BIG EARS 09: Neil Hamburger

Comedian Neil Hamburger searches desperately for laughs—and Knoxville's architectural history

Self-proclaimed "America's $1 Funnyman" Neil Hamburger hearkens back to a simpler time when men were men and jokes weren't funny. Clad in an ill-fitting tuxedo and oversized glasses and sporting a greasy Giuliani combover and the ever-present frown of a man who sees his audience as a potential firing squad, Hamburger's performances—be they the poorly-delivered one-liners with which he has regaled unsuspecting pizza joints since the mid-'90s or the personality-driven musical turn of 2008's Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners—are either complete mockeries or a tongue-in-cheek homage to his comedic forebears.

It's all calculated, of course. Hamburger's stage presence is a carefully crafted love child of Tony Clifton and Danny DeVito's version of the Penguin, and his shambling shuffle through comedy, from the lack of timing to the verbal pratfalls to the three-minute coughing fits to Hamburger's all-encompassing aura of physical and spiritual illness, are all part of the act.

Hamburger himself isn't telling, preferring to subvert the boilerplate non-aphorisms delivered by a thousand "serious" comedians before him when they further his persona. "We try to keep things lively," he says. "The mind tends to wander for a lot of audiences, and they start dwelling on their problems. My job is to get them to forget those problems, if just for a few minutes… I try to keep their ears overloaded with quick gags."

From anyone else that would be nothing more than a sales pitch, but the earnest, bumbling quest for a stray laugh defines Hamburger as much as anything. Those who get it tend to like it, and the eclectic turns his career has taken certainly haven't hurt. A cursory YouTube search finds him acting as an unofficial co-host of Tom Green's Internet talk show, playing the pundit on Fox News' late-night show Red Eye, opening shows for Tenacious D, and tending bar (and trading insults) at a dive in California. Again, Hamburger sticks to his guns. "Some of it's a little strange," he says. "Sometimes the music will cause your ears to bleed, but these are good, honest people, and they do seem to appreciate some of my jokes, so where the laughs are, I will follow."

In addition to a Friday night stand-up show at the Pilot Light, Hamburger will be leading festival-goers on an early Saturday afternoon architectural walking tour of downtown Knoxville. Secret History this ain't: "We're going to tell people about some of the historical events that took place right there. We're going to be looking at places like the historic theater where President Lincoln narrowly avoided being shot, or the sandwich shop which 10 years ago housed a porno theater," Hamburger says.

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