It's not unusual to see strange things in downtown Knoxville, especially during the sadly moribund Big Ears art and music festival. But more than a few late lunchers were treated to a particularly strange sight one Saturday afternoon in February 2009. A group of about 100 festival attendees—and maybe even a few who didn't have passes—shambled through downtown, led by a man in a shabby tuxedo with a greasy combover and a bullhorn full of nasty stories. Replace the bullhorn with three or four whiskey tumblers and comedy fans will know that man to be Neil Hamburger, America's self-proclaimed "#1 Funnyman"; to people around Market Square the day of his Big Ears-sponsored Architectural Tour of Downtown Knoxville, he likely seemed some sort of maniac.
Hamburger offered dozens of anecdotes as the tour moved through downtown. The Oliver Hotel, for instance, was revealed to be the only spot in America home to two vice-presidential assassinations; the Sunsphere was outed as a sewage treatment facility; and an extended stop outside the now-vacant Gay Street Arby's led to a filthy corporate history hopefully inaudible to the restaurant's three or four patrons. (To be fair, not only passersby found Hamburger's routine distasteful: even Metro Pulse A&E editor Matthew Everett, blogging about the festival for our website, bristled at a bit involving child-murdering hobos at Krutch Park.)
Hamburger, who returns to Knoxville's Pilot Light on Aug. 22, recalls the event fondly, and even came away with a bonus sordid tale.
"Well, I researched and really learned a lot, and that was a wonderful, wonderful experience," he remembers. "But just after it was done this weirdo comes up and tries to sell me a human kidney. ‘Hey, Neil,' he said, ‘I have this kidney, and I hear that you need one.' Not only was I not looking for a kidney, but that's also illegal, and just plain sinister! I'll never forget his face. He looked like he could use a kidney."
In one of the tour's most off-the-cuff moments, Hamburger was amused to encounter the burger-centric Johnny's Restaurant marquee above Wall Avenue, and insisted locals in the procession find a way to claim the abandoned signage in his honor. The sign disappeared during renovations last year, and Hamburger seems open to the suggestion that a fan might show up with a special gift.
"Well, I'd certainly rather have that person show up than the kidney creep," he says. "You never know who's going to show up. I had a guy the other night tell me he's John Hinckley Jr.'s nephew. You don't know if there's any truth to it! All kinds of people show up, many of them liars and unkempt slobs."
Hamburger's live performances, often held up as an example of so-called anti-comedy, consist largely of ex-wife jokes, flailing one-liners, and foul-spirited Q&A gags that walk a line between conscious hackery and transcendence. ("What's worse than 9/11? 311!") While work and tours with comedy peers like Tim and Eric and Tenacious D have exposed him to a wider audience—often to that audience's distinct displeasure—his following remains rooted as much in the world of underground rock as comedy, and his Summer Value Tour with fellow comedians Todd Barry and Brendon Walsh seems designed to bring those worlds together.
"It's an intimate venue," says Hamburger of Pilot Light, rarely home to non-Hamburger comedy acts. "People today have intimacy problems, so it's great that they can go and see an intimate live performance from three of the hottest comedians on the circuit. They're used to seeing Mr. Todd Barry up on the silver screen or on television, and now they can sit 10 or 15 feet from him."
The flip side of this intimacy is how it can feed the adversarial tone Hamburger often inspires from his audience. (His most recent digital release, Incident in Cambridge, Mass., offers a particularly contentious set from 2008.) Despite drowning out hecklers with his trademark phlegmy throat-clearing, audience "interaction" is the norm.
"If someone wants to, during a quiet moment, they can yell out ‘Hey, Neil!' or whatever," he says. "‘Hey, Neil! Your shoes are very tacky!' You can't stop them. I don't agree—I think the shoes are fine—but everyone has a right to say what they want to say. It's the people who say it again and again, eight, 10 times and on and on, that's when we have to take action. I'm not at liberty to disclose what that action is."
Hamburger even offers a bit of advice for his tourmate Barry, who recently groused in an interview about a cup of ice thrown at him at a 2004 Knoxville show with Yo La Tengo.
"Well, they say if life gives you lemons, make lemonade," Hamburger says. "So in that situation you just excuse yourself and go mix some sodium cyanide with fruit punch, maybe a little gin, then say, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you forgot your ice, and I've mixed you a nice drink.' And the audience loves it, because the person starts foaming at the mouth, because of the cyanide. So that would be my recommendation to Mr. Todd Barry.
"I'm not going to recommend your readers try this, of course," he adds. "But it's something that a lot of the great comedians did. Abbot and Costello killed dozens of people in this way."