Neil Hamburger on comedy, characterisation and self-caricatures

Neil Hamburger on comedy, characterisation and self-caricatures

Neil Hamburger
Photo: Simone Turkington
Words by David James Young

For a guy who presents himself as one of the worst comedians to ever pick up a microphone, Neil Hamburger sure still gets a lot of work.

Having just wrapped up a London residency, the stand-up described as “America’s $1 Funnyman” will return to Australia for a run of dates in just over a week. There’s plenty more where that came from, too – the phlegm-hocking booze hound just can’t seem to stay away from the stage.

“The London shows were really nice,” says Gregg Turkington – the actor, writer and occasional musician who portrays the Neil Hamburger character. “That’s the kind of touring I like the most – where you’re not going anywhere. Just playing the same place every night. Total travel time: three minutes. They were all great shows, with really strong turnouts. We had a lot of fun. I’ve built up a pretty loyal fanbase over there, so whenever I get to go back, I’m basically living the dream.”

Turkington is quick to say the exact same thing about Australia, where he has spent more than his fair share of time over the last two decades. Whether it’s headlining comedy venues in his own right, or as the warm-up act for punk legends like the Hard-Ons or Frenzal Rhomb, Turkington – through the lens of Hamburger – has seen almost every side of the country there is to see.

“I’ve done enough stuff over the years that people at my gigs could really come from anywhere,” says Turkington.

“I’ve definitely had people come up to me, telling me they saw me open for Frenzal back when they were 14 years old. They’ll be like, ‘I didn’t get it – but now I do!’ I’ve had so many Australians come up to me after gigs and apologise for booing me at the punk show they saw me opening at years prior. That said, it’s always a mixed bag when I come back.”

Turkington’s most recent venture as Hamburger was a new album, Still Dwelling. Described as “12 new songs of love and loss”, it faithfully sends up the histrionics of ‘60s and ‘70s pop music.

“If you know the character, it makes sense,” he says. “It’s not really a novelty album – it’s this serious, overblown pop record – but because it’s Neil singing, there’s a humour to it.”

Amazingly, while Turkington was in London, he met a woman who bought Still Dwelling entirely on the premise of it being a genuine album. “She had no idea about any of the comedy stuff,” he says. “She ended up enjoying that too, but she was just a sincere fan of the record. I’ve never had a fan like that show up.”

“Some people have just seen things on YouTube, some people have seen me in a movie or on a TV show… One guy had a copy of Terminal USA on DVD somehow, and I was like ‘How do you even know about this? This was 20 years ago!’”

More recently, Turkington has found himself stepping out of the Neil Hamburger character to take to the stage as Gregg Turkington – the character, that is. Alongside long-time friend and collaborator Tim Heidecker, the two play caricature versions of themselves in the cult-hit web-series On Cinema at the Cinema. In April, the two did a run of live shows which were met with rapturous response.

“I’ll tell you… it’s very easy for me to slip into bocoth of those characters, but I’m glad I’ve never had to do both on the same night,” says Turkington. “You kind of psych yourself up into these things – so much so, I really had to readjust to going back to Neil after two months of On Cinema shows. It was like, ‘…so who’s this guy again?’ Even though so much of it is ingrained, you’re so worried that you’ll slip up at any moment.”

Catch Neil Hamburger at Sooki Lounge on Thursday July 11 and The Toff In Town on Thursday July 18 and Friday July 26. Grab your tickets via respective venue websites.