he was sitting on that is broken now, and I don't know how that happened. I saw the pieces of the broken chair, but of course I was busy doing my thing, which was to tell the jokes you know, and not paying too much attention to the ruckus going on out there.
Well, I'm sorry to hear that.
Well, you know, these things happen in show business. This is not necessarily the career I would recommend for someone that wants something that is sedate or that pays well.
Yeah, well, sorry to hear about that though.
Well, thank you. And you know it could've been worse, but when you see a splintered chair... Now, I don't know if it was broken over somebody's head or the man, because he drank so much, he gained so much weight that the chair just broke under it's own weight or what. You know, you get all kinds of crazy things happening out when you play these nightclubs.
And you're still on the West Coast, right?
Right now, yeah, we're on the West Coast doing shows.
Where are you currently?
Right now we're in a little town called Avenal in California.
So you're on tour right now. You're promoting your new album, Sing Country Winners...
Yes, we've got a new one out and... Well, I would say that we're promoting it, except that we're doing shows year-round anyway. We do a song or two from the album during the course of the show.
Oh, I see. So, you're doing stand-up and music?
Yeah, doing a couple songs just to help promote the record and to break up the monotony of the jokes.
What's kind of strange is this is a country western album. Now, you've done music before, correct?
Very rarely. You know, I'm a comedian. I'll leave the music to the professionals. You know, people like Linkin Park, those assholes. They can play the music and I'll tell the jokes, you know. I don't think you'd want to go see them tell jokes, but I also don't think you'd want to go see them play music. But, you know, we have a couple of songs. I've done over 10 albums now and there were a couple of songs on those albums. Mostly as filler, you know? But, now we've decided to expand the whole concept and really do an all music album to see what goes on with that, see if that can work, because comedy... the kids aren't buying that anymore. You get these horrible music records. Have you heard of a group called Fall Out Boy?
Now that is just some of the worst sewer type of music you'll ever hear. It sounds like rats playing it, you know? It's just terrible music. And yet, you know, they've sold million and millions and millions of copies.
Yes, they have. They've done very well for themselves.
You do a comedy record, you're lucky you can sell a dozen, you know? So, we've decided let's try this music thing out and see if we can get some money happening because it's a tough world we live in. You know about the oil prices. Those are through the roof.
Yeah, they're getting higher and higher.
And I'm sure that's not helping your tour at all.
Well, no, because I drive an average of 700 miles a day.
Wow. That's quite a bit of a distance there.
Yeah, it is, but I'll do it because the show must go on.
It’s interesting you're doing a country western album. What got you to do this?
I was asked to, you know?
I was asked to make the record and I said oh, I'll do it. And it was good because in all my travels across the country, I have had a chance to listen to a lot of country and western that was on the radio. Now, country today sounds more like Linkin Park and you have all the synthesizers and the drum machines and it's terrible, so we went for the old sound with the real instruments. We've got the pedal steel and that sort of thing on this record. So, we're really making it something that the fans can enjoy.
And you're being backed up by some talent there for your band.
Yes we are! We really lucked out. These guys and girls that wanted to play on this are actually some real stellar musicians, and of course they make the record. Now, I know I'm saying all the funny things with sad things and odd ball (sic) things and controversial things over the music, but there are people that have told me, "Neil, we love your new record." And I say, "Well, did you like the lyrics?" And they say, "I didn't even listen to you, I was just listening to the music." They tuned me right out. The music is so top notch, and that's why the bands, you know, I'm doing a few shows with the bands. The shows will be half music and half jokes, and we're calling it The Too Good for Neil Hamburger Band, because that is really the truth when you got guys like our drummer (Prairie Prince) in particular. I mean, the man has played with pretty well everybody, from Chris Isaak to John Fogerty. And now of course we've got Rachel Haden, who's really one of the top female vocalists out there, and she's got the voice of an angel. And she's singing on the goddamn record, too. And Dave Gleason - the man has really conquered the guitar in a way that hasn't been seen in many, many years. And my dear friend Atom Ellis who's playing bass on this, he has played with The New Cars. Have you seen The New Cars?
I haven't seen them live, no.
It's the old Cars, but it's new now, all new. The drummer is also in The New Cars. We have two-fifths of The New Cars. Now how improbable is that for a comedian that is known for making dirty jokes?
I've heard the album quite a bit by the way. It's fantastic actually. It's really great.
Thanks. Thank you very much. We put all we had into it over the course of the three days in which it was recorded.
And you sound very comfortable in the sort of western country music genre. It almost goes hand-in-hand strangely enough. You wouldn't expect that.
Yeah, I was surprised by that, too, especially with the tough recording schedule. You know, most of these songs were done in two takes maximum and I was really intimidated playing and singing with these great musicians, and you know I'm no Pavarotti and I'm no Phil Collins. So when I went in there, I said, well, geeze, what if we have to record this word by word, you know, to piece this thing together. And they said, "Neil, just don't worry about it, just do your thing this. This is a personality record and we're not striving for perfection. Just get comfortable and sing your songs and it should work out you know," and that's what we did.
And it did work out. It did work out really well.
Thank you very much.
Oh, no problem. Now, you've done quite a bit of shows since you started back in...
It was a long, long time ago. When I started out, there was no internet, you know? That's how long it's been. You did have things like applesauce. It wasn't that long ago when people didn't have applesauce in their lives, but we didn't have internet.
Can you tell us a little about how you get started in the business?
Well, you know, everyone has their destiny of what they were born to do, and I somehow mistakenly believed that this was my destiny and that I could have a sensational career if I just worked hard and followed my dream. You've heard people say if you follow your dream and really believe in it, it will happen. I have been following the dream and it has not happened. I am so far into debt and so many lawsuits and problems with my career, and then you see somebody like a Carrot Top who comes along brings in a truck-load of garbage he stole from a Salvation Army donation box. You know, he drags these things onto the stage and that's a show? I mean, you see homeless guys dragging around shopping carts filled with things they've stolen and that's not a show. I'm sorry, that's not a show. You don't pay money to see that.
That's very true. I don't think I've ever heard that, though - the comparison of Carrot Top and a homeless man.
Well, now the whole world can hear it because it's true and it needs to be heard.
Yes, I think so. That's a very good point. You've done a lot of work too with Tim and Eric. They've grown in popularity as you have.
Yes, they are fantastic and we're working on doing some more stuff this summer, trying to film some more stuff and really make a go of it because we really, really enjoy working together.
Have you been on their show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job?
Yes, I did an episode on that show. It was back in the first season and the show was just starting out, and they had me on to play a taxi driver and we drove around for a couple of hours filming and filmed some scenes in a parking lot, and filmed some scenes by the side of the road, and edited it all together. It came out great! All improvised, you know. No scripts for that.
You also work with Tom Green quite a bit. How did you guys meet and start working together?
He had seen my DVD from the Phoenix Greyhound Park and gave me a call. He said, "Neil, come on by, let's do something." We had a mutual friend, a guy by the name of Mike Hickey, who has a sensational band called Daiquiri, and I guess he had given Tom the DVD. And there you have it.
Yeah, I've seen you many times on Tom Green Live that he has on the internet.
Yeah, I might be going on soon, too. I just heard from him yesterday saying that he wanted to do some sort of episodes at his house over the next week maybe.
Any chance of bringing back Poolside Chats?
I don't know about it. You know, it's possible. Everyone has been so busy. The crew there changes a lot over at Tom Green Live and the guys that were filming that and stuff have left, and then they got some new people in, and then they got a TV deal over there at Tom Green Live and things got very hectic. They just didn't have the time and we didn't have the time to get the Poolside Chats going, but I wouldn't rule it out in the future; definitely not. Tom has asked about it, you know, and he's still interested and it's just been a long time since we've actually done it.
Yeah, I've seen a lot of the episodes. They're great stuff; it's just that I'm sad that they've been discontinued.
Yeah, well, you know, it could come back. In the mean time, there's a guy who started a website called poolsidechats.com that has a lot of the old episodes still up there that you can watch in the mean time.
Getting back to your recording history, why is it that Drag City Records is usually the ones putting out your albums and they're primarily a music rock band sort of label. Why haven't you done stuff with comedy record labels?
Well, you know, I did do a thing with Comedy Central last year, like a ten-minute track on a CD they did called Comedy Death Ray. But, in general you know, I say if you've got a winning horse, you keep betting on it. And in the case of Drag City, they asked me to do one album and I said why the hell not, you know, and it was such a pleasure working with those people. They're such good, honest hometown sorts of folks. And they do just such a great job with everything, from the art work down to the promotion. And of course just dealing with them on a day-to-day basis is such a pleasure that, you know... If you want me to leave Drag City, you're going to have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands. But, it's not a situation I would want to leave. And of course a lot of these comedy record labels, you know, you're lumped with a lot of these ha-ha sort of guys that really you don't want to spend any time with on a personal basis. And they have these company Christmas parties at the end of the year. You know, I'd rather spend it with somebody like Bonnie Prince Billy, who I get along with well, rather than drinking eggnog with some of these ha-ha yuck-yuck sort of guys that are out to stab you in the back at any chance they get.
Yeah, you know, it's tough.
What's your opinion of comedy today? I mean, there seems to be a lot of comedians today coming out with new material that's not as traditional, like Tim and Eric and other contemporaries. What's your view on that?
Well, I do like Tim and Eric a lot. Those guys are the funniest guys out there. There's a guy named Andy Kindler I really like who's very funny. He's a bit on the negative side sometimes, but I like that. But you know a lot of these guys... I mean, and there are a lot of other great ones out there, but there are some of these guys who come out and they start telling you an account of what happened when they went to Home Depot that day. Well, twenty minutes later I'm saying to myself, well that's fine, but where's the laughs? Where's the jokes? I'm sorry that you dropped a paint can on your foot but we need a punch line, you know? Let's get to the laughs. And that's the trend that I don't like. I don't want to hear about your miserable life. I just want to hear a joke. Let's hear something funny. That's why we go out to see comedies; to laugh and forget our problems, not to absorb someone else's problems.
Very true. Now, you were in Australia earlier this year to record with a band?
Yeah I did an album there with a group called the Hard-Ons, which is an obscene phrase, but they're a real popular uh... punk music is the type of music, and they have been playing in Australia for 25 years. They're a very, very legendary group there. And I was there doing a tour. I've done 14 Australian tours now, and I was doing another one and these guys approached me and said, "Neil! Let's do a record together!" So we went into a studio in Sydney, knocked that over a course of a day. It's just a four-song record, but I think it came out pretty well. I don't know who's releasing it or when. The Hard-Ons of course have had many, many records over the past 25 years, released in America, in Europe, and Australia; that sort of thing. So, we'll see. It's sort of a strange combination of their loud music and my... well, shall we say personality-oriented vocals.
I'll have to keep an eye out on that. And not only have you played in Australia, but you've also played all across the globe pretty much: Canada, Ireland, New Zealand… you name it, you've probably been there.
Well I have not been to Cuba, and I have not been to China, and I have not been to Nepal.
North Korea? No, not yet?
No, not been to Korea, I have not been to Iraq; I have not been to Spain. So, there are a few more that we do need to get our shows set up in, but we're doing the best that we can.
Over the years of touring constantly, is there any place that you prefer or one of your better experiences or...
Well, I'll tell you, I've always had good luck in Australia from doing so many tours there and they keep bringing me back, so that's been good. Canada, always good for a laugh up there in Canada. They always respond real well. We're going back to England this year, which should be good; try and tap into that whole scene. It's very expensive over there, but maybe we can make it work. I don't know. Portland, Oregon is always a great town for me. And Boston, we always have a good show out there in Boston. And Austin Texas has been dynamite every time. Fargo, North Dakota, we always have a great show. And of course Phoenix, Arizona has been very, very good for me in the past. And San Francisco, San Diego, all the wonderful, sensational towns for me where the people really do come out. Now, I don't know what's going to happen in Florida. I have not played there in about five years.
Where did you play at?
I did three shows there in the summer of 2003. It was in Orlando and Miami and also in Tallahassee.
So this will be your first time in Gainesville?
It will be the very first time.
Well, that will be a privilege.
You think the folks will come out or is there so much going on there with the sports and the football and all that?
Right now the sports thing is dying down. So yeah, I think you'll do well. A lot of my friends are trying to get more people to come to the show because we realize that the very fact that you're coming here is something else entirely, so we're going to try and get as many people possible.
I'm glad to hear, because I've went through the town once before and I had something to eat there, and I looked around and I said this is where we should be playing. But it's taken many, many years to make that dream happen, so I'm glad to hear that there could be some interest there and it wasn't just my insane speculation.
Where was it here that you ate at?
Well, I had... I almost think I had some falafel or something. I don't know.
I think, but... and you know, I don't remember every meal, but I do think it was something of that nature that I had while I was passing through.
It might've been Gyros Plus. That's a great place. Good, good, good food; very good food.
Oh, so the restaurant still exists?
Yes, oh yeah. If it's the place I'm thinking of, then yes.
Oh, okay. That may have been where I ate. You know, I came into town and drove around a bit. We were looking for a thrift store or something. I was looking for something. I don't remember what I was looking for, but I went in looking for something and that's when I had this memorable meal. It was quite good.
Yeah, the food here is really good. Most of it is locally grown. Good stuff.
That's what we like. We don't want anymore Applebee’s meals ever.
Can you tell me anymore about this Greg Turkington fellow?
Oh that guy has produced some of my records. And I don't know a lot about his career outside of the records of mine that he's produced, you know.
I know he was in a band called the Zip Code Rapists. Have you ever toured with them?
No, I haven't, but I don't really keep up on all that - on the music and things like that you know. Kind of more involved in just getting from town to town and I don't always have the time to listen to these new sorts of bands you know, unless it's on the radio.
Well I haven't really followed them closely, but I know that they've been around for some time and I've heard some of their stuff; great stuff.
Yeah it sounds good to me. I do like good music, but I can't say that I'm familiar with those guys and I didn't know that he was a musician. I just know that he records some of my shows and makes them into albums, which is very nice. You know, someone would do something like that.
So, again, this is your first time in Gainesville. Coming into this show, do you have any certain expectations? Because I know Gainesville sort of has a reputation.
Well, there was a group that I toured with in Australia years and years ago that was from Gainesville.
Oh, who was that?
I don't know if they're still there and I don't know if they're still making music. They were called Less Than Jake. I don't know if they still play that music.
Yes, they still play.
Well those guys I did about eight or nine shows with them in Australia. Oh, it must've been eight years ago or so, and I don't know why we were playing together. Certainly their music is different than my comedy. But, how we were paired up together... and I had a real good time. They were real nice people. Now I don’t know who is still in the groups. Sometimes in these groups, you'll see them and there's one original member. Have you seen The Temptations lately? These guys, some of them are 20 years old you know. You weren't born yet (sic), what is this? I don't know what happened with Less Than Jake. I mean maybe they don't live in Gainesville anymore, I don't know, but I know that's where they were from because they would talk about it. They would have anecdotes and things.
Yeah, I'm sure most of the band members are still together.
Well, there you go. That's my main anecdote; is spending time with those guys throughout Australia. We did a show in Darwin, Australia, which is... if you look at your map, it is one of the most isolated towns there is, and we somehow got a show going there. It was pretty unusual. I'll tell you, they sold some real tough shows for me because we were playing pretty big venues through these punk rock type of bands you know, and real idiots some of them, people throwing things at me.
That seems to happen a lot to you.
Oh, it was tough. And I'll tell you, we did one show in Perth, Australia on the West Coast of Australia - again, a very isolated town and not many people ever visit - and the crowd was so horrible at the first show. We did the next night just a few miles away and I was terrified because they were throwing glass bottles and that sort of thing. So, we went out and rented a wheelchair, and I had the roadies for the tour put me on the stage in the wheelchair, and I had to come out and say to the crowd that I was an American comedian who had cancer and that playing in Australia in Perth was my dream and the Make-A-Wish Foundation had sent me out there to open for Less Than Jake and it was my dying wish, and so please be patient.
And, you know, that had the crowd pretty quiet. They believed the story and they hadn't seen me walking around earlier, and I did the show sitting there and people were being very patient. But, can you believe this; after long enough, they started throwing things anyway. That's when I jumped up out of the chair, told them all off and ran off the stage followed by a shower of bottles and that sort of thing. But those guys, they saw some pretty wild shows back then you know. Unfortunately, I try not to tour with the punk rock bands because it just leads to all kinds of trouble. These kids come out to see this kind of music and instead they're getting this well-dressed comedian. You know, that's just a bad combination.
Speaking of hecklers… I mean, I'm sure you've had your share of terrible hecklers from the years of touring and performing. Any that sticks out in your mind as some of your worse experiences with hecklers?
You know, I don't think I even want to tell you if there was. I mean, there have been some real creeps. You know, real sickies. I'll tell you one thing. All the heckling I've had, I've never heard anything funny coming out of their mouths. You know, these are... it's not a good breed of people, the hecklers you know. And they can't win because they don't have a microphone. They can yell this or that, but I can always overpower them. I'll tell you, when we were in New York playing in Madison Square Garden. That was a good one because the whole crowd started chanting "asshole" at me. You know, that was notable. I can't say it was wonderful, but it was notable. I was opening for Tenacious D and that's what they wanted to see, so they started chanting "ASSHOLE, ASSHOLE," and it gets tough. It's a little tough trying to continue, but I went ahead and did my entire half-hour set. I wasn't going to let those jerks get me down.
And I heard that was a pretty good show.
Yeah, I did the best I could, I tell you. Yeah, I definitely tried. I did all the jokes and I guess I sort of antagonized a few people over the course of the... because, you know, what are you going to do when you come out and five minutes into your set they're chanting asshole to you, 17,000 people. You've got to fight back.
How do you do it after all these years?
How do I keep going?
Yes, how do you... I mean the sheer tenacity. How do you do it?
Well, it gets easier with time you know because it's all I do at this point. It's all I've done for many years and it's sort of like putting on your shoes. It just becomes part of your life. I think I'd be more uncomfortable not doing it. If I had a night off, which I don't EVER, I don't know what I would do. I'd probably pace the walk way of the rest area that I would be staying at on my night off because, I tell you, getting hotels is tough when you're not making much money. So it could be a real frustrating time to have a night off because then you're left alone with your thoughts and those can drive you crazy. You know, negativity and self-hatred and hatred for others. And before you know it, you've derailed yourself and you're not doing well. So, I prefer to keep working. And also because I owe so much money that I need to pay off.
Yeah, those debts aren't going to pay themselves.
No. I don't know what sort of work you're doing. I'm assuming you're making a good living as a journalist.
Oh, god no. I'm a student and I am broke as hell.
Well then you know.
You've got to pay the piper and that's the thing. And if I can keep on doing these shows and kept from being left alone with my thoughts, which are quite grim sometimes, then that's probably the best thing for me.
Well, do you have any last words for our readers in Gainesville?
Well please come on out. I'm really looking forward to this show. We wanted to get to Gainesville back in 2003 when I did that Florida tour and, at that time, couldn't seem to get the show booked, so it's good now that we're coming out this time and it's actually Miami we're having trouble booking. It seems like that's a difficult town for a lot of people and I don't know why because it's a big town you know. But yes, Gainesville is something I'm very much looking forward to and I do hope people come out. And I think with this article that might happen if anyone listens to what you say. I mean, you might do better if you try to prove to your editors that you've got some sort of crowd. You might do an article on this new Indiana Jones movie and you say it's good, right? And then when it opens next week, when it breaks all box office records, you could say "see, they listened to me."