Neil Hamburger is no ordinary man. Ordinary men don’t perform comedy shows over 400 times a year, upwards of three times a night, in venues ranging in size from pizza places to Madison Square Garden. Ordinary men don’t have 21 CDs, singles, DVDs, and EPs to their name. And ordinary men don’t have cult followings, catchphrases, or an IMDB page littered with guest-starring roles or appearances on talk shows. Neil Hamburger is no ordinary man, but he wants to be.
He wants off weekends and holidays. He wants time to relax — to not have to worry about where he’s going to set up his next cot, how many hundreds of miles he has to drive in a day, or where his dinner’s going to come from. He just wants an ordinary life, but he can never have it. Neil is a comedian. He travels the world making people laugh — sometimes for money, sometimes for pizza, and sometimes for nothing. But can you put a price on laughter? Neil’s hoping you can, and that it’s enough to get him to his next show.
Ben Kharakh: How are you?
Neil Hamburger: Oh, you know, getting ready for the big show tonight.
BK: Where are you performing tonight?
NH: We’re playing the regular Paso place. We play up in Paso Robles several times a month. Pizza parlor up there, you know…
BK: Did you get a chance to try that Oreo Pizza that was out a few months ago?
NH: Oh, I heard about that. It’s just a cheese pizza with tomato sauce, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, anchovies, and then instead of pepperoni slices there’s Oreo cookies laid out on it. Is that correct?
BK: It’s not that exactly, but it looks just as bad. I guess it’s got Oreo crust and then it’s covered with Oreo filling, and then instead of pepperoni or tomato or what have you it’s covered in small pieces of Oreo.
NH: So the crust is black?
NH: And how big is this? Is it twice as big as an Oreo cookie?
BK: At the very least — I think it’s about the size of a dinner plate.
NH: Do they cook that? I don’t know if they cook Oreos. You know Twinkies, right? Those aren’t baked. You know Continental Baking Company? They make Twinkies. The name is a lie because they don’t actually bake them. It’s basically a chemical reaction that causes them to solidify. If you mix certain chemicals together, they’ll turn hard like the Twinkie, and so that’s how those are made. Look that up, I’m telling you. Call the company; call your supermarket and ask them. Because maybe with the Oreos it’s the same thing…
BK: When you mentioned chemicals I had a thought: You are like a chemist because when you tell your jokes, a chemical reaction occurs within the brain of the audience members as they laugh and get happy.
NH: That is the goal. Too many comedians nowadays are too busy up there just rambling on about their miserable, miserable lives that they forget that nobody’s interested in their opinions on current events, and no one’s interested in what happened to them at the supermarket. We want the audience to laugh and feel good for once. Because if you’ve got as many problems as I do, the last thing you want to do is go out and hear a bunch more. What you want to do is to go out and laugh your head off. And yes, you bet it’s chemistry. These guys need to tweak what’s coming out of their mouths and make sure the people in the audience have a good time and laugh, and get that good feeling. Because, I’ll tell you what, there’s another way to get that good feeling, and that’s with drugs and alcohol. That’s a more destructive path than simply going to a Neil Hamburger show.
BK: Certainly. I keep reading articles that say depression is going to overtake heart disease to become America’s number one ailment.
NH: Yes, well that’s true, but of course a lot of depression is because of heart disease. People are depressed by their heart disease, you see. So the figures are a little misleading. But I do think that people are very, very depressed, which is good for my business because it’s like this: When you’re a plumber, you want to hear that everyone’s pipes are clogged. So when Denny’s comes out with a larger Grand Slam breakfast, that’s good news for plumbers. They know they’re going to have overflowing toilets and that type of thing, then business will go up. When I pick up the paper and see horrible things going on, I can count on having a few more folks in the audience that night.
BK: How do you feel when you pick up the paper and, instead of horrible things that make people come to your show, you see celebrity gossip?
NH: Well, with most papers that is the headline. You can have this bird flu epidemic that’s wiping out millions here in America and you’re not getting reporting on that. They’re too busy telling you that Debbie Reynolds has bad body odor or whatever, and that’s a tragedy.
BK: Which of the two is the tragedy — the body odor or the bird flu?
NH: I guess the bird flu is probably worse in the long run. Debbie Reynolds is a great entertainer. We don’t want to tarnish somebody’s reputation that’s been built up over a whole lifetime of entertaining people, just because one day there was no Irish Spring in the shower.
BK: Is that an endorsement? Is Irish Spring the soap you use?
NH: Well, I’ll tell you what: It will mask most odors but I wouldn’t use it. It’s real bad. I mean, if you want to talk about depression in America today, a lot of that is caused by the scent of Irish Spring. How many times have you been standing next to someone in a supermarket and that scent is coming out of their arms and from their crotch area or whatever, and you just want to start crying and you don’t know why you have that strange sad feeling that you get on a spring day. A lot of times that’s traced back to Irish Spring. I don’t know if this is something they intended when they came up with the product, but if you talk to anyone working at a suicide hotline, they’ll tell you a lot of the cases they see are people who wash with too much Irish Spring. Old Spice is another scent that is known to bring people down permanently.
BK: There have been a few stories in the paper recently of young people committing suicide because their parents didn’t buy them a Nintendo or someone broke their iPod.
NH: I believe it. The current batch of people coming out is really not too good. And what can I say? If you lose the Nintendo crowd and the Sony Playstation crowd and all that, it’s not going to impact the world much. These are not real good people. They don’t come to my shows. And, really, the only thing they’re good for is keeping the fast-food chains in business; that’s not a good thing either. So if you didn’t get a Nintendo or a Sony Playstation and you choose to kill yourself, it sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? If something like that tears you up that much, maybe you aren’t really right for this world. Maybe the world will be better without you. Now I’m not endorsing suicide in this interview. I don’t know what medical journal you’re running this in, but I do think some of those people are more trouble than they’re worth.
BK: Suicide, your childhood — these are topics mentioned on your latest album Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners. What inspired you to release a country album?
NH: Well, I have a lot of albums out. I certainly have more than a lot of these asshole comedians who are getting all the money and attention. We had a religious album, we had a documentary about a pizza parlor, and we had an album that I did overseas in Southeast Asia. To date we haven’t done an all-musical album. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the actors William Shatner or Telly Savalas or Dennis Weaver, who played McCloud, or Leonard Nimoy, who is a great poet and photographer in addition to his acting and directing. All these men were not known for their singing but for their acting, yet somebody said, “Hey, let’s get these guys in the studio and see if we can make a record and make some money off that.” Because if you’re a fan of Leonard Nimoy, you might want to buy some kind of souvenir of his career, but what is there? Go to a record store and try to find a souvenir of Leonard Nimoy’s career. There wasn’t one until he started making albums. Now these men, myself included, are not the greatest singers, but we do have known television personalities. So, for myself and those great entertainers, the songs are constructed around the personalities. Nobody’s going to listen to a Neil Hamburger singing album or a Leonard Nimoy singing album and expect it to sound as good as Pavarotti. But you will find that the essence of these entertainers comes through in every song. That’s what we were hoping to do with the country album.
BK: I think it’s remarkable how an artist can make the audience member feel how the artist feels.
NH: That’s a wonderful thing, and of course some of them do that and you find that the way they feel is pretty crummy and bland. If you listen to an album by Lane and Merrill Osmond, you might feel the way they feel, but who wants to feel that way?
BK: Of all the subjects on this album that you and I have discussed, the one we’ve talked about least is your childhood.
NH: I think we’ve talked about it, but there’s not a lot to talk about. I wasn’t doing shows then, so I can’t tell you about the shows really.
BK: You have a song about your father on the album. What sort of man was he?
NH: Well, that is a song about forgiving alcoholism. There’s a lot of alcoholism in the world today and, let’s face it, in a lot of cases it’s a form of self-medication. I know that people have problems and can’t afford a good doctor, and the problems aren’t going to get any better. Alcohol, of course, is a wonderful gift if you need to escape from your problems. I think comedy is another escape and less destructive. Putting on an Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy movie is gonna work better for you than drinking a gallon of Tanqueray Gin.
BK: What did your father do for a living?
NH: He was a simple workingman, so he had a lot of different sorts of jobs. Some were mid-level management for food manufacturing companies. Have you heard of Lou’s Spices? He was working with the Lou’s people for a while in that capacity, not in actually blending the spice, and he worked for a bakery — a mid-range bakery called Van De Kamp’s, in Los Angeles. They made a lot of the breads at the supermarket, that sort of thing. He worked for the Banquet people and other food companies. He also worked for the company that makes nails to hammer into wood and things. Again, these are middle management-type jobs. He moved on, working for the Chrysler Company as part of their sales team.
BK: Did you have these things at home, like Chrysler cars, Banquet Dinners, and Lou’s Seasonings?
NH: We had a lot of Lou’s seasonings, and the Banquet dinners sometimes, but not always. We didn’t get a lot of the Chrysler.
BK: What was your mother like?
NH: Well, she was at home a lot she also did work at Lou’s a lot. But mostly she was at home watching the soap operas and that type of thing. She had a job for a while stuffing envelopes. This is something I did later, myself, as an adult.
BK: When was this?
NH: Oh, I was doing it as recently as two years ago. While I was on tour, I would get these stuffing-envelope jobs, thinking there was something to do while all these horrible bands were playing. I could take them backstage and earn a little pocket money because, as you know, these shows don’t pay well. Plus the money’s all garnished anyway by my ex-wife and this asshole management company. So, I thought, this management company has everything tied up as far as my performance income, but they won’t know about envelope-stuffing. I’d heard a lot about this and I tried it before and was scammed by a couple of companies that advertise in The National Enquirer. I thought I’d give it another go and found a more reputable company in Pueblo, Colorado. I answered their ad. All you had to do was send a measly dollar. So I sent the dollar and got an interesting brochure on how you can make hundreds of dollars a week doing this. The way it worked was you send… I think it was $49 to Pueblo and they send you a book with details on how to do it. So I sent the $49 and they sent me another brochure that said, “Print more copies of the brochure we sent you, put ads in the paper saying ‘Information on stuffing envelopes, one dollar,’ then you’ll see lots of one-dollar bills in the mail, and occasionally you’ll get some fool who will send you $49 dollars for more information.” So that was pretty much the deal there. I tried it but it didn’t work for me. It worked for them, obviously.
BK: Have you done these sorts of things in the past?
NH: I was trying to do some knitting, too. There was a company paying for knitting, but I couldn’t really handle it. I couldn’t knit in a straight line, so that was a waste. I paid $69 for the starter kit. That was, again, from The National Enquirer. They were going to pay per piece knitted. It seemed like it would be an easy thing, but I just couldn’t get the knack of it.
BK: Going back to your childhood, do you have any siblings?
NH: No, I’m afraid we just don’t have anything like that. It’s too bad.
BK: Where is it that you spent most of your youth? Where did you grow up?
NH: In the areas of Culver City and Los Angeles, which is where The Wizard of Oz was filmed.
BK: Was it as magical a place as Oz?
NH: No. They tore that whole thing down. They should have left it.
BK: That was a significant center in general for motion pictures. Did that play any role in your childhood?
NH: Well, I used to go to MGM Studios, which is Sony Studios now. Things change hands a lot. I would go through the trash can and look for stuff. I found a lot of what you might call demonstration reels. These are videotapes actors would send in showing what they were capable of doing. I’d find a lot of those in the trash and watch those. I think it was a good education in terms of learning how to perform and act.
BK: Do you still have those demonstration reels?
NH: No, I lost a lot of them. I had a storage locker that had a lot of those in there and it got ruined. The ceiling collapsed, it all fell in and ruined everything.
BK: That’s unfortunate because they might have been worth a lot of money.
NH: None of these actors went on to do anything. These were people that were not cast. They did not get the role. These people really did not have much of a career. You know, people send their tapes in hoping they’ll get cast, but a lot of these envelopes in the trash, I hate to say, weren’t even opened.
BK: These actors, as teachers, how would you rate them?
NH: They weren’t trying to teach so much as they were trying to show their stuff. I’d say some of these people weren’t very good, but it was all I had, so I’d rate it very high. I thought it was interesting. A lot of times the people would do commercials on their tapes. They weren’t real commercials. They were phony commercials for non-existent brands of orange juice, that type of thing. They would re-enact a scene from a movie, sometimes Casablanca, but it wouldn’t be on a set. It would be in their backyard. Some of these tapes were very poorly done. Still, you could see the people were stepping outside their normal day-to-day lives and to strive for something bigger. They had dreams, and if you follow your dreams, you might just achieve the dream you’re chasing. Most of us won’t; most of us will never achieve that.
BK: And what dream are you chasing?
NH: I would like to have a career that on some level somebody somewhere would say, “That Neil Hamburger — he was a success.” And we have not reached that point yet.
BK: Is this a financial sort of success or some other sort of success — like, “That Neil Hamburger, he touched my heart.”
NH: I would like to hear that too, and I do hear things like that sometimes, through the course of the evening. But I guess I would like to have enough success that I would be able to cut down my work. We did 399 shows in 2006 and 386 shows last year, so we did cut down by 13 shows. I would like to cut down by, say, 100 shows — have a normal kind of life where you might go on a date with a lady, go out to eat somewhere when you don’t have to be at the venue in 15 minutes. Somewhere you don’t have to eat fast and get sick. Or have the sort of morning where you can sleep in, because you don’t have to get up at 6:30 to drive 822 miles that day, as was the case two days ago for me. That’s the sort of life I’d like to lead. The only way to get that is to get better lawyers to sue the ex-wife and the management company, get them off my back so I can keep my income. Or I have to substantially increase the income. The only way we figured out how to do that is to do, sometimes, three or four shows in one night, and that can be grueling. This year, I’m paced to do 515 shows, which is insane. If I could just do a normal amount, like a normal human being would do, say 250 shows a year, I would feel like a success. Because then I would have 115 days off and that would be something else. A lot of people get that. How many weekends in 52 weeks — 104 days off a year plus holidays is what the average person gets. That’s all I’m looking for. I just want to do what an average person does.
BK: Some might say that you can never be an average person. You’re a performer. You travel across the country, make people laugh, and put smiles on their faces. They would say that Neil Hamburger is an extraordinary person.
NH: I know they would say that. They would also say that about a man with no arms and no legs who is lying in a sewer drowning in raw sewage. They’d say he would have an extraordinary life as well, and it’s true. But who wants to trade with him? Some of your biggest celebrities in the world are people who you wouldn’t want to be, like the guy who was hit by lightning four times in one year. Who wants to be him?
BK: We don’t know his name, but we do know the name Neil Hamburger.
NH: Yes, but more people know the accomplishments of the guy who got hit by lightning. They might not know his name, but they know of that lightning guy. I do have name recognition so I can’t complain. I’ll tell you — my career, Ben, if I could be honest with you — my career could be in decent shape — I won’t say good, but decent — if not for the garnishing of my pay. Because right now I am generating a certain kind of money for others, so there are people out there who are quite happy with what I’ve managed to accomplish with my hard work. And if this country and western album does well, those people will make even more money, so they’re very happy. I will get a small percentage of it because, legally, you cannot garnish 100% of a man’s pay. He has to be able to keep something — for food, water and a roof over his head. Thank goodness the laws allow me that.
BK: It seems like everyone wins in this situation except Neil.
NH: That’s what I’ve been trying to say, but nobody’s listened so far. I got a lawyer to fix this situation for me, and we had several meetings and things, then, at the end of the day, this lawyer ended up tacking on his percentage to even further cut into my pay. I went to him and said, “Can’t we lower the percentage that everyone else is getting?” He said, “We can do that. I’ll file some papers.” He spent a lot of time filing these papers, the motion was rejected by a court, and I owed him $100,000 or whatever it was for legal fees. He then had to add to that a percentage, so the whole exercise ended up reducing my daily income. That’s very sad.
BK: It’s interesting that you use the phrase “at the end of the day.” It’s the sort of phrase that people use when they want to talk about what matters at the end. They may say, “At the end of the day, I’ve got this.” So, what would you say? “At the end of the day, I’ve got…”
NH: Well, at the end of the day I’m on stage, still. My day doesn’t end when a normal day ends, so I don’t even know whether I should use that phrase. At the end of the day, I’ve driven 800 miles; at the end of the day, I’ve had one cold meal usually eaten out of a can with a plastic fork while I’m driving; and at the end of the day, it’s midnight and I’m just getting onstage where I’ll spend the next hour, before I’ve got to drive to a rest stop to find a place to set up my cot and get some sleep before the sun comes out so I can start the whole process again. So at the end of the day, there is no end of the day for Neil Hamburger. It’s sort of an endless day and an endless year.
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