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Laugh tracks
Rocking the comedy underground with Neil Hamburger, David Cross, and Jon Wurster

"Why, ahem . . . why, ah-harg," the comedian says, clearing his throat as he tries to get out a final joke. "Why did Julia Roberts rub shit on her vagina?"

The audience at Great Scott reacts with a mix of silent repulsion and stunned laughter.

"Because she was horny," he deadpans, then says a quick good night and shambles off stage.

Thus ends a typical night with Neil Hamburger, a sweaty, depressive, goggle-eyeglasses-wearing, comb-over-sporting nebbish in a black tuxedo whose brand of humor is a calculatedly impossible-to-acquire taste. Earlier in his set a week ago Saturday, he served up jokes about AIDS and celebrities. "Why," he asked, "did Robert Redford stick his cock in a jar of Newman’s Own spaghetti sauce?"

"Why?" his devotees and some confused audience members shouted back.

"Robert Redford and Paul Newman have been friends for 40 years," he answered, raising his snarky voice to an isn’t-it-obvious pitch. "He’d never use a competitor’s product."

Courtney Love may be an easy target, but Hamburger nonetheless took aim. "What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?"

"What?" we yelled.

"It would never be appropriate to urinate on the American flag," he replied, then turned away from the audience and muttered "Oh boy" into the microphone, followed by an audible sigh and another "uh, hurgh." And when a young woman’s heckling grew too loud for the third time, he suggested the audience help hang her from the rafters so we could watch her soil her jeans before she died. "Yes, young lady," he barked. "We will watch you shit your pants tonight."

Hamburger’s brand of humor wouldn’t fly at your average Giggles or Laugh Shack, but in a rock room in Allston on a Saturday night, he’s appropriately inappropriate. Maybe. "For the true Neil Hamburger experience you don’t want to see a show in San Francisco or Austin or Boston but in West Virginia," he explains. "When you have a crowd where one percent of the people know what’s going on and the rest hate it, it becomes a battle. If you want to be entertained, you can stand anywhere in the club and listen to the reactions to the jokes I’m telling. That might be much funnier than the jokes."

If Hamburger’s observation seems unusually self-aware for a comic who’s said to have cut his teeth on the Monday-night California pizza-parlor circuit and cable-access TV, that’s because he’s as much performance artist as stand-up. He’s the stage persona of humorist, indie-rocker (San Francisco’s tongue-in-cheek Zip Code Rapists), prank caller, and anagram-book co-author (Warm Voice Rearranged on Drag City) Gregg Turkington. And though his Hamburger persona might seem alone on stage, Turkington is in good company. Turkington/Hamburger is part of a flourishing breed of comic whose style of humor has been branded "anti-comedy," "alt-comedy," and "indie comedy" — this last a term that one of the style’s early proponents, David Cross, now sneers at. It’s not easy to define given that it embraces prank phone calls, pseudonymous performances, video and audio recordings, and traditional stand-up with an untraditional point of view.

What it isn’t, as Hamburger’s live performances and the concept albums he records for the Drag City label make clear, is predictable. The comics who slip into this category often lace their observations with absurdism and wield sharp-edged satire aimed at the underground rock/art scene. Their fans are usually young, smart, and well informed about music, art, and politics. Some, like Jon Wurster, who’s released a hilarious series of CDs on his own StereoLaffs label (www.sterolaffs.com), are musicians who tour with rock bands or play at rock venues like Great Scott and the Middle East in Cambridge, where Eugene Mirman, another member of this camp, will appear on June 20 and 21 on a bill with Langhorne Slim.

"Too often at comedy clubs, you get the tourists who are out to have a good time, and they’re usually disappointed by me," Hamburger notes. "At comedy clubs, people have been trained to laugh at anything." Of course, Hamburger can put a stop to that the minute he conjures Robert Redford unzipping his fly as he heads for the pantry, to say nothing of Julia Roberts.

Boston was one of the ignition points for this strain of humor beginning in the mid 1980s, and David Cross held some of the matches. Today, Cross is best known for his work on HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David and the sit-com Arrested Development, though he’s also had his own TV specials and made albums for the Sub Pop label and appeared in several movies. He’s even written rock criticism for Pitchfork: you can find his humorous essays at http://pitchforkmedia.com/features/artistlists/c/cross_david-05/.

Fifteen years ago, however, he was a struggling comedian developing his own Cross Comedy troupe in the Hub. "This whole scene started with a bunch of friends who were hanging out and playing softball and drinking beer together," he says over the phone from his New York home. "Some of us went into comedy and others into music, but the common background and reference points were there." Of course, he adds, comedians and musicians have played bills together "since the days of vaudeville." But in the first three decades of the rock era, opening for a band could be suicidal. "That’s because the packages were put together by managers, and often the comedians and bands had nothing in common. Today, the musicians and comedians put their own packages together, so they know it’s right for their audiences."

In the late ’80s, Cross Comedy began doing shows in Boston with groups like the Cave Dogs, Gigolo Aunts, the Bags, and Scruffy the Cat at the Charles Playhouse, the House of Borax performance space, and lofts along Thayer Street. "Now that’s not as unique anymore. There are more comics who are starting out in that scene who grew up attending shows in it rather than having taken part in starting the scene."

You could think of Jon Wurster as embodying the rock/comedy axis. He was the drummer in Superchunk in 1993 when he met Tom Scharpling, who has become his straight-man foil. Bonding over a love of music and a skewed sense of humor, they hit on the idea of Wurster’s calling in to Scharpling’s radio show on Jersey City–based free-form station WFMU, posing as everything from a rock scribe to a corporate rock stooge to Scharpling’s borderline psycho father. The results, which zap every variety of bonehead, have been collected on the CDs Rock, Rot & Rule, New Hope for the Ape-Eared, and Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin. A fourth, Hippie Justice, is due in July.

"Often what we do is sparked by something stupid people have said or something we see on TV," he points out. Rock, Rot & Rule, for example, was inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s remarks after defeating a lawsuit by the American Beef Council. "She said, ‘Freedom, the holy rings have rocked,’ which we thought was one of the dumbest things we’d ever heard." From there, Wurster and Scharpling developed the character of Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of the fictitious book Rock, Rot & Rule, which rates bands and musicians. Neil Young rots; the Beatles rock; Madonna rules — and from there a battle of æsthetics and idiocy plays out with callers joining in.

One of the duo’s best routines is "Mother 13," in which Wurster poses as a rock star wanna-be from a band of that name who by mistake calls Scharpling’s show instead of a "Morning Zoo" program and then expounds on the importance of playing product-tie-in ClearChannel radio-station-sponsored concerts like "Dr. Pepper Presents the Sounds of Tomorrow Today." It’s a wicked satire of the world of corporate music and its corruption of creativity. And like all of the duo’s dialogues, it’s so full of details, wry wit, and acute observations that it’s damn near impossible to explain with any justice.

Hamburger’s recordings are vastly different from his live performances, which could play in the lounge of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as a warm-up for Isabella Rossellini’s beset crooner. His latest, Great Moments at DiPressa’s Pizza House with TV Comic Neil Hamburger, tells the story of his rise on the pizza circuit and his emotional collapse and pathetic partial resurrection. The humor, with its half-hearted jokes and Hamburger’s broken-down, perpetually beleaguered persona, is perfect for our age of diminished expectations — a time when we’ve been so sapped and defeated that there isn’t even enough energy in our collective consciousness to muster up one-liners that cross the line from crude to clever. Nonetheless, there’s a perverse genius at play in his off-key repertoire.

Hamburger/Turkington says his notion of making comedy albums goes back to the 1970s. In particular, he cites the wholly realized tales of the National Lampoon troupe and Albert Brooks as role models. "You could listen to those records and really learn something from them. Today, all we have to listen to is people like Jeff Foxworthy, who just mention something we’ve all experienced, like getting drops on your shoes at the urinal, to get a laugh. A lot of comedians don’t feel they have to construct jokes or develop original ideas anymore. They’re lazy."

Nobody would call Hamburger lazy. At Great Scott, he was called "dickhead," "asshole," and "fuckhead," but nobody called him lazy.

Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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