"BIG STORY: Neil Hamburger, is a Great comedian, who would Light up any room, that he walked into, with his Jokes, of Hate.”
— Boni Jergen, Volunteer Web Master of Neil Hamburger's Unofficial Site
For people who haven't seen the genius of Neil Hamburger, just know this: there are fewer comedians out there that are such top notch entertainers in this day and age.
Here is the conversation we shared as Hamburger made his way to his next performance.
Hamburger: If you can't hear me, let me know, we have a lot of problems when we're driving on the road and of course right now I am in the back of a vehicle that's delivering birds. So there's a lot of bird chirping, I don't know if you can hear any of it…it's a real problem.
Kat: What kind of birds are you delivering?
Pet bird types. This is a company that delivers to pet stores, such as Petco. Parakeets, cockatiels, things like that. In order to keep these tours profitable we found that I could carpool with some of these delivery companies. Get me from town to town. And as a result sometimes you end up in comical situations, such as now.
Did you have a pet bird growing up?
There were some birds in the neighborhood, but I would not call them pets, exactly.
What would you call them?
I would call them vermin, really. They would come into our home and eat the food that was meant for me. I don't know if you've seen the cartoon where they put the pies out on the windowsill and then the magpies come and take the pies. It was like that except on a much smaller scale; more like a bird eats some of the Ritz crackers that you had lined up for dinner, that type of thing. But I've gotten over it. I have nothing against birds. Having them in the car, it is not the worst thing that could happen.
It's true. There are worse animals to be stuck with a car driving down on a highway…
Yeah like Carrot Top, or the guys from Smashmouth.
Exactly. So, what are you wearing right now?
Right now I'm wearing my casual wear. I bet you would say it's casual business attire. When I'm on stage, of course, it's strictly tuxedos because that's the way a real entertainer does things. But off stage we hit a lot of the charity shops. You know, a lot of these business guys they'll donate some of their discarded casual wear and we pick up on that. You can't buy this stuff new, I tell you. Something like a Ralph Lauren—I don't know if you're familiar with that brand—but, that son of a bitch, he's charging a couple hundred bucks for one of his goddamn shirts, you know, which are not that great. But on the other hand if you get it from the Leukemia Foundation, it's two dollars. You have to wash it in hot water to get the stink of these business pigs off it, but there is hot water available, so it can be done.
You wake up. It's 1958. What's the first thing you do?
Well I thank my lucky stars because, I tell you what, in 1958 I could get a gig at a decent showroom; not a place where there's stickers all over the urinals. You know the Tom Dorsey Orchestra didn't feel the need to print up vinyl stickers and stick them on the inside of urinals where people are peeing. They could get by just on quality music. These bands nowadays, they don't have that. So I'd much rather be performing in that sort of a climate.
I don't think they had LSD in 1958 either, so you don't get these 15-year-old kids who come to the show with the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his prime because they're so loaded on LSD that they have inhuman strength. You know, these kids, they're unstoppable. Once they decide they don't like you—and they never do—they can pick you up and throw you through a plate glass window with all the LSD.
They think you'll be able to fly.
They think I can fly, but I know I can't. When those druggies do that to you, you do have to wonder why you were born in this era. Also in 1958 the opening acts wouldn't come out wearing a dirty t-shirt with underarm stains and they might actually know how to play instruments, as well. Go to one of these rock and roll shows, hand one of these kids a trombone, ask them if they can play happy birthday…they can't do it. You get that Yo La Tengo—you heard of Yo La Tengo?
Horrible, horrible band. The music sounds like hell so I said, look you guys, I don't think you should get paid for this performance unless you can play this trombone—play "Happy Birthday" on it. None of them could.
That's the problem—that's what you're up against.
What's the first record you ever bought?
I bought a record by KC and The Sunshine Band. I don't remember the name of the album, but it's the one with all the hits on it. Really, really good album.
Do you think they'd be able to play "Happy Birthday" on the trombone?
Well they've got three trombones in the band! So of course they would. KC and the Sunshine Band's got full brass. It sounds great. Go on the internet—go to YouTube and look at some of the footage from 1974, 1975. You have a guy with a trombone and when he wasn't playing the trombone, he was playing something else. Or dancing. These guys knew how to do it.
Were you ever a fan of Jethro Tull?
I've seen him on late night—there was an infomercial—that had some stuff about him and you know, I can't say I was a fan, honestly. I have to be able to relate somehow to what these guys are talking about and I don't know what he was talking about. It could have been fantasy. A lot of these guys, they're influenced by Lord of the Rings and that whole mess and that is really something that I can't get into, regardless of the musicianship.
Do you consider yourself a superstitious person?
Very superstitious. You know, you have to be in this business. If you go to a venue and they try to shirk you a drink out of a white chipped mug, do not take it. Because my experience has been that the nightclubs and bars that serve drinks in white mugs with a chip in ‘em—you're going to get food poisoning. I mean, maybe that's not always the case, but it's a superstition that I live by.
Another one is that you never want to drive an odd number of miles in the course of a day. Say if I have a gig that is 793 miles away, and I get to the club and my odometer shows 793 I will go around the block until we get to 794 because you need it to be even or else it's gonna be a bad show. It's just gonna be a bad show. And these are things they really do make a career work.
Does that count when the pet delivery van is driving you around? Before they drop you off do you make them drive around the block as well?
When we're doing that sort of thing, I do have to say, sometimes you end up with a bad chill. These guys are usually pretty eager to get you out of the vehicle. I mean, no offence to these guys—they can't hear me, cause I'm in the back—but they're usually eager to get you out. They don't want to drive around the block. It's when I have control over it myself that I follow that superstition.
So this is kind of a sensitive question: Do you think Helen Keller was a liar?
Helen Keller? Well she couldn't lie because you don't have that sort of possibility for flair in what you're saying when what you're saying all has to be done through thumping on the ground—or whatever she did—kicking at a piece of cardboard. To lie, you really have to have a command over slang, which is not a simple thing to do. I just don't think she had it. I think it was strictly yes and no and please and don't burn me. Please don't burn me.
Do you like hanging out with unicyclists? Have you hung out with a unicyclist before?
Yeah, we did a tour with the Rainbow Jugglers from Montréal, Quebec. Those guys have a unicycle and I didn't like hanging out with him. They never change their clothes. They wear leotards onstage and you know, they start to smell after awhile, quite frankly. They don't practice the sort of grooming that you'd expect from a troupe of mimes and jugglers.
And also, just not nice people. Really, really unpleasant people. They're the kind of guys where you have to watch your wallet cause they'll pickpocket you. And, you know, they're such assholes, they wouldn't just pickpocket and take the money out. They'd put a flower in it. So that when I went to pay for something I'd find a flower in my wallet. That's the sort of thing The Rainbow Jugglers would do. That is quite obnoxious.
They had a unicycle. And honestly, I often thought that there could be no worse smell in the world then the seat of that unicycle because these guys had very slovenly ways. They would all cram together into one motel room—and these were not the best motel rooms—but I tell you what, you'd go into the room after they'd left, the towels were all still on the rack. You know? You get five or six jugglers in a motel room, crammed in there, and not a single one of them washes their hands at the very least?
So if you think of the biggest picture you have on your wall—
Now what makes you think I have a wall?
I guess I just assumed. Do you have a wall?
I don't have a wall. Look, I'm on the road 365 days a year doing 366 shows a year. There's no reason to maintain a residence because I will not be in it. So there is no wall.
Do you have anything in storage, or do you just live off your back?
I have two storage lockers.
What cities are they in?
One's in Laverne, CA. We had a dispute with these guys, though, and that thing is still under lockdown. Can't get into it. They can't sell off the stuff until the court case is settled and I do think we will emerge victorious because that thing was leaking—there's no way I should pay rent when they ruined a lot of my old stage costumes. But the other storage locker, actually, is in Oregon. It's called Tom Thumb Mini Storage and it's just outside of Roseburg and that's also where we have a lot of stuff. A lot of unsold merchandise and memorabilia and some of the souvenirs of my career are in that storage locker.
Were you deathly afraid of anything as a kid?
I was afraid of everything, you know, and that's a problem. You get these bullies, you know, and you have these nasty teachers. And angry parents. The asbestos in the lining of the walls of the school that I attended. And dogs, a lot of these dogs, they'll bite you.
The birds that took your crackers…
Yeah, those birds. It's not a good time, you know, being a child. You really have no rights and of course. You're at the mercy of everything and it's really easy to get sort of swept under the rug. It's not a good situation.
Favorite age so far?
Sixty-seven. That's the age of retirement. Well, there's no retirement in my business. So it's just the age you should be able to retire—It's really a shame. I mean they just run you into the ground. You can't retire. You know Chucky Berry? I saw him from backstage, and you know what? There were people backstage there with him. With guns pointed at him. Only way to keep him on stage.
I wonder if it's the same with all musicians that age. The Rolling Stones…The Eagles…
It is. They have armed gunmen to keep them from running off the stage! Have you seen the Platters? They might be coming by a casino nearby. Well now see them, see them and then look them up on Wikipedia, right? See how old they are. There's no retirement in this business…They work you to death.