Interview: America's Funnyman Neil Hamburger talks rave music, Carl's Jr., and magical battered mushrooms

Neil Hamburger says that he's been a comedian for over 92 years. Gregg Turkington is 43. Yet, both men have accomplished a plethora of work done in music, comedy and television. This is a known fact. It's also known that Neil and Gregg are actually the same person. Turkington, who is a musician credited for founding the now defunct Amarillo Records, plays as Neil Hamburger only to the public eye. This persona, comparable to Andy Kaufman's side stint as Tony Clifton, presents to the audience crude and often offensive humor that's incredibly difficult not to laugh at. Many interviewers in the past have found that inquiring about his endeavors as a musician seems to draw out more bitter responses than informational ones. Even the story of his upbringing changes periodically, but one thing that he stresses most is that it was a very disturbed one. Since changing his act from comedian to musician, Neil's roster of projects continues to grow. He's gone from hosting his own series on tomgreen.com (Poolside Conversations with Neil Hamburger) to recording his own country western album through Drag City. On Twitter, he recently admitted to wrapping up for a future Fantomas film, but refused any forthcoming information.

Neil’s last stop in Louisville with fellow funnymen, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, brought him as a opening act for the finale show of their Chrimbus Spectacular, referred to that evening as Chrimbus Eve. Neil is no stranger to opening for amazing acts, as he has also been seen commencing shows for names like Guided by Voices, Melvins, Iron and Wine, Pinback, and Louisville’s own Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. This spring, Mr. Hamburger returns to Louisville for his own headlining tour at Headliners Music Hall. According to Neil, the Spring Value Tour is meant to pack as much entertainment and laughs into one night as humanly possible. Joining him are comedians Todd Barry and Brendon Walsh. Barry's comedic roots date as far back as Neil's, lending his talents as a voice actor for old-school shows like Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and Home Movies. His current endeavors include a recurring role on the Adult Swim series Delocated and playing as himself on Louis C.K.'s television show Louie. Brendon Walsh has toured extensively for two years with Doug Stanhope and his appearances have varied from Premium Blend to The Bob & Tom Show.

I chatted with Neil in the afternoon while he was three hours behind me in California. During our conversation, I found him to be a very sincere man who has a serious commitment to his profession in making people laugh. Here's what Mr. Hamburger had to say about everything else...

Do you feel like there's any competition between you and other comedians?

Well there's always competition because the problem is, most of the folks these days, most of the night clubs and things, you know they have this techno music- have you heard this?

Yeah, I don’t really like it.

It's horrible. No one likes it, yet the clubs are packed. Now, they've taken bulldozers to some of the great comedy clubs, pizza parlors, and rock n’ roll night clubs, to put in these new techno buildings. They're very ice cold inside and they have vending machines at the bars that dispense drugs to these drug filled assholes to listen to that monotonous music. As a result of this, there's only so much comedy work to go around. But you’ve got 500,000 comedians and only 1,000 shows a night to pay, you can see where this competition creates, unfortunately, a very unpleasant environment when you when spend time with these other comedians, because everyone’s scrambling to get the same ten cents. Know what I’m saying?

Now in the case of the Spring Value Tour, we, some of the quality comedians, some of the real deal comedians, decided to join forces and bring a bill that packs so much entertainment into one evening, it's a surprise that it's not a $500,000 ticket. We're only trying to give the people their money's worth just by packing an insane number of laughs into a small amount of time; that's what we’re trying to do. Whether or not it works, well, we just don't know.

Yeah, but everybody gets their time, too.

Which is very important.

Twitter question from @KentuckyProphet: How do you determine your opening acts?

Well you know, that's an interesting interview question, it seems a little bit like trick, you know? A lot of interview questions would be things like "Neil! What's your favorite color?" "Neil! What’s your favorite Elvis Costello movie?" "Neil! What's your favorite Nancy Sinatra song?" Those are the sorts of questions you usually get. This question is more along the lines of probably your next question. I bet your next question is from the Super 8 Motel saying, "Neil, have you already reserved a room? We got great deals going right now." Now I don't want to speak badly of the Kentucky Prophet, I've heard that his music is in fact quite good. The sad truth is that we put together a full bill, a full night of entertainment, so there's really no more room for other acts. When we go out there, it's myself and Todd Barry, who everyone knows from movies, from all the late-night talk shows, from his really award winning career. Brendon Walsh who's been seen on all the late-night shows, you know, has also had a wonderful career; we already have three folks on one bill. There really isn’t room for anything more, so I must respectfully tip my hat to the Kentucky Prophet, but really this bill full. And if anything, it's over-filled.

I heard in another interview that you thought K-Fed's album was really killer, so I was wondering if there were any other records you would consider the best of all time?

Boy, that's a good question. That's not one you get very often, and normally it’s these motels trying to get you get to book them. Well there's an album by Frank Sinatra Jr., the son of Frank Sinatra, and the album is called Spice. And I think you'll find that it's one of the top albums that are out there for listening. We really have enjoyed it through the years and I would give my vote to that. I try not to listen to a lot of music because it distracts the mind from you really need to be doing, which is paying attention to the road.

Is that the only album?

Well, there are a few albums we have listened to. Do you know who I really like? Bow Wow Wow, did you ever hear these guys?


That's really a good sound. I mean it really was a happy sound, Bow Wow Wow. They had songs that were very popular in the 1980's when I was getting my start. And they’re one of those [bands] I think really hold up today under the light, so I really recommend them. I'm also a really big fan of any of the old orchestras, you know the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, the Glenn Miller orchestra, any of the old singers like Rudy Valley, these guys who could really put a show out there for ya. Nowadays, I don't know if you've noticed this, but probably as a journalist you would, as journalists have an attention for detail but of lot of the performers are slobs, you know? You don't come out on the stage wearing a dirty t-shirt that's incrusted with all the garbage that's soaking out of their armpits. And sometimes if you go to...do you have Carl's Jr. in Kentucky?

Carl’s Jr.?

Yeah, you have Hardy's. Alright, Hardy's, on the west coast is called Carl’s Jr. and the further east you go they call it Hardy's. If you eat the food from Hardy's, you will sweat out a little stone. They’re the size of grains of salt, they're black, and they'll come out of your pores. It comes from the garbage that they're serving at that Hardy's. Some of the oils are straight out of hell itself. So, these bands they go to Hardy's and they'll have some kind of sandwich and the next day if you raise their arms and I don't recommend you do, because most of these musicians smell horrible. But if you raise their arms you'll see the oily black clumps that look like tar coming out of the pores under their arms. Now, it's disgusting. What they need to do is wash this off, but instead, these bands will get on stage wearing a dirty t-shirt and if you look under the shirt, it's filthy dirty from these globs of the Hardy's tar. They'll have dirt under their nails, halitosis, and a lot of them have hepatitis, or BD, and they get up on stage wearing sweat pants and that's not really the kind of music anyone wants to look at or hear. Compared to these great orchestras, to answer your question, if you were to ever go see the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, you would see guys wearing suits and ties, you know what I'm saying? Impeccably groomed and always smelling fresh and not eating at Hardy's… and that's really what makes the difference.

Do you have any distinct memories of your visits to Louisville?

Yeah I sure do. We had some real good mushrooms. They cooked these mushrooms up, oh boy...I don't know the place, it was downtown, but I'll never forget these mushrooms. They battered them in something, or maybe it was the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices. It certainly was better than that. This place was just a little place downtown with these magical battered mushrooms. Do you know what place I’m talking about? I’d love to get some of those again.

I’m not sure, but I’m sure someone who reads this interview would.

[Note: If anyone knows the name of the restaurant where Neil got these mushrooms, please let me know! I would like to relay the answer to him and perhaps try them myself.]

Well they’ll have to get in touch. I also really had a wonderful show there some years ago with a wonderful, wonderful two-piece act called Elvis and Meatloaf dot com. They're two brothers. One of them was truly an amazing Meatloaf impersonator. He has the sound, he has the look, I mean he was Meatloaf. He would do a couple songs and then leave the stage, and then his brother would come out and did a fairly incredible Elvis impersonation. And then Elvis would leave and Meatloaf would come back out. It went like this all night long; it was really something. I was honored to share a building with this group. And I understand that they play some of the casinos in the area...I don’t know if the casinos are there in town or if they’re across the river or what but these guys were real great and it was real fun seeing them. Then afterwards as I said, eating these battered mushrooms...I think it was a cornmeal that was on the outside of the mushrooms. It was quite good.

Sounds really good.

Also, I went on tour there and went to the Old Spaghetti Factory; I remember that place. Now, I’m sure that’s not the finest place you’ve got in town there in Kentucky. I went in there and walked around and it seemed like there was a lot of bankers and financial guys in the area and I don’t tend to get along with those people.

Yeah, it’s definitely not the fanciest place here.

We also went to the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters and the beautiful mansion they have there. We tried to see Colonel Sanders’s grave and they wouldn’t let us because this was right after 9/11. We were told they were not letting visitors see the grave because of 9/11…I don’t see the connection, personally. They also had Colonel Sanders’s desk. You could sit behind it and have a photo taken. Another time we stopped in Corbin, Kentucky at the original location of Kentucky Fried Chicken at Sanders Court, and they were selling old photograph records of Colonel Sanders’s mandolin band. He had a whole band of mandolin players that played spiritual songs, and they were selling these albums right there at KFC over the counter for a mere five dollars. So you will want to stop in there if you get the chance, if you like mandolin music. I mean, who doesn’t like mandolin music? These are records from 1959 and they’re selling them there in Corbin, so do stop by.

Also, I was [in Louisville] with Tim and Eric and John C. Reilly. We travelled in a bus and had some wonderful fans that travelled all the way to Columbus, and they were there again in Kentucky. They were just the sweetest kids and we loved them. They were really nice people; nice folks.

What crimes have you committed spiritually?

Well, I don’t know if this is spiritual or not, but when I’m in the hallways out of my hotel room, and [on those carts] the maids sometimes have a little box of pens, a little box of shampoo bottles, and usually I try to scoop my hand in there and try to take as much of that as I can. I wouldn’t say it’s a spiritual crime, if anything it’s a very un-spiritual crime, but it is a crime. It is something I feel bad about.

Is that the only crime?

There are a couple shows where I didn’t give it my all, and for that I’m very sorry. I’m not going to name the cities because I don’t want to disgrace myself, and anyone who paid money to see the show. Generally I will give it my all every single night and that’s what you have to do, but when you do an average of 400 shows a year, which I’ve been known to do. You get the occasional night where you feel sick or maybe you ate some bad canned food and you don’t give it your all. That really is a crime against God, who created the some of the canned food that got me sick. But you really need to give it your all, or it’s a crime against the readers, you know?

How do you feel about kids these days?

Well you know I think a lot of them are souped up on God-knows-what. They need to clean up their act and quit listening to that techno music that I’m talking about, which is real garbage. They play a lot of televised shows with remotes and everything, but I think what the kids need to do is come see the show. Can they even get into the venue? I have no idea, but I do think kids need to laugh more these days. There’s a lot of stress going around and this is a difficult time to be a young person today. So I do salute them. Any time there are kids at the show, we always try to shake their hand, give them discounts on our merchandise. Neil Hamburger dolls… a lot of the kids really like dolls, you know, it’s sort of a security blanket sort of thing. I do wish they would educate themselves some more about good comedy because some of this junk you see in the theaters... I don’t know if you’ve seen Marmaduke, but that was garbage. It was rubbish. I think you’d be much better off watching Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy or Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. I mean, those are quality movies. But this Marmaduke dog, is clearly on drugs or something. And to promote drug use amongst animals is the lowest of the low.

Favorite pizza.

Well you know, I prefer something that doesn’t have a lot of oil on it. Have you seen the Nile in Egypt? If you can imagine transplanting the river Nile on top of pizza, except imagine that the river Nile was all oil. That’s what all the Pizza Hut pizzas look like. It’s really quite disgusting. I think that’s pretty shameful; I would stay away from that.

Twitter question from @Thaxter: Why is the guy who plays Neil Hamburger on TV not the guy I hear on my vinyl records?

Well, it is the same guy. The problem is, Thaxter, smart aleck, is that if you’ve been buying the records, look at the year on the record. I’ve been doing this for so many years, and honestly my act has changed over the years. I’ve gotten older and as you get older your voice deepens, sort of mellows with age and that sort of thing. I could say to Thaxter: why is a 3-year-old baby that I have photographs of with a diaper full of feces not the same strapping young man that’s on Twitter asking questions? And the reason is, Thaxter, is that you’ve grown and changed with time. Now, I don’t know what records I’ve mine he has. But I can guarantee it’s the same person, but I have aged considerably. Now, Thaxter, you’ve aged, we’re all heading towards the grave. I haven’t had a day off in 12 years; if you work this hard doing this many shows it ages you prematurely. Every one year that you age, Thaxter, I age two, because unfortunately show business is the hardest type of business to be involved in. So if you have a record, say he has my first album America’s Funnyman, from 1996, well that’s 15 years ago. In show business years, that’s 30 years ago. If you listen to Frank Sinatra’s vocals from 1948 and listen to his vocals from 1978, you could easily say that this is not the same man because Frank Sinatra used to have the voice of an angel. He used to have a very sweet, tenor voice and with time it became raspy, old and crotchety. Now I happen to like that very much and any fan would, but I don’t believe conspiracy theorists like this Thaxter guy accusing them of having switched out one Frank Sinatra for the other. Frank Sinatra from 1948 was as thin as a rail, the man probably weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. And Frank Sinatra from19 78 was quite a bit more hefty. I don’t understand how Thaxter got through life not noticing this. Did he not notice at one point that he started growing hair above his lip? I mean come on, Thaxter.

You’re 43, aren’t you?

Well, there’s a lot of misconception about that. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet and there’s no way to control it.

So how old are you?

Well we can’t answer that because we don’t want to feed the misconception on the internet. We have a policy of not answering questions like that, because if you do, it causes more inaccuracy.

I guess it’s better to remain inaccurate..?

Well it’s better if people try to get their facts straight, but we can’t contribute to the mass by giving answers like that.

And you’ve been doing comedy for 92 years?

Well, I wouldn’t say that many, but that’s closer to the truth than some of the other things I’ve read. Definitely there has been a lot of comedy, and it has gone on far too long, but a lot of the audiences have moved onto other things. A lot of folks that used to come to the shows are in nursing homes, or some of them are working as strippers. I mean, anything can happen; the next great thing might change. I’ll tell you, my interest in putting on the best show that I can, that never changes.

Do you have a message for Louisville?

Yes. We are bringing what I think will be the show of the year, 2011. I think it will be the most talked about show of 2011 and I dare say it will be the best value show of 2011. What else is coming to town this year? Do you know of anything that could rival this? I don’t think Limp Bizkit could compete. I don’t think Eric Clapton could.

Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson…

Well, those are great legends in their own right. How much are the tickets, though? The thing is, we have a good price. If you were to see these acts separately, you would be paying three times as much at least. Todd Barry, you might have seen in the Oscar-award winning motion picture, The Wrestler, and on every late-night comedy show there ever was. If you were to ever see him in concert, you would have to go to the emergency room from an aching gut, a bleeding throat, and tears at the side of your mouth because you smiling and laughing so damn hard. Put him on a bill with somebody like myself and Brendon Walsh, it really speaks very well of what kind of year 2011 will be, because you will be kicking it off with laughter, joy, happiness, a little bit of disdain, disappointment, maybe some anger. But mainly, the other things I was mentioning. It’s really going to be a fantastic show and I really hope the town comes out and gets behind it. The last time I was up there it was snowing. I don’t know if we’ll have snow; I could be wrong.

It’s possible.

Well, wear something like boots to protect your feet in the snow when it’s snowing, and look fashionable if it’s not. That would be my recommendation.

Neil Hamburger will be performing with Todd Barry and Brendon Walsh at Headliners, 1386 Lexington Rd., April 14th. Tickets are $17 advance and $20 day of show available through Headliners, Ear-X-Tacy, and E-tix. Ages 18 & up. Doors open at 8 PM. Show at 9 PM.

Photo: Flickr/ Rick Hall