Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Neil Hamburger “Hot February Night"

(Drag City) I read a recent Neil Hamburger concert preview that claimed he was not funny on purpose, that’s the joke. While the original joke of Hamburger, a character who first emerged as a phone prankster and then, more fleshed out, as a parody of lounge comedians’ self-released souvenir records, involved him being a sad, comedy failure, that’s not the case anymore. Though he may have originally been imaginary, so many people believed in Neil that like Tinkerbell, Pinochio and Jesus he became a real live man, and for years now he has been a working live performer, constantly on the road, and constantly looking for laughs. Sincerely. As a actual, 3-D performer if Hamburger were telling non-jokes night after night he would have already committed suicide, but he has been crafting funnier and funnier one liners, many unnerving because of their bluntness and shock value, but funny nonetheless (“Why don’t rapists eat at TGI Fridays? Because it’s hard to rape with an upset stomach.”)  Hamburger not only tries to craft funny lines, but also parodies comedic tropes, showbiz conventions, and clichés. He is not Andy Kaufman alter-ego Tony Clifton, not only because he isn’t (usually) trying to torture an audience, but also because he is not about arrogance. Neil Hamburger is about sadness and anger. And laughs. This album, however, does not capture Neil at his best because he is not in the rock clubs where he tailors jokes denigrating Nickelback, Justin Beiber, and Jim Morrison (Why was he buried in a 10 foot coffin? “To accommodate his dunce cap.”) to “hip” crowds. No, this is recorded in massive arenas as he opened for Tenacious D on their last tour. So the crowd isn’t here to see him, and they paid too much money. By the time these performances were recorded, Hamburger already knew where his bread was buttered, so he’s coming out swinging, cursing at the audience and alternating between teasing them with false introductions for Jack Black and Kyle Gass and threats to have the masons on the crew build a brick wall so the unresponsive left side won’t be able to see Tenacious D. While there are a few ‘Burger fans in tow (a lonely voice shouts “We love you” at the beginning, and there are spatterings of  “who’s there?” in response to Neil’s “knock Knock” ) this document is mostly about combat: Neil versus tens of thousands of booing non-fans. Neil Hamburger began as a make believe act playing to  near-empty, totally indifferent pizza parlors and developed into a real one that plays a packed Madison Square Garden filled with actively hostile masses. That has to be some kind of triumph. This is not exactly like the awesome late-in-the-game MSG concert albums by Elvis and Sinatra (in part because this album is culled from gigs surrounding the New York date, as the Garden has prohibitive restrictions about recording performances, created to protect the Knicks from having their pathetic exploits publicized or documented). Unike the King and Chairman, this is not a man showcasing his best material. But perhaps we should be comparing him to Garden legends Sugar Ray Robinson, the Ali-smashing Joe Frazier, or 60s Welterweight Benny “The Kid” Paret. These were mighty pugilists who, like Neil, entered the Garden with fists blazing ready for anything. Of course Paret got caught in the ropes, was pummeled mercilessly, went into  a coma and died a week and half later. But tha-a-a-a-t’s my life!

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