Comedian Neil Hamburger has learned some basic truths about the entertainment business.
"Sometimes the highlights and the low lights are the exact same light," says Hamburger in a call from Pasa Robles, Calif., where he performed the night before. "I did a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden opening for Tenacious D. The crowd was chanting the world '(expletive)' at me for the entire set and it was quite a negative response. So you could call that a low light. But on the other hand, I'm on stage at Madison Square Garden. I'm on the (expletive) marquee. The 20,000 people at the show, whatever their opinion of the show is, I'm the one on stage and they're in the audience who paid to see the show. So I would say, in this case, no matter how much they disliked the show, I still came out the winner."
Admittedly, Hamburger is not everyone's style of comedian. His thick glasses, oily combover and supremely uncomfortable look are the visual accompaniments to a string of riddles and one-liners that can be maddening, tasteless and for some, infuriating. During Knoxville's Big Ears Festival, Hamburger led a crowd on a walking tour of Knoxville in which he told off-the-wall histories of various buildings, along with insight into local culture. Were someone there who might've taken it seriously, the result could've been terrible — as it has been during some performances.
"Let's face it, when you've got a bunch of sour pusses in the crowd who are just not having fun, that can ruin the show for everyone else. One bad apple spoils the whole bunch? These people are like having a rotten egg in a bushel of apples and the apples get even more disgusting because it's like having a spoiled yolk dripping onto the apples. You do get that from time to time and unfortunately the only thing you can do sometimes is lash out at people and sometimes they enjoy the lashing out more than they do the jokes, which is too bad because the jokes are so carefully crafted. And the lashing out is just, well, lashing out."
Hamburger, who just might be related to a fellow named Gregg Turkington, says he began his comedy career while he was in high school.
"This was a thing where at the high school they'd pick some troubled kids and they'd try to get their minds focused on school work and not so focused on spray painting and sulking and other things," he says. "The school counselor thought it would be a good idea to get these kids to try stand-up comedy to help exorcise their demons and I took to it right away. The set was very poor, but I did feel that this was the type of thing that I could probably do rather than brain surgery, which I wouldn't be very good at. My hands are a little shaky and they were even then."
While Hamburger disagrees that he needed counseling, he says he wasn't very popular "with some of the other creeps" and getting on stage "trying to entertain a crowd of drunkards" seemed to be a fine option.
In the ensuing years he says "everything" has happened during shows — "fights, live births, we've had it all."
While he enjoys performing in England, he's had some tense moments on stage there. A joke about Pink Floyd incited the crowd.
It was even more raucous when he performed at the Reading Music Festival.
"The crowd was horrible from the first thing out of my mouth, so I started telling jokes about the headliners, which was Limp Bizkit and Guns N' Roses and that really got people angry ... I couldn't even hear what was coming out of my mouth because people were screaming so loudly."
With bottles flying from the crowd, Hamburger was escorted off the stage.
"We had a situation in Canada where a girl attacked me and police reports were actually filed. It's sad that in this day and age somebody tells a couple of jokes and somebody feels the need to react with violence. But I was talking to a guy who is a circus clown who works fairs and things. He's a traditional clown and he told me he was stabbed right in the face by a 13-year-old girl. People don't understand that a stage is a stage and we're here to lighten your load for an evening and there's no need for violence. ... Well, there may be a need for violence at a Linkin Park show. I think people should call the police and their local representatives to have that music stopped. It's just that bad."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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