Stand-up comedy has had its ups and downs as an art form, yet it simply refuses to die. Neil Hamburger is a lot like that. Except for the “ups” part. Touring nonstop and recording for indie labels for more than a decade, Hamburger has made a career — and not much of one, according to him — out of crappy delivery, generic catchphrases, and withering self-pity. His live recordings are rife with chattering audience members and the clatter of glassware, yet he perseveres, jaded but hopeful. “I hope this isn’t going to be one of those hatchet pieces,” he told the Express. “Because we’ve had enough of these things, and it severely cuts into the crowd and then you end up having to put rubbing alcohol into the gas tank instead of gasoline. And then you end up, if the engine stalls, the whole thing goes to hell.”
These are the kind of sad, meandering maux mots you’ll get from Hamburger, who may or may not be indie record label owner Gregg Turkington. A security feature of the Tallahassee La Quinta Inn’s phone system requires callers to enter the first four digits of their party’s name in order to get through, and though H-A-M-B didn’t work, T-U-R-K did. But since Hamburger didn’t want to explore this hole in the facade, why should we? After all, isn’t much of stand-up comedy built on the act of an insecure person explaining just why they’re so insecure, and allowing audiences to laugh at those insecurities? So what’s so wrong with a comic whose shtick is so bad, you’re absolutely certain that you’re laughing at him, not with him?
Hamburger agrees. “You see, people come into these clubs who look pretty unhappy, and by the end of the evening, you see a shimmer or a sparkle in their eyes,” he says. “I mean, I don’t leave feeling particularly good, but they do, so I think that’s my contribution.”
Though he tries to be topical, Hamburger’s political humor and sociological observations are as flat as the stretches of highway he traverses most of the year. On Laugh Out Lord, his attempts to appeal to the Bible Belt result in “jokes” about God’s Internet porn habit, a wandering treatise on spoiled cheese, and such droopy zingers as: “Why did God invent Fleetwood Mac? Because he was high on PCP.” If Hamburger seems a bit misguided in his choice of material, don’t blame him — blame his computerized management, the only guidance he can afford. “There’s a one-minute pitch that it gives to nightclubs and pizza parlors,” he explains. “If they’re interested in booking me, they can press ‘one’ to get more information and to work out the price and everything. So I call into this computer every couple of days, depending on the region, and they give me automated advice on topics, not to cover, but on things that may be inappropriate.”
So what does that mean for attendees of Hamburger’s show, Sunday night at the Oakland Metro (201 Broadway)? “You know,” he says, “if I can work in a joke about Hayward, I certainly will.” This is a 21-and-up show, starting at 9:30 p.m. Admission costs $7, and Dr. El Suavo and Mike McGee open.