April 27th, 2008 | Interviews

Alice Rutherford

Neil Hamburger is officially America’s unofficial funnyman. He just released an album of country songs on Drag City and speaks now with Kevin Ferguson somewhere near Paso Robles.

Have you spoken with the ex-wife?
Only through attorneys. Not directly. There’s just a lot of reasons—legal reasons—that we can’t talk. And there’s really not much to go over; we were barely speaking during the last few years of the marriage anyway, what with my touring and her refusal to answer the phone when I called, so now it’s all down to the attorneys. And they speak to each other quite often.
Have you been dating?
No, I don’t have any time for that, honestly. I’m awful busy with the shows and things, and also nobody would be interested.
How is your daughter doing?
She’s not a happy person. She’s not a big fan of me and what I do. A lot of these people you think are your friends, they really don’t have your best interests at heart. I mean, she hasn’t been to one of my shows in many years, and that’s the least a person can do.
Do you plan on touring the Third World again?
I’ll go where I’m needed. I don’t know if I often am needed anymore. It seems like there a lot of problems in those places, so I would think that they would need me, but you never really know. We’re trying to get to England later this year but I wouldn’t qualify that as the Third World.
What about a USO tour?
Yes, if I was asked, but no one asked me, you know.
What kind of material would you use?
Something to cheer people up. I might have to drop some of my hate-type of jokes—the more negative, miserable sorts of things. Maybe some sexual jokes, because a lot of those guys would love some sort of sexual situation, being cooped up there with each other.
Did you vote in the primaries?
I wanted to vote by absentee ballot. But I had no money for a stamp. Unfortunately, I was unable to do that. But I try not to endorse anyone because it might hurt their candidacy.
Who would give you the best material if elected?
Oh, any of them because if you’re skilled, you can make a joke out of anything. I could make a joke out of Mr. Peanut if he were to win the presidency. And I wish Mr. Peanut would, because you could get some real good jokes out of a guy like Mr. Peanut! That would be funny, to have a peanut in the White House—you gotta admit!
Where do you think our country is headed, then?
Oh, it’s terrible! You can’t afford the fuel—that’s my problem. The fuel guy got in—what’s the president now? Bush? He’s tied in with those guys, Conoco and 76, Chevron and all those companies. So the prices—I can’t afford them! It’s a mess! I don’t know how you pay for your gas, but I’m having a lot of problems doing it myself.
What was appearing on Fox News like?
It’s very lonely, because they’re taping the show in New York and I’m in Los Angeles. It’s just a camera on you and one guy in a giant building, and you got this little thing jammed into your eardrum. It’s hard to hear anything, and there’s a five-second delay. It’s very confusing! I have new respect for those guys when I see them being interviewed. What a strange situation it is under the lights with that damned thing jammed into your ear—they have it jammed all the way in there, you know.
Do you get your news from Fox?
No, I don’t care for that. I don’t watch it. It just depresses me, you know. I’m driving—I don’t have time for that. You can’t set up a TV on your dashboard, and you certainly can’t get cable TV if you’re doing it that way, either.
Where do you get your news from?
I get it from old newspapers I find under bus seats. And sometimes people put papers out for recycling. Then you can grab a whole bundle of those things and get all kinds of news!
Is there a celebrity that’s getting picked on too much?
None of them are getting picked on too much—in fact, some are getting picked on too little! A lot of them are less than ideal—not exactly impressing anyone with the garbage that they’re cranking out. Horrible movies! These people all need to be thrown into a pit and stop disgusting us with their garbage movies and television shows and records. Have you heard this Nickelback? Have you heard of that? Oh my God! That is really bad—I cannot recommend that.
Is there anything you don’t like about your fan base?
It’s not big enough, and a lot of them are dopers. You try to have a conversation with them and there’s a lot of this weird dementia—they’re out of their minds on God knows what. You gotta watch out for that.
Who has a better fan base?
Carrot Top—he’s done real well with those stupid props. Stupid crap! But everybody’s there at the Carrot Top show, you know. He’s playing in Las Vegas year-round.
Somebody peed in your drink when you performed at Spaceland?
What happened was that some prick thought that would be funny to put urine in my drink. And of course it isn’t funny, but tell that to them! That’s the kind of stuff people think is real funny these days. I don’t! I didn’t end up drinking any—you can smell urine, you know. You can smell it a mile away. It’s not a good smell, either.
What do you admire most about Frank Sinatra, Jr.?
l love Frank Sinatra, Jr.—there’s just so much in that voice. They say that you hear a lifetime of pain in the voice of Frank Sinatra senior—well, you also hear a lifetime of pain in the voice of Frank Sinatra, Jr., but it’s a different type of pain. It’s very difficult being the son of a legend. People would say, ‘Well, the man has had everything handed to him,’ but in fact it’s quite the opposite. The man is subject to unfair comparisons. In fact, Frank Sinatra, Jr., is a fantastic, fantastic singer, but no one will listen to it strictly on his own merits. It’s always gonna be a comparison. And I tell you, if you and I were singers, no one would be comparing every word out of our mouths to Frank Sinatra.
Where are you right now?
Right now I am just outside of Paso Robles, which of course is a town we all know and love—here where James Dean was killed. In fact, this is where his body was taken after the car accident in 1955. I do a show there every so often at a pizza parlor on off nights. Not on the main nights. Hopefully the main nights we get bookings in more prestigious type of venues—your Spacelands, your Madison Square Gardens, that type of situation.
Where are you living right now?
I can’t say I’m living anywhere because when you’re doing 399 to 426 shows a year, are you really living anywhere? I’m living behind the wheel of this goddamned car, I can tell you that much! In terms of living in a regular home, I do have a storage locker in the L.A. area.
What comedy great, living or dead, do you dream of sharing the stage with?
Oh you know, I’d like to perform with the popular ones—not because I like them. In fact, I don’t. But their popularity would rub off on me a little. Perhaps I wouldn’t be stuck in this quicksand of debt that I’m currently trying to swim out of—and getting deeper and deeper every moment!
Is it true that you have an autobiography in the works?
God! That sounds like one of these hatchet jobs. People will say you have syphilis if it will help them sell their paper. I never wrote any autobiography. I mean, I would, but nobody has offered to publish such a book. We got at least 12 albums, comics, DVDs—what’s that awful site where all freeloaders are, huh?
Youtube! We got a lot on there. What a nightmare that is, huh?
Whose idea was the Bonnie Prince Billy movie shorts?
Those were commercials. That was the record label who wanted to promote the album with a series of television advertisements, which did air in about 20 different markets on late night TV. You’d be amazed how inexpensive advertising is on late night TV, at like one or two in the morning. They bought a block of these ads in 20 markets nationwide and needed to produce some ads for the album, and so we got together and shot this stuff in Studio City over the course of a particularly memorable afternoon.
Particularly memorable?
Well, it was memorable in that we were able to shoot three fantastic, entertaining commercials without the aid of a script in a very very short period of time. While, you know, having a few tropical drinks, and a few laughs.
What was your impression of him?
He’s a great guy. I’ve worked with him before. We’ve done shows together—he was a guest on my TV show Poolside Chats with Neil Hamburger for a really great hour. What a talent in all fields! Whether it’s singing or acting or just telling jokes, the man is actually a comedian in his own right. If he ever gets tired of the song and the dance and all that, he can switch careers and be a joke teller.
How did you throw together a country album?
You always gotta do something new. I’ve done so many different records that they said ‘Let’s do something new!’ You might remember some of the great celebrity vocal albums that people love—people such as Telly Savalas or William Shatner. People really like an album by a celebrity or personality who they really enjoy. Whether or not that person is actually a great singer is beside the point, if you can come up with some songs that can suit their particular personality—as they did in my case. I know I’m no Pavarotti, but if you like Neil Hamburger—if you like the particular scenarios that take place in my life—here are a whole series of songs tied right into that.
So you wrote them?
They’re mostly original songs written for this project. There are only about two or three cover songs the rest were written and designed with Neil Hamburger in mind—to bring you the Neil Hamburger story in musical form.
How many units are you going to need to sell in order to abandon comedy?
Oh boy, I don’t know that I could ever sell enough to abandon it all together! If I could sell enough to buy myself out of debt and a bed or some sort of working vehicle because the ones I’m using are not so good… that would certainly pull me towards cutting down the bookings. I certainly would like to work less than I do, I’ll tell you. There aren’t a lot of people that work as much as I do.
Yeah, you’re all over the place.
And for so little, I might add.
What are some of your country music favorites?
Well, Frank Sinatra, Jr., did one country album called It’s Alright, and believe me it’s more than alright—it’s a real show stopper! I like the old Nashville guys. Merle Haggard wrote some great numbers that stand the test of time. Porter Wagoner was a man whose records we looked at very carefully to try to get the right sound—you don’t want to make it sound like these assholes on the radio today who are just totally horrible. We wanted the timeless quality that you get from a Porter Wagoner—those songs are written like a story, and you’re not distracted by all the terrible synthesizers and things that don’t belong on a real home-made country record. With our record we had a great pedal steel player—the best on the west coast! He came down and laid some pedal steel. We had Prairie Prince, who is one of the biggest drummers of all time. He played with everyone from John Fogerty to George Harrison, and of course he was in the band the Tubes for many years. The guy has a great sense of humor and he can really beat those drums. These guys are as good as Elvis’ band ever was, and they’re much easier to work with. A lot of Elvis’ band members—they had their issues, you know.
Any plans for future genres?
Yeah, I did a record actually—it was a punk rock album. It’s only four songs. I did it with the Hard-Ons—they’re from Australia. I was down there doing some shows, and these guys have been around for over 25 years—pretty well known worldwide. They invited me into the studio one afternoon. We knocked out a few songs. I’m not a punk rock singer by any stretch of the imagination—I would never claim to be. But again, you know, it’s a personality record. If you brought Leonard Nimoy in with the Hard-Ons they could make a good record, too. All he has to do is put on those Spock ears and you have yourself a hit record! And that was sort of the idea here. I don’t think I’m gonna be competing with the Sex Pistols or any of those type of groups, but I do think we came out with something really special out there in Sydney.
Anything else you haven’t done?
I’ll do anything, but I probably wouldn’t try the opera because my vocal range is limited. I’m a comedian, not a singer. But hey, if you ever hear the Telly Savalas record or The Brady Bunch Sings, or Uri Geller, who bends those spoons—he made an album that is just fantastic! An untrained vocalist! It’s all about making a record that matches the personality, and then you make something that people really want to hear.
Best piece of advice for somebody traveling on the road like you?
Don’t do it! That’s my advice.