Interview Week: Neil Hamburger

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Neil Hamburger

For all of comedian Neil Hamburger’s antagonism, barracking, and rabble-rousing, he sure is a personable cat. Sure, for the last twenty-odd years, he’s not missed lambasting any person in the public eye with toilet jokes and over-the-top sexual scree. And yeah, he can be borderline abusive in dealing with hecklers (though “zipperlips” ain’t that rash). And if you’ve taken even a brief glance at his Twitter feed, you’d think he has only negative things to say – mostly to Taco Bell, shitty hotel chains, and other corporate peddlers of foulness. But I must admit: Neil Hamburger, what a mensch! I imagine him decked out in his ever-present tuxedo, even while on this phone call, to which he is meticulously punctual. Ever the consummate professional, real chap, and articulate gentleman—only the kindest compliments can be heaped upon the hilarious, grizzled visage that is Neil Hamburger.

Hamburger is currently on the road supporting a duet release with Margaret Cho for Drag City Records, not to mention his vast back catalog, which recently boasts a Third Man Records live joint as well. He hits the Knitting Factory Sunday, June 17, and continues on tour through July (we've put the dates at the end).

So you’re upset about corporate intrusion in your life.

Well you know, you do try to stay positive in this day and age. But unfortunately, there are all kinds of things that are upsetting. Many of them are of more of a personal nature or a financial nature. But certainly the types of things you might see… If you were to spend as much time driving down highways and freeways and access roads and that sort of thing that I do on a daily basis and checking into a hotel or a motel every single day of the week, and if you had to find three meals a day utilizing whatever was in the vicinity of where you’re staying, believe me, you would work up a healthy rage toward a lot of these companies. But obviously if you’re at home, you’re at home and I would think a normal person would try and keep their things in their home and make them happy. But when your home is some motel that’s in the midst of some goddamned mall town, you know, unfortunately these things are slapping you in the face everywhere you look.

In regards to you being on the road, I’ve seen you have some words for Motel 6. Where’s your favorite place to stay on the road and why?

Well, you know, the Motel 6 was a place we avoided for some time. As you may know there is a severe problem in a lot of the towns these days with crystal meth and that sort of thing. And unfortunately we were encountering a lot of these dealers and users at the Motel 6, in the parking lots. When you come back after doing a show at two in the morning, the last thing you need is some sort of confrontation with a knife-wielding weirdo, and you get a few of those at the Motel 6 unfortunately. But the last time that I did stay in one, it seemed like they’d cleaned up their act a little bit and gotten rid of those—you’ve seen them. It’s a bedspread they have that’s sort of a Route 66 motif. It’s a polyester type of bedspread and it doesn’t hide any sort of, shall we say, “human crust” very well. It’s very visible. They seem to have upgraded some of the rooms with this new sort of bed covering that is easier to wash after each guest. And that, of course, is how you keep the room free of scabies and bed bugs and ejaculate. So I will salute them for that. As for my favorite room, I would love to stay at the Ritz Carlton, but that’s not really an option. So in the price range that I’m relegated to, there are no favorites, because all of them are a little bit…lacking, shall we say. I did stay at a very, very, very nice Days Inn in Modesto, California over the weekend that I had actually stayed in fifteen years prior and it remains a very nice hotel.

Something to be said for maintenance.

Agreed. And for just updating the rooms occasionally.

So you’re on the road. You mentioned eating, trying to find three meals a day. I’m curious what your worst fast-food experience has been.

Any of those places, you go in and you know, it’s always going to be the worst. If you’ve gone a thousand times it’s a thousand-experience tie for worst place, you know? I stay away from that now. The best thing to do really is to carry an apple in your glove compartment, maybe a can of fruit cocktail, a plastic fork. That’s how you stay healthy, you know what I’m saying? Fruit cocktail. I don’t know how you feel about an unfinished Egg McMuffin or one of those chicken sandwiches they have when it’s fallen on the floor and somebody’s stepped on it and slipped—because of the bread and mayonnaise and things—slipped, and the bread skids across the tiles of the floor of the restaurant. It’s really disgusting. It’s really off-putting, because of the crumbs and the general consistency of the bread getting into the grooves of the tiles. And that’s the kind of thing that can really put you off eating for several days.

I follow your Twitter pretty avidly, have for a while. Why do you use that as a medium for corporate warfare of sorts? Don’t you think there’s a better avenue?

We’re just trying to have some fun. It’s just there and it’s free-of-charge and everybody seems to be reading it. It was not something I would financially gravitate towards, I’ll tell you. I would probably rather, with the sorts of things that I have to say, I’d rather mutter them out of the side of my mouth to whomever is in earshot, you know? But some of my fans, and folks-in-the-know in the entertainment industry said, “Neil, instead of just saying these things, why don’t you type them out on this little website and press the button? And then everyone reads it.” And it seemed crazy to me, like something out of a Star Trek or one of these TV shows. But we gave it a shot, and I have to say, the response was great. Not only were people paying attention, which normally they don’t when you say these sorts of things at truck stops, or to people that you meet at a restaurant or at a bar or something. Normally they’re not listening at all. These folks, these Twitter followers, they pay attention, and, the real bonus is that the companies themselves are forced to read your words and listen to your complaints, whereas normally they don’t. And the other thing is – and this is really the secret of it all, and really what makes it such a wonderful website – is that it’s the one forum, I believe, in America today, in which you can actually defeat these rotten people. Because, you can have more followers than they do. Now, if you take somebody like Purex: no matter how much I hate Purex, I can go into any store anywhere in the United States and their products are for sale. There are millions of transactions a day involving Purex. They win. I’m lucky if I get seventy-five people at some of these shows that I’m doing, you know what I’m saying? I’m having trouble paying to fill the tank of my car when I’m on the road. These Purex guys are literally building a ten-story mansion just to store all the dollar bills they’re getting selling this goddamn soap. But on Twitter, I actually can have more people following me, taking my side, and shaming Purex, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They can’t shut me up, they are not winning, and every shitty thing I have to say about them, they cannot fight back – because nobody cares. They are the laughing stock. They are the person under the thumb. So it’s nice to have the tables turned, even if it’s just in this one format.

Are you scared about government censorship, or perhaps corporate control, over Twitter?

It seems that everything goes that way eventually. But for the time being… I have met folks who work at Twitter and asked them, ‘Look, what if I were to go on there and say, for instance, Heinz ketchup is a substandard product. What if I were to really take the gloves off and say something like that?’ And I’m not saying that because I do in fact enjoy Heinz ketchup. But let’s just say as, an example, that I were to say that and Heinz ketchup were to get in touch with Twitter and say, ‘We don’t like what he’s saying, it’s not true. Studies have shown that our ketchup is actually quite good. What can you do to shut this guy up?’ I was told firsthand by high-up employees at Twitter, that they would tell Heinz ketchup to go piss up a rope, that people are free to say whatever the hell they want and that they will always back the person saying what is it they wanted to say, unless what they’re saying is, ‘Meet me at the corner of First and Main to molest children,’ in which case they probably wouldn’t back you up.

Is everything about the bottom line for you? You said Twitter wasn’t something you’d be financially drawn to; you’re talking about your price range in hotels. Is Neil Hamburger all about making money?

Not at all. It’s not so much that I need to have a lot of money. I just need to stave off these creditors and these folks that I owe money to. To them, it’s all about the bottom line. But the problem is, when they’re pounding on your door and trying to take away what little you have, it’s a little bit intimidating, you know what I’m saying? I’m perfectly content to have very little. I need very little to keep going. I’m used to it. It would be really nice to have something like three pairs of shoes to rotate. To live that sort of wealthy lifestyle would be great. But unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. I am worried, I am worried about the bottom line in as much as if one doesn’t worry about it at all, one finds himself quickly going down the drain, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Over the last ten years or so you’ve been appearing variously with a bunch of musicians. Do you any plans for cameos in the future?

You never know what’s going to turn up. We could get a call tomorrow and somebody says, “Hey, we’ve got this dirtbag rock ‘n’ roll band who needs a comedian to warm up the stupid pigs that they perform for.” And you know, that’s the type of show that I would love to accept. Because it can be quite lucrative and of course you’re playing the types of venues that know how to handle the minor details, you know? When you play at one of these types of venues you can count on having potato chips and water and that type of thing in your dressing room. And often a mirror or even some hooks to hang the tuxedo on to air it out. And that type of thing really makes traveling all the better. But we don’t have anything in the cards right now, as for as touring with a rock ‘n’ roll band. However, I would say, as long as we’re speaking about music, that we did cut a record recently, a 45rpm single record of duets, duets with myself and the great comedian Margaret Cho. We have done these duets for release as a record this summer.

That’s great. I hadn’t heard about that one yet.

It’s done, it’s coming out, I don’t know when. That’s not my department to keep track of things like that. But I think there’s a real natural blend of the voices and the people may be surprised at the beauty of these songs. The folks at Drag City are distributing this record. They will know more about it.

You also have a record coming out on Third Man, right? Live at Third Man Records?

This record came out. This record is out there. It’s out on the streets, you know. The heat is on. It is on when it comes to this record because folks are buying it and talking about it and hopefully we have a hit on our hands. You never really know until the dust has settled. But it certainly is a record to be proud of, not like some of these… You know sometimes you really lay an egg when it comes to making a record, and that’s easy to do because it’s hard to know what will end up on these records some times. But this one seems to be quite popular so we’re very glad about that.

Do you know Jack White personally?

We certainly worked together on putting this little record together and I have seen him socially at various times when I’m in the Nashville area. He’s a wonderful guy who comes out to the shows and has a great sense of humor. And of course, that’s what we’re concerned with, is that folks are laughing. And he’s a guy that, honestly, when I’ve talked to him, has been buying Neil Hamburger records since the very beginning. The first time I met him he was asking me about a detail on the first record I ever did, back in 1992. He had this record. So that’s how far back he goes as a fan. It’s great to have somebody who is aware of what we’re trying to do here and to bring that to the production of a new record.

1992, that would have been Great Phone Calls?

We did a single record called Looking For Laughs that was a little 45 that he was most interested in, as I recall from the conversation. That was the one that he was asking about. And we did a follow-up called Bartender, The Laugh’s On Me, which was another very early effort. Now these are records that do not reflect the show currently. But you put twenty years worth of touring on somebody and they are going to change. And in my case, twenty years of touring for a normal entertainer would be great. But twenty years of touring for me is like forty-five or fifty years of touring for anyone else because there are no days off.

How many shows have you done so far this year?

How many days of the year are there? We had a couple nights off, if you call them nights off, where I was flying between Australia and the United States. It’s pretty hard to do a show on the plane. So you do lose that, right there, on these fifteen-hour flights. Although, if you’re a student of aviation history, you’ll know that in 1970, they were promoting the 747s and the lounge that they have. If you’ve ever flown on one of the jumbo jets you know that there’s a second story, which a lot of the time is first-class seating. But in 1970, to promote the route between Los Angeles and New York, they actually set up a little stage up on that second story, and the great Frank Sinatra Jr., who is a personal idol of mine, Frank Sinatra Jr. and his band would perform on the flight between New York and Los Angeles, back and forth, back and forth. And passengers on the plane could go up the stairs and enjoy this concert. So you do have a precedent for performers doing shows on airplanes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be happening anymore, and so when I did make the trip to Australia, and from Australia, all I could do was sit there stewing in my little seat and watching entertainment on offer.

I read some reviews from your show in Australia. The Australians seem to be confused by it. How did you think it went?

Well, that was my fifteenth tour there. I don’t know what reviews you’re reading, anybody can write a review. But there’s always going to be a bit of confusion. Unfortunately, or fortunately, anyone can walk into any nightclub, and so you get folks who are drugged out of their minds, who don’t understand which way is up, and they can be a little confused. We’ve generally had great shows in Australia, which is why we go there year after year after year. But depending on the type of show. Now we did some comedy festivals over there, which I had never done before, and you do attract a different crowd at a comedy festival. And I will admit there were a few folks who tuned in to what we were trying to do, which is, of course, to make people laugh.

You do get heckled a lot. How do you maintain a positive self-image?

I don’t recall saying that I do maintain a positive self-image. I think you’re putting words into my mouth.

My apologies.

But you do get heckled, that’s true for me but that’s also true for anyone in the entertainment business. Because unfortunately, due to rampant narcissism in our world today, these folks come out to the show, and they sit there watching for a couple minutes, and then they say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not about me anymore. I can’t just sit here and watch somebody perform.’ And then they’ve got to stand up and say something and draw all the attention to themselves, because these are the people with the true poor self-image. I mean, you go to the movies now and you get these wiseacres talking through the whole goddamn movie. Now I don’t remember that happening twenty or thirty years ago. But now, it doesn’t matter what it is, everybody’s a star, everybody’s got to talk and talk and talk and talk and throw in their two cents. It’s really too bad, because as much as everyone deserves the spotlight for what it is that they’re good at, when they’re not good at it, they should shut up and sit there and watch the true professionals entertain and stop trying to steal the spotlight with their asinine comments.

You brought up 1992. I wanted to ask what it felt like to have that album Great Phone Calls on Spin’s list of “Greatest Comedy Albums Ever”.

Well, this is one of these situations where this is not a record that represents what we’re trying to do. These are some phone calls, some off-the-cuff sort of thing, and it catches on like wildfire. When something catches on, of course, the glory is being reflected up on yourself. It’s pretty hard to poo-poo it. So at this point, I would say it’s something to be very, very proud of. At the time, you know, you’re making a couple phone calls to kill some time and that’s it. That’s as far as you think it’s going to go. But these phone calls get taped and distributed and before you know it that’s all anyone wants to hear. And you certainly can’t argue with that, you know. On the other hand, that can go too far. I mean if you were, let’s say for instance you went to Taco Bell and had a meal, a couple of the Mexican Pizzas or some of the dishes they have. They just had this new Doritos thing that they’re pushing. Now as an example, this hasn’t happened, but let’s say that you went into the bathroom afterwards and had some sort of, shall we say, “distress”. It could be a diarrhea situation or just some sort of bowel distress. And let’s say that somebody went and put a secret microphone in the room and let’s say that they took the sounds of this diarrhea caused by this food and added them to a rap song and used your bowel movements as some sort of sample. As you know, if you follow hip-hop that’s what they do, they sample things, right?

And let’s say that the sounds of you being sick from eating a bad meal were put on a rap song that became the number-one song of the year, the biggest selling song. And let’s say then that the song was nominated for a Grammy and that the Grammy Award committee insisted that each of the people involved with the production of the record should be on stage to accept the Grammy Award statuette for best song of the year. OK? And let’s say then that these rap producers said, ‘Well, we’ve got to bring this guy because it’s actually his explosive diarrhea that formed the backbeat of this hit single.’ If they call you up and say ‘Come and accept your Grammy!’ you’re probably going to do it, you know? Even though this is nothing to be proud of, being sick.

And that’s how these things can change for people depending on the situation. Normally having diarrhea is something to be ashamed of. And you haven’t done anything different. Somebody else has taken your work, if you want to call it that, and turned it into a Grammy Award for you, and I bet you that you’ll be telling your parents and your friends to tune into the Grammys and feeling pretty proud of what you’ve done, am I right? And really you have no reason to be proud. But that’s just human nature. We will take credit for things, even though it’s really just something to be ashamed of.

Is there anything else you’d like to address?

I think we’ve covered everything. If you’ve got any further questions I’ll answer them. But as for having an open floor and trying to say things, that’s not something that interests me. I would say, however, that we’ve got quite a few records available that were put out through Drag City that we’re very, very proud of and we do hope the folks who enjoy this interview, who enjoy a good laugh, or a good country song, or whatever, what have you, will pick up one of my many recordings through Drag City. And I hope that the folks who’ve enjoyed this interview conversely will be sure to subscribe to your publication and patronize the advertisers and just make the whole thing a success. And hopefully this leads to a Pulitzer Prize for you and great success for all concerned.

Tour dates for Neil Hamburger:

Mon. June 18 Washington, DC @ Black Cat w/ Duncan Trussell
Tue. June 19 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s w/ Duncan Trussell
Fri. June 22 Calgary, AB @ Sled Island Music Festival w/ Tim Heidecker, Natasha Leggero, Todd Barry
Sat. June 23 Calgary, AB @ Sled Island Music Festival w/ Tim Heidecker, Natasha Leggero, Todd Barry
Fri. July 6 Fresno, CA @ Audie's Olympic w/ Major Entertainer Mike
Fri. July 27 Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall w/ Tim Heidecker (two shows: 7:30 & 10:30)
Sat. July 28 Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre w/ Tim Heidecker
Sun. July 29 Milwaukee, WI @ Shank Hall w/ Tim Heidecker