For America's funnyman Neil Hamburger, subversion of expectations is all part of the show | Comedy | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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For America's funnyman Neil Hamburger, subversion of expectations is all part of the show 

Unrefined and overdressed, Gregg Turkington’s stage persona is all about dark jokes that go against the audience’s predictions

Neil Hamburger
  • Neil Hamburger

Neil Hamburger asks his audience members a question: Why did Colonel Sanders keep his eleven herbs and spices a secret?

“Because he was ashamed of them.”

That strategy of answering simple, seemingly predictable setups with unexpected answers is central to the comedy of Hamburger, and his creator Gregg Turkington. 

Originated to record a comedy album in the late 1990s, Hamburger evolved into an onstage persona characterized by overly gelled hair, Velma Dinkley-esque glasses and constant, phlegmy throat-clearing. He formed in Turkington’s mind as a combination of casino lounge acts and bands that perform long past their prime.

Hamburger was never actually intended to become a stand-up act. Nearly 20 years after his creation, “America’s Funnyman” is still telling boorish jokes as a character who wasn’t supposed to be successful.

“Why did God create Domino’s pizza?” Hamburger once quipped. “To punish mankind for his complacency in allowing the Holocaust to happen.”

Don’t go to a Hamburger show and expect long, rambling stories that end with a punchline. It’s old-fashioned comedy.

“To me, there’s a lot of comics that go out that don’t have that much material. It’s kinda just talking about themselves and maybe there’s a laugh,” Turkington says. “This is an old-school style of comedy: joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.”

Many of Hamburger’s jokes follow the same formula: He poses a question to the audience, the audience asks “what?” and he delivers the answer (usually a dark or crude one).

“What’s the worst thing about Fred Durst’s herpes?” he’s asked. “His music.”

Don’t mistake Hamburger for an anti-comedian, one who tells purposefully bad jokes intending to either draw ironic laughs or genuine boos. Though being booed is all a part of stand-up comedy, Turkington always aims for laughter. Everything Hamburger does — the grimy tuxedo, the awkward pauses, the slightly dated topics — is just a different way of getting a laugh.

Just don’t heckle him. He once told a heckler, “If you have something to say about the show, go out into the street and get hit by a car!”

Of course he doesn’t actually want his hecklers to throw themselves into traffic. It’s all just part of the act, one in which the man in the spotlight is the only person who can see what’s coming next. 

“What do you get when you cross Elton John with a saber-tooth tiger?

*brief pause for throat-clearing*

“I don't know, but you'd better keep it away from your ass.”

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