GIGGLE CITY: Neil Hamburger, hold the cheese

Once in a great while Edmonton is privileged to host one of the old-time stand-up comedians, a stubborn hold-out from the days of yore where men were men, women stayed in the kitchen where they belonged and show business was an honourable profession – not the cesspool of fart jokes it’s become today.

Neil Hamburger is more than just a remnant of an endangered species. He would’ve been dubbed the “hardest working man in show business” if he weren’t too busy to have sent out a press release announcing it. As part of a neverending tour that saw 400 shows in 2010 alone, the Los Angeles-based comic performs Thursday, June 23 at the Varscona Theatre as part of the Improvaganza Festival.

Q: If you could be any celebrity, who would it be and why?

A: I would probably be one of the greats, one of the legends, the Laurel and Hardys, the Abbott and Costellos, the Rich Brothers. You know that guy from Pearl Jam, he made some really horrible music? I wouldn’t be that. I’d prefer to be somebody who brought joy into the lives of everyone who was touched by their craft, and also made a lot of money. Which is something I’ve not been so successful at doing.

Q: Why do you suppose that is?

A: I think folks are more interested in this sort of hate rock. It’s a type of music where you get these guys crapping into bowls and screaming and breaking things and it’s very loud. They’re usually unkempt. That’s what the kids like nowadays. Unfortunately a good entertainer, a seasoned entertainer, an entertainer who gives you his all, at this point in society, has become marginalized and forgotten.

Q: What’s your worst heckler story?

A: One time we had a guy who wouldn’t shut his goddamned mouth. You get those guys every night, but this guy was awful. He kept shouting out the punchlines because knew all my new jokes from watching the YouTube videos. We were doing two shows in Vancouver. He was making such a racket in the first show and wasn’t going anywhere for the second show, so I hired a couple of these homeless sort of drifters who were loitering around in the alley. I hired these guys to take a two by four and bash this heckler in the back of the head if he does this in the second show. That was the agreement: If he makes two heckles during the show, take him out. And these two homeless guys took my money and they hit the wrong guy with a board, because they were alcoholics. And of course you get a lawsuit from that, arrests, we were banned from performing this particular nightclub. It really screwed things up for a couple of days.

Q: Do you think you have to be a pessimist in order to be an effective comedian?

A: I don’t think so. What I think is that you have to be willing to work 365 nights year, willing to drive 700 miles a day, willing to survive mostly on canned foods and low income. And you have to be willing to accept that none of it’s going to work, that you’ve made a mistake and that you really should’ve found another line of work to get into so you can go through life with your head held high. If can accept all that, you’ll probably do quite well in the stand up comedy business. Not financially well, but you’ll continue to work. Being an entertainer is the lowest of the low in terms of the rewards and the joy.

Q: What’s the difference between kids today and when you were kid?

A: When I was a kid they weren’t hyped up on drugs. They plug themselves into these goddamned video monitors, some of the psychotic games they have. God knows they’re on medication. They’re buying drugs from each other in the school lunchroom. If you were to put a marionette show for them, say you have one puppet that’s an ostrich, and another that’s a comic cat or something, and put on a show with the puppets singing and dancing and telling little jokes, a lot of the kids nowadays would walk right out to go buy a knife or go score some drugs. Kids today have blackened souls, and they’re born this way. They’re like that in the womb. They’re real horror monsters. There’s no sweetness and light in these kids, and that’s too bad.

Q: What’s the worst meal you ever had on the road?

A: Canned food is one of the better meals. Fruit cocktail is going to have all the basic necessities you need. The worst meal? Every been to Long John Silver? Applebees? T.G.I.Fridays? Any of these places. You’re talking about people making food out of wallpaper paste and tainted meat and produce. So you get the blandness plus you get sick. That’s a bad combination. If you’re going to get sick from food, it should at least be flavourful along the way.

Q: Here’s a question just for you: Why do you carry so many drinks with you on stage?

A: It’s a long show. If I go up there with one glass under the spotlight, the ice is going to melt, and when I finish the drink I can’t really interrupt the show to go to the bar to get another one. So it’s better to bring them all up with you, rather than running out and your throat gets parched. I have various alcohols, some sort of flavourful mixer, to help me relax. When you’re dealing with some of the sickies and weirdos that come to these shows, the last thing you want is to be stressed out

Q: Why don’t you just get a little table for your drinks?

A: Then you have a sitting target. Somebody can drop some drugs into your drink when you’re not looking – date rape drugs, Sweet N’ Low. I’d rather keep my drinks close to me.