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Starpulse Q&A: Neil Hamburger Discusses Survival And Wonders How The Likes of Dane Cook And Carrot Top Have Succeeded

October 24th, 2007 3:34pm EDT
Neil HamburgerNeil Hamburger, America's beloved funny man, is pulling the curtain on what may be one of the greatest injustices in entertainment today: the enslavement of comedians by an evil conglomerate made up of bookers, agents, lawyers, PR reps, and club owners. Forced to perform hundreds of shows a year for little if any pay, Neil Hamburger has managed to miraculously not only survive the industry, but also grace its biggest stage: Madison Square Garden.

And while Neil has enjoyed successes other than opening for Tenacious D on their arena tour, such as appearing several times on Jimmy Kimmel Live and on Comedy Central's Comedy Death Ray CD, and releasing several albums of his own via Drag Through Records, he continues to slip further into debt with every performance. Why does he do it? Why does he risk his health, his sanity, and disgrace his family? For you; for the laughs, for the smiles, and because he's got no choice, forced to comply by a legally binding contract that may only expire when Neil himself leaves this life for that great comedy club in the sky. Starpulse.com caught up with Neil in between his third and fourth show of the day. He was hungry, but slightly optimistic, hopeful for the change this expose may bring.

How are you?
I'm pretty good. How are you doing?

I'm doing well, just enjoying the remnants of a tasty jawbreaker.
So it's breakfast time there, then.

No. Do you consider a jawbreaker a sort of breakfast food?
I would think so if I could afford them, but I'm afraid we're strictly not at that point right now.

What is the traditional Neil Hamburger breakfast?
At this point, sometimes at these motels they have a free continental breakfast, so we'll sneak a few rolls out of those and save them for future days where there isn't free continental breakfast. So it's going to either be a roll, or a roll that's several days old. Or nothing.

Did you just finish up this tour that you were on?
I wish we finished up the tour that I'm on, because it's been going on for twenty years. But it's continuing on.

I was referring to this particular stretch of shows that I had helped you promote.
I think so, yeah. I think we did finish that stretch, but then another one started right up. There's no rest in this business, I'm afraid.

What sort of promotions do you typically do?
I don't do any promotion. I just show up. We've got people at Drag City. We've got a lot of my terrible records that didn't do so well, but they do a great job of getting promotion. A lot of times we'll come to these little towns, and even there they have a tiny newspaper, there's an article. So these guys do a great job. We had one town that I played in. Oh, I don't remember the name. It was rural, rural Alabama, and they didn't even have a newspaper. And there was a kid that had an old mimeograph machine, you know, with the purple ink. And he had written an article about the show and was giving it out in front of the pizza parlor that I was playing in. It helps to have people on your side that promote these things.


Has Drag City ever suggested any promotional stunts?
They do all of that stuff themselves. They're in Chicago, they have a big office. I don't have anything to do with that. They take care of everything, and they do a great job. And I'll do whatever I'm asked. If they want me to go to the opening of an orange juice stand or something like that and sign things, I would do that. I did some things on television or radio, interviews with folks such as yourself, try to help sell this crap. Because you need to get people to buy it somehow. They're not going to buy it because they like the show.

Why would they buy it, then?
Because this promotional campaign is so good. Why do people buy all those Pringles potato chips? Do you think those are good? Well, I've got news for you. They're not.

Have you noticed that Pringles has a new campaign where they have trivia questions inscribed on the chip?
Yeah, you see what I mean? This is something no one would eat, but people like to play trivia. So, they think, "No one will eat these chips. We have billions of canisters of this stuff sitting here, getting old. What are we going to do?" And then somebody gets a bright idea, "Let's print trivia on it." Another thing you could do is print dollar bills onto these chips. People would love to eat money. It empowers them.

Have you ever eaten money?
I did eat some Malaysian ringgit. That's the currency in Malaysia. Because we got back from that tour, and I had a few of these things still stuck in the back of my tuxedo pants pocket, because I spilled a lot of the tropical drinks on myself during the course of the show. Some of it was sticking to the tux, and this was a day when we were touring in rural Montana. Nothing to eat, so I did eat a couple Malaysian ringgit. I guess it was probably about twenty ringgit. That's not cheap.

Not necessarily the most nutritious meal that you could have had.
It was terrible, and if it wasn't for the alcohol I would not recommend this. This was out of desperation. We were broken down by the side of the road, and there wasn't anything for miles. I would have eaten the emergency flare, but I needed that to summon help.

What happened?
Just another flat. When you buy these retread tires, you get a whole lot of problems. They take the same shitty tire and just spray it with tar or whatever every couple of weeks, and then that wears off again, and then you're back with the same shitty tire you started with. But it's cheap. You can get these tires for five, ten dollars.

You mentioned you'd eaten this coin out of desperation. What are some other things you've eaten out of desperation?
I've eaten a lot of pizza crusts, just the leftover crusts that are left on the table. When you do one of these pizza parlor shows and they refuse to give you a free pizza as part of the deal even though it's in the contract, and some of those shows where I haven't been paid anything-- I don't know if this is really helping to promote my act, by the way, getting anecdotes from me eating leftover pizza crusts. I don't know that this is really beneficial, talking about this. I don't see how this is going to help sell any records or bring anyone to the shows. It may repel people.

I find that interviews that are full of anecdotes get people excited about the subject. They see that if Neil Hamburger's life is full of these stories and the sacrifices that he makes for the craft of comedy, then they'll certainly be intrigued to check out the comedy of Neil Hamburger.

Well, I hope your theory is right. Who has this worked for?
The best example I have is there was this author who was living in New York, and he had done a one-man show. And after I had interviewed him about his various escapades, he was invited by Duke University to give a performance of his one-man show.
Can you hook me up with the Duke University people?

This particular publication was founded by a guy who came to New York and was so impressed by the comedy scene that he wanted to start a magazine all about the many performers who live in New York. I contribute interviews with performers who live outside the city, such as yourself.
Sounds like a big zero when you add it all up in terms of getting that Duke University scholarship.

What would you do with a scholarship?
Well, I believe a scholarship usually at least includes a place to sleep. And some of them, you get to eat at the cafeteria. So right there, that's two things that are better than my comedy career.

Even if that were the case, wouldn't you have to go to school then?
I don't mind sitting around listening to these guys talk. I might even learn something. It's certainly better than standing around at these nightclubs while these diseased creeps breathe all over you. There are people with hepatitis and dead bugs, all kinds of things are going on. You put yourself out in public like I'm doing, that's how typhoid spread, with people congregating in these sorts of environments. It's not safe, and it doesn't pay well, and I'm very worried. It's been a while since we had a huge epidemic. And the last place you want to be is trapped up inside one of these little clubs with no ventilation. That's the last thing you want to do.

So you haven't had the inoculations against say, the typhoid, and the mumps and measles?
Well, I've eaten a lot of moldy pizza crusts, and the penicillin in that-- that's where you get that-- so I could be in good shape. You do have a point.

Let's say that somehow Duke got a hold of this interview, they like the Neil Hamburger brand, they want to give you a scholarship. Would you go back to school?
I would like to be a professor there. Because then I could just do the same thing, tell these jokes. And we bill it as, "A Course in American Comedy," or something. But then I just get up and do my act everyday, get paid, have a place to live. You know these university guys, the professors, they get perks. Parking and wine, all kinds of things.

What are some things that people can learn from one of your performances?
They can learn that if they have an 11:00 AM course on American Comedy with Professor Hamburger, and then they have a 12:30 course on brain surgery with Professor Martin, they would learn that they should really pay more attention to Professor Martin because he can teach them something that they can actually have a successful career at. I think it would be a good thing for motivating kids to pay more attention to the other professors and other careers. It's a cautionary tale. It's like when you're in school and they show you all those films of the people doing the LSD, PCP and that whole mess. It helps lead you toward a better life.

I don't know if you're aware, but college professor is one of the most prestigious professions in the country.
I know. Believe me, it's several steps up above TV comic. People see Neil Hamburger and they say, "Neil, that looks so exciting, being under the spotlight." But you're sweating under the spotlight, and you're not earning any money. What's prestigious about standing under a light? How is that prestigious? Standing under a light is a nightmare. Would you go outside and stand under the sun and just stand there all day sweating?

Some people actually pay good money to do some sweating. They'll go to the gym and go to the sauna.
But they're building up muscles. If you're just standing there, you can't build any muscles. If you've got muscles, you can work as a bouncer. That is a prestigious job. That's a great job. Those guys make money. I know, I've talked to them, I've been thrown out the back door by them, I've seen they throw people at my shows right out the side door. And those guys get good money.

But in a way, since you mentioned that your life and your career can be a bit of a cautionary tale, you're a bit of a bouncer at the club of comedy.
In what way are you saying, Ben?

You said that people, given the choice between brain surgeon and comedian, should take the brain surgeon route. You're kind of bouncing those people out.
So you're saying that I'm a bouncer.

In a way.
Because you're saying that the jokes are poor quality? Where is this interview going?

No, that's not true at all! I'm a big fan of your jokes. It's just that the tales you tell of harrowing hardships and these communicable diseases--
These aren't tales, though. That's something you get from Aesop. This all really happens. This is a nightmare, Ben, this is not something you want to get tangled up in. I don't know why you spend so much time talking about these people and writing about this mess. This is one of the great suppressed stories in the media today, the enslavement of these low level entertainers such as myself. And the closer you get to it, you could get burned by this. You could find that you no longer have your six-figure career as a journalist, and instead you're enslaved in this awful, endless loop that there's no getting out of. Be careful. These guys go down to Thailand to write about the sex slavery, and before you know it they're chained up with a ping-pong ball in their mouth. You've got to be careful.

Perhaps we can do a bit of an expose on the hardships of comedians.
That's what I'm saying, of course, I'd love to do an expose like that and improve the lifestyle for comedians such as myself who are suffering. But I'm worried about your health. The guys that run these clubs, they don't screw around. The people that hire me, they're not going to release me from these contracts, and they're not going to let me go. If they see somebody like you is out there needling them and basically daring them to do better, you may you find yourself with cement shoes in the bottom of-- what's the filthy river in New Jersey? That river. The filthy, filthy river. That's where you'll be. Watch out. You think that when they had slavery in the United States that they gave that up without a fight? Believe me, the creeps that wanted slaves, they went to war over this. And thankfully, they lost. But these guys that are enslaving comedians, I don't know that they would lose. I haven't been able to make any headway into getting out of this mess. All I can do is take solace in the fact that I do help a few people by causing them to laugh their problems away.

Have you heard of any journalist being disappeared, so to speak?
How would you hear that? I've done interviews with guys and they said, "I'll see you at the show Thursday night. I would love to meet you, that was a great interview, that was a lot of fun." We had a guy in St. Louis who I talked to. The article runs saying, "Poor Neil. He's not making any money. It's all going to the management company. These comedy clubs ripped him off. Oh poor Neil, these lawyers. They're garnishing his pay. The IRS..." All these things are happening. I talk to this guy off the record about this. He prints it all. It comes out on Wednesday in St. Louis. Thursday's the show. He was never there. He said he was going to try to make it. As far as I know, check the paper. Do a search for a car bomb in St. Louis. You may find this guy.

So it seems like being a comedian journalist is a bit of a dangerous profession.
Yeah. I would say it is. Because being a comedian is a dangerous profession, unless you like being a human slave. Unless you like having people throw apples at you, or lemons sometimes; we've had lemons. Unless you like arguing with folks after the show about how they're supposed to pay you the money, but they're not going to for whatever reason they've cooked up. Sometimes you get the good shows. We did a show recently at the Knitting Factory nightclub. They paid good money, and they treated me real well. They gave me quite a few drinks, and food to eat, and a room to sleep in, and all that. But then three nights later, you're playing at one of these-- I don't want to name them by name, but we'll just say a Connecticut pizza restaurant-- and it's a complete opposite. You've got guys looking at their watch, and I walk off stage after fifty-nine minutes, and they say, "Neil, your contract was for an hour. We can't pay you tonight." And I'm like, "Well, you at least gotta give me the extra large pizza that's in the contract." They said, "I don't think you understood what we said. We're not paying you, Neil, and you've got three minutes to vacate the premises." And this is after all these people are laughing, having a great time, saying, "Neil, can I have a photo with you?" It felt like a triumphant evening, and to have it end that way, and have to get out of the state for fear. And then you want to write about this, you want to expose this? You may be surprised at the knocks that come knocking at your door.

This sort of controversy may benefit your career greatly, and mine as well, because people will see this world that we're unveiling to them. You've got Neil Hamburger, the heroic comedian, taking a stand for his rights and the rights of every comedian. And they want to know, "Who's Neil? What are his CDs like? Where can I buy them?"
Well, I'll tell you where. You can buy them everywhere. Amazon, walmart.com, and all of them. I'll tell you this much. If you want to take that angle, hire a private bodyguard. I would love to see this stuff exposed. I would love to see the working conditions changed. And they do change at certain nightclubs. There are certain nightclubs that go out of their way to treat me very well, and it really makes a different. The Middle East nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts. They always serve up French fries to me. And I always get the falafel ball. But then you play the next night in-- I can't even give the name of this little town-- but believe me, these guys are packing heat. They want you to do the show they want you to do and to get out of there without even asking them about pay. That's a grave insult to them. And of course the management company I work with is in cahoots with all these guys. So what they're doing is they're paying the management company something for booking, for having me there, they're telling me that there's no money being made at all, the management company's taking that money from the pizza parlor that's paying them directly and then pretending that they never got paid, and then they're coming to me for their percentage, which I owe them regardless of whether I got paid. I owe them a booking fee.

With all this going on, you had mentioned bodyguards. Do you have some sort of personal protection?
I don't want to reveal that, because I don't want your Mark David Chapmans coming to the show. You don't ask President Bush, "Which guys are the hidden Secret Service guys?" You don't ask that. That's how you end up in jail, or with a visit from the feds.

Have the clubs or the management ever sent their goons after you?
They don't have to be sent out, they're there in the room with me to begin with. The answer is yes. They don't take kindly to paying you. I admit, in some cases, you've got seven people in the audience at two dollars a ticket. I'm probably not going to be getting too much money out of these guys. But in other cases, the venues are quite full, and they always have an excuse. "Well, we had to spend money on a sound man. Two hundred fifty dollars to hire a sound man." Well, I'd like to meet the soundman, because I'm standing there with a microphone with a Radio Shack cable plugged into a big speaker. Where's the soundman who's getting the two hundred fifty dollars they're taking out of my pay? And in some cases, the pay that I'm entitled to, they say, "Well, you had seven tickets at two dollars each, that's fourteen dollars, minus two hundred fifty dollars for the sound man. And then we have to budget for the food, the pizza and all that, so that's minus another fourteen ninety-nine. It looks to me like you owe us two hundred fifty seven dollars."


So are you saying that it's not that the management has goons to send after you as much as the management is goons.
Exactly. I can't name names here.

That's a very efficient business model, to combine the muscle with the brains.

These guys know what they're doing. You talk to other comedians. Ask them. You'll hear the same story from all of them that you're hearing from me, unless they're too cowardly to talk about it, or too busy instead promoting their sitcoms.

Who are some comedians I should speak to if I want to get started on this?
All of them, any of them. They all know about this. Not so much Carrot Top, he's probably getting paid. He's getting paid quite well. He's probably in with this whole mob, honestly.

Carrot TopWhat has Carrot Top got that you haven't got?
I don't know. He's got nothing. He's got those trunks full of all that crap. He goes to the ninety-nine cent store and buys whatever is on sale there and drags that out on stage and says, "Look at this. You can use this to fish with," or whatever. He brings out some duck tape, and everyone laughs. And he brings out a box of Sun brand detergent-- you know Sun, sort of a low-cost laundry detergent-- he brings out a box of that and says, "Look here. Maybe Neil Hamburger can use this to wash his mouth out after telling those dirty jokes," and everyone laughs. And then he brings out-- what else do they have at the ninety-nine cent store? Adapter to plug your cell phone into the car, except they're selling those adapters for cell phones that haven't existed in ten years, so basically it's a useless piece of electronic crap. So Carrot Top brings that out and says, "What do we have here? Let's see. Maybe this is a walkie talkie for you to all go fuck yourself," and then everyone laughs. And then he brings out a package of some old candy that's gone bad, a gelatinous sort of gummy bear type candy that's too hard to sell for a dollar ninety-nine, so it's at the ninety-nine cent store, and he brings that out and he says, "Look at here. It's a whole package of dildos for mice," and everyone's just laughing at the prop comedy. It's a very cheap thing to do, and it's a very terrible thing to do, and I just read verbatim some of his jokes, and you weren't laughing at all. So that's where I don't understand how he can get off being a multi-millionaire, while guys like myself are struggling just to buy the fuel to get to the next town.

What about some of these other comedians, like Dane Cook? He's gotten his comeuppance. All of his movies are terrible.
They're terrible, but the guy's made plenty of money off of them. He probably thinks they're good. Him and his mother, his grandmother, maybe his sister thinks they're good. But I don't think that Jessica Alba [sic], I don't think that she thought that was so good. Having to make out with him? I mean, geez. You think actresses are overpaid, and then you see they've got to kiss Dane Cook's lips. Then you realize actresses are underpaid at a couple million dollars a film. Poor Jessica Alba, that's tough work. But for him, why is he getting paid? He's got his lips all over Jessica Alba's breasts and that whole thing, and they're paying him for that. And he stunk the whole movie up with the gags that didn't work, and he has awful presence, and then he gets paid. That's kind of strange. It's the equivalent of, if you're dying of bowel cancer, and you're in the hospital just shitting everywhere, your ass is just blown out, and then there's a nurse that comes with a bucket and cleans this mess up. And you're getting paid, and she's getting paid. No. You shouldn't get paid. She should get paid all the money. She's dealing with the mess. You don't get paid. You should be paying her. That's what it is with the Dane Cook thing. He's getting paid to stink this movie up. Jessica Alba's getting paid to have to deal with the stink. It's a very unfair model.

It seems like in this interview, I think we've made a lot of headway in terms of me collecting more data for this investigative pursuit that I'm been doing. But I wanted to know, when we spoke previously, you'd mentioned-- I'm just going to quote directly-- "I hope they don't find me too late. That's something to keep in mind, too, that by the time they discover me, there might be nothing left. That's what happened to Jesus. That guy was not as popular when he was around as he is now." I know the Beatles made the mistake of comparing themselves to Jesus, and it set them back a little bit in their career. Did this comment have any effect on your career?
You know, I didn't think of that, but maybe that explains the poor attendance last night. We did have a bad show last night up in Pasa Robla, where I've been playing for years. Nobody came. I don't know. The nightclub was about three blocks from a church. And this is why I'm warning you about what you write. You've got to be careful. This isn't the Middle Ages, where you had freedom of press. This is 2007. Things are a little different now. And what you write, you know. You could end up with one of those ball and chains that they have on the foot when you're breaking up slabs of concrete. That could be you. Or me.

At the same time, they also say that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
I know they said that, but look what happened to this movie with Jessica Abla and Dane Cook. That got some bad publicity. I don't even think it's still playing in the theaters. What do you make of that? "There's no bad publicity," tell that to the guys who spent all the money paying those two to mug it up in that awful movie. You've got some investors jumping off the bridge there. Go down to the bottom of the-- what's the bridge from Saturday Night Fever, that bridge? The big bridge that hooks Staten Island up to New York. I'm not a geography guy; I'm a comedian. But go down to the bottom of that bridge right now. You'll probably see all the producers of Good Luck Chuck, executive producers. I bet it's just a big pile down there of blood and guts. Those are the guys there whose names are in the credits of that movie. It's already out of the theater. Who's paying for the billboards all over the place? I'm seeing them everywhere, with that guy's big, ugly face. No one wants to see that.

You did mention that Dane Cook's mother enjoys his work. What does the Family Hamburger think of your career?
They're mad at me for disgracing the family name. Didn't you hear, one of my records, we did a whole routine about that. It's not a good situation. They're not proud. Would you be proud if your child every year had a negative income, every year going deeper and deeper into debt? It's nothing to be proud of. You could say, "I was on stage at Madison Square Garden last year. Isn't that something to be proud of." And you know what they'd say to me? "Neil, there were a whole team of janitors on stage at Madison Square Garden as well last year. So what?" Do you think anyone's proud of the guy that mops the semen off the stage after an Eric Clapton concert? Nobody's proud of him. He probably spent just as much time on stage as Clapton did, though. Big deal.

What is it that your family lineage is in terms of occupation? What have they got that makes them think they're so much better than a comedian?
They're bureaucrats, basically. They work government type administrative jobs.. So they don't have a sense of humor, really. Sometimes you'll get the odd joke in the family at Thanksgiving or whatever, but I don't go to the Thanksgiving dinners anymore, because I'm too busy on stage at that time of year. And that's a big time for me, because I have a whole Thanksgiving set, this whole cranberry sauce routine, that's extremely popular around Thanksgiving. So that's when they have a lot of bookings.

So they haven't said that they're proud of you?
No. No, they haven't. They definitely haven't.

Well, I'm proud of you, Neil.
Well, thank you. That's more than we usually get. I'll take it. Believe me, I will take that. Thank you.

Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer