Neil Hamburger, 'America's Funnyman,' Discusses His San Francisco Roots

Neil Hamburger performing  (Photo by Kim Newmoney/kimnewmoney.com)

"Why did God create Domino's Pizza?" comedian Neil Hamburger asked a San Francisco crowd back in 2009.

The answer? "To punish humanity for their complacency in letting the Holocaust happen."

What a horrible joke, you might be saying -- but then again, that's the whole point of Hamburger's comedy: it's a challenge to good taste.

For the uninitiated, Hamburger is a character, created and played by Gregg Turkington, that's meant to poke fun at the Borscht Belt comedians of the '50s and '60s. Hamburger wears faded tuxes, his combover is always pasted to his pate with sweat, he holds multiple drinks in one arm, and his one-liner insults -- many of them too crude to reprint here -- would make even Don Rickles say, "You're taking it too far."

Gregg Turkington and guest attend the world premiere of Marvel's "Ant-Man," in which Turkington had a role.
Gregg Turkington and his wife Simone attend the world premiere of Marvel's "Ant-Man," in which Turkington had a role. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Turkington originally conceived the Hamburger character while living in San Francisco in the early '90s. As he explains it, he made up the character on the spot while making a prank call and kept using him for experimental recordings, which landed Turkington an album deal before he even had a live act. Flash forward a few decades and not only has Hamburger played everywhere from the Hemlock Tavern to Madison Square Garden, he's now the subject of a feature-length film, Entertainment, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

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In the past, Turkington would've done this interview in character, as Neil Hamburger, but he agreed to speak to KQED as himself. I took advantage of the situation to ask him about his days in San Francisco. As it happens, Turkington was quite active in the local music scene in the early '80s, publishing zines, playing in bands -- he was a founding member of the local experimental bluegrass noise group Caroliner -- and even working at the influential punk label Subterranean Records.

You came to San Francisco from Phoenix, Ariz., where you were active in the punk scene. Did Flipper have anything to do with you moving out here?

I was 15. My parents were divorced and my dad got a job in San Francisco. He moved there and I saw it as my big chance. A lot of the bands that I liked -- particularly Flipper -- were San Francisco bands.

When Flipper played in Phoenix in 1983, I talked to Will Shatter for a bit and he was super friendly. He gave me his address and said, "Get in touch." I did and when I came out to San Francisco, I ended up hanging out with him and going to every Flipper show I could. I was recording all the shows. I was obsessed. (Turkington eventually compiled those recordings for a live album, Public Flipper Limited, Live 1980 - 1985, and designed the record cover.)

I was nuts for Flipper and Frightwig. I would end up going to a million Frightwig shows too.

When did you start doing comedy?

Turkington as Neil Hamburger
Turkington as Neil Hamburger (Courtesy of Drag City)

I had a band called "Hello Kitty on Ice" that was playing around in '84 or '85, and I would say a lot of crazy sh-t between songs. I'd tell jokes, and later I was doing these bad magic tricks between the songs. I got more into that than the singing, which I didn't have much skill at, really.

A few years later, I got it into my head that I could do standup, so I started going to the Holy City Zoo. It had a couple of open mic nights.

It's a famous club, right? Robin Williams got his start there?

Yeah, a lot of people were doing stuff there. I would go there -- I don't think I was 21 yet -- and I'd do 4-minute sets. Every time I thought I needed to have a different act from the week before, and they were all character-based. I don't remember what they were but I don't think they were any good.

I decided it wasn't for me. It just seemed like everyone who would go up was such a standard, brick-wall, observational comedian. And I'd go up with my weirdo show and it just didn't feel right at all. Nobody liked it and I didn't fit in.

When did you start making prank phone calls?

A few years later. I was doing a lot of prank calls back then with friends, just for fun. For a couple of months where a bunch of people would come over at 10pm and we'd make prank phone calls.

After weeks of this, this girl Becky Wilson asked if she could record the calls. She recorded them for two nights on a little recorder and started dubbing the tapes, passing them around to people.

Then I started hearing about these calls from all over the place; the tapes spread really fast. So I said, "Why don't we print up 500 copies of this on vinyl, just for fun? Let's see what happens." And that was the Great Phone Calls album.

(Editor's Note: The clips below contain explicit language.)

What do you remember about those nights?

It was pre-Internet, so we'd have the SF Weekly, the Bay Guardian and the phone book in front of us. And we'd make calls to whoever is in those things that might be up late at night. There were other calls to other musicians starting bands, because they'd tend answer the phone at midnight.

I wish we recorded more nights of this stuff because once it got pressed up as a record and people really responded to it, it was impossible to go back and do more of them. It just wasn't the same spirit. There's a difference between hanging around with people, drinking whiskey and making prank calls to make each other laugh, and making the follow-up to Great Phone Calls.

How did Mike Patton (of Faith No More) get involved?

He was just there. Trey Spruance was there. We had our little gang of people.

How did Neil Hamburger come from this?

There's a prank call on Great Phone Calls, and as the words "Neil Hamburger" come out of my mouth, that is when he was invented.

There were two or more of those calls going around on cassette because I kept calling up the Holy City Zoo and harassing them. Then this noise label back east, RRR records, got in touch. There were doing a compilation CD called America the Beautiful, which was mostly noise acts, but they liked Great Phone Calls and they asked for a Neil Hamburger track.

I made a few calls as Neil Hamburger that I was going to send to them to choose from, and then I thought "F--k this, I'm gonna record what this guy's show is like!" So, using a four-track, I recorded the actual show for three minutes. I did a little routine and dubbed in laugh tracks I dubbed off of Andrew Dice Clay records. I purposefully made it sound like inept engineering.

I had so much fun doing it that I did another one, and I put one out as a single on my label Amarillo, and another one on Planet Pimp. Then Drag City contacted me about doing a full album and I decided that it was my one big shot at making a comedy record. America's Funnyman was another fake live show with all this bad editing, technical glitches and a lot of foley -- ice clinking and other stuff. I did it with Trey and we had a great time working on it.

I thought that would be the end of that, but Drag City wanted another record and we did a few more.

By then, there was a lot of interest in me doing live shows. But I was always resistant, because I thought there was no way you could capture the sound of these records at a show. On the records, I controlled all the background sounds. At the shows there was potential for people to be too enthusiastic and it wouldn't have the same glum, despairing vibe that the records had. Which was true, but I just had to accept that it wasn't the same thing.

When you moved to Australia for a few years, did you continue doing Neil Hamburger?

I recorded a few of the records over there. I recorded Left for Dead in Malaysia in Malaysia, but edited it in Australia.

Neil Hamburger
Neil Hamburger (Photo by Simone Turkington)

But Australia is where the whole thing started as a live act. That's where the first 20 or 30 shows were. This band called Frenzal Rhomb from Australia, a pretty big punk band over there, had me open some shows for them at some big venues. Those were the first shows I ever did as Neil Hamburger. The first one was at the University of Sydney, and during this particular run of shows we were playing at massive venues; eventually I did a show with them at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney at one of these big rock festivals. It was like 50,000 people, at this giant stadium in the middle of the day, booing me. [Laughs]

Is that a part of performing you enjoy -- getting the audience mad at you?

It's not something I'm into; it's just something that happens sometimes. I'm not interested in inciting audiences to be angry. I'm more into confusing them, and some of them may get really angry, while others may scratch their heads. And others may be inspired by it. The artists I've been inspired by are, a lot of the time, the most confusing -- the kind that you're thinking about days later about what it means and where they're coming from.

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At this point, when I'm doing shows, it's not like I go out and try to incite a crowd. I want it to be enjoyable for people. Not for everyone, but the people that are tuned into what I'm doing. I've certainly gone to see a lot of live shows and hated it, even though 95 percent of the crowd was having the time of their lives. I think it's nice that the other five percent have something they can enjoy -- and if 95 percent hate it, that's perfectly fine, because they have a lot of other things that are meant for them.