Often hailed as ‘the anti-comedian’, the hardworking Neil Hamburger proves he’s a perfect gentleman by clearing his schedule (and his throat) for a chat with Baz McAlister ahead of his Perth International Comedy Festival show.
“This year we're on track to do 700 shows,” says Neil Hamburger down the line from Los Angeles, a staggering goal. “Being on the road is less than ideal, I can promise you that. It's not something I recommend.”
It's quite a shock to be chatting to Hamburger. I'd dialled the number for musician/comedian Gregg Turkington, but somehow, America's Funnyman himself answered, we hit it off, and we started talking about how he got into the comedy game. “I would not even call it a game, I would call it a nightmare,” Hamburger says. “But jeez, we're talking dozens of years. Put it this way: there's things you're drawn to. If you get a kitten and bring it into your home, and you have a litter box in the corner, you don't have to teach the damn kitten how to use it. They will just walk up and do their thing. It's kind of like that with me and the comedy. I don't remember what happened, but clearly this is all I was built for. I gravitated towards it and now I'm enslaved by it.”
Hamburger may sound like he's no longer in love with comedy – if, indeed, he ever was – but he's as funny as they come, and his work ethic is indeed second to none. “Some of these comedians, it's just a hobby for them, but it's my life,” he says. “I will play anywhere from a pizza parlour to a stadium. It could be a tiny town with a population of 20, or New York City. Anywhere a laugh is needed I'm ready to go. I'll tell you, it beats a job sweeping the street or washing cars.”
Hamburger says his return to Perth this year is after a nine-year absence, following the time he toured to WA on the Big Day Out bill with “a lot of real garbage-type musicians”. His last visit to Australia was in 2010, opening a string of shows for Faith No More, which he says ranks among the most nerve-racking of gigs.
“That definitely is tough, because those folks come out with a chip on their shoulder,” he says. “A lot of them are kids with a sour and negative attitude, and some of them are predisposed to dislike me before the show even starts. So you do have to use everything you've learned in show business.”
Hamburger freely admits his show is not for everyone – “We never said it was,” he says. “There will always be naysayers who will storm out and say 'What the hell was that?' but for those folks, there are plenty of rotten things they can go see instead. The Garfield movie and Garfield 2 are out on DVD – you can pick those up as an alternate evening of entertainment if you don't like what we are trying to do here.”
Hamburger does suffer walkouts from audience members who clearly haven't researched him enough, nor have the vision to see his genius. Being booed off by crowds who don't get him has also happened – and it begs the question, is that something Hamburger would almost wear as a badge of honour?
“Some folks feel it is a badge of honour, but I would not wear it as a badge of honour,” he says. “A badge of honour would be something you would get when, say, you saved a village of people from a big fire. Standing in front of a bunch of pigs and calling them names while they boo and throw French fries at you – there's no honour in that.”
Neil Hamburger plays Jack High Comedy Club, Mt Lawley Bowling Club Wednesday 9 May to Saturday 12 as part of Perth International Comedy Festival