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Neil Hamburger - Western Music & Variety

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Artist: Neil Hamburger

Album: Western Music & Variety

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jul. 20, 2009

If Tony Clifton is the ideal aggressive, incompetent entertainer, then Neil Hamburger has been asymptotically approaching him from the very beginning. And while the similarities were always apparent, only recently has Hamburger really embraced Clifton’s essence. On Hot February Nights, a live album documenting one of his shows opening for Tenacious D, he spends most of the time antagonizing the audience, virulently berating them. On the new DVD Western Music and Variety, he not only completely channels Clifton during “Zipper Lips Rides Again,” but the entire concept of using Nashville Sound-esque country songs seems designed to annoy the audience in some respect as well. This is Hamburger taking his concept to its logical end.

Irony is a favored form for comedians because it allows one to have her cake and eat it, too. Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert get to chastise the media and right-wing pundits while telling jokes and Neil Hamburger gets to rip into his audience. This raises an important question. Stewart and Colbert genuinely believe their targets to be worthy of contempt. Does Gregg Turkington – or do ironic comedians in general, say, Judah Friedlander – hold their audiences in similar low esteem? Irony is great when the target is deserving, but who is the target for Hamburger? Catskills comedians and Friar’s Club octogenarians? That seems toothless; so, like Clifton, he must be saying something about the audience. What exactly that is, though, is difficult to discern.

To be frank, the question of how far Turkington has really thought out the concept beyond “This would be fun,” is really in question. If the real focus was, say, mediocre comedy, the real epitome would be some sad 1980s headliner that thought stand-up was just some gig on the way to fame. However, without a strong central concept, Neil Hamburger comes to be just about the antagonism between Turkington and the audience.

The thing about Turkington, though, is that he tempers this by genuinely creating a pathetic character, playing tragedy as comedy. Hamburger is an incredibly sad persona: a failure and divorcee, he barks out Henny Youngman-esque set-ups and punchlines and then savages the audience when the jokes fail, though on a meta-level , each joke tends to garner laughs from being offensive or obscene. While Hamburger is a memorable character, and his schtick can be genuinely funny and entertaining, without having an extensive concept, Hamburger is stuck as two-dimensional, never being able to really discover and grow like Patton Oswalt or Paul F. Tompkins. Of course, if he ever did, that might be the end of Neil Hamburger.

Without this ability to grow, though, each subsequent album has to take the schtick either farther (like Hot February Nights) or into a new territory (like Sings Country Winners and Western Music and Variety). While the format of country music – dressed-up tragedy – is perfect for the Hamburger persona, I can’t help but wonder how necessary a DVD record of a live show really is. The music doesn’t seem designed to stand on its own – especially for the audience that enjoys Hamburger – and his stand-up isn’t nuanced enough that watching him helps sell the joke. Zach Galifianakis’ Live at the Purple Onion isn’t just some visual recording. One really needs to see him – his face, his reactions, his movements – to feel the joke. With Hamburger though, a live DVD doesn’t have the same kind of force. It’s pleasant enough watching him, but it’s not much different than listening to an album, and since very little of it is stand-up anyway, it really comes down to how much someone likes his pastiches and covers. There is certainly more that Turkington can do with this concept , but nothing on Western Music really seems to show that promise.

By Andrew Beckerman

Other Reviews of Neil Hamburger

Sings Country Winners

Hot February Nights

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View all articles by Andrew Beckerman

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