Neil Hamburger at The Soho Theatre. 9th Dec 2008
Usually when I write a review and I can't see any redeeming qualities in the performer, I tend not to dwell. I knock out a couple of paragraphs and leave the extended hatchet job to somebody else. But when an act starts to get recognition and accolades, when the word is out, and I just don't get it, then I have to explain myself.
I am taken to the Soho Theatre by way of a Christmas treat by a mate whose opinion I would normally respect, we take another respected mate along as well. The comedian, I am told, is inter-active and 'edgy' As part of the evening's treat all three of us have a small bottle of vodka and orange. So it's starting off very well, but not for long.
The intro music blasts loud, the lights dim and eventually after leaving it too long, the performer stands before us in a spotlight cradling three glasses of what appears to be water in one arm and holding the mic in his other hand. He clears his throat unashamably loudly into the mic, coughs up phelm and spits it into one of the glasses; he drinks some water and coughs again confusing which glass is the spittoon and which has clean water. Nothing he will do or say in the next 40 minutes will be funnier or better structured than this.
There is little about Neil Hamburger or his stand-up comedy act, that is not contrived to offend – everything from the Arthur Scargill style greasy comb-over to the gratuitous rape gag for openers - all of it – the look and the patter is deliberately and decidedly 'off.'
In any other circumstances, I would make efforts to avoid such company; but in a studio theatre in the guise of performance art or post-modern entertainment, I innocently assume there will be some explanation or at least a hint of back-story. The fact that there is no explanation or back-story makes this representation of an obsessively lewd, liberal-bating sicko with no social skills actually less interesting than the real thing.
Hamburger's stand-up script is an interminable litany of same-structure 'jokes'. Each starts with a set-up question prefixed with a half-shouted gutteral Whyyyy? Whaaaat? Or Hoooow? Then a pause, and then completed by a lewd and ludicrous punchline delivered in an ironicly gentler tone, berating the audience for not getting such an obvious answer.
Before long, stooges and tired audience members are joining in on the pause with "Why" "Why Neil", "How Neil". I choose this moment to heckle "Yes Why? Why I am here?" My first heckle had been met with a loud coughing up of phlegm into the mic. I soon reason, that it's best to heckle Hamburger when he's drinking water or when he's playing this supportive call and answer.
There's little imagination or real enjoyment in his performance, and he clearly doesn't relish the opportunity to improvise, immediately characterising hecklers as defenders of the joke's victim rather than the truth - critics of the laborious joke-teller.
Two of our threesome leave before the end. Other audience members follow us; and downstairs in the bar people buy us drinks and thank us for our intervention. In a conversation with a disappointed American I find myself citing and recommending two English character comedians; Ronnie Rigsby and Sir Gideon Vein - both have passing similarities with Neil Hamburger although he has neither the flair and range of the former or the self deprecation and outrageous back story of the latter. And he certainly has none of the accurate social satire of either. Instead Hamburger operates like a festering parasite on the skinny carcass of celebrity culture, pitching dark, deliberately unacceptable subject matter at his audiences liberal susceptibilities and commenting on and dismissing the inevitable mixed reception he gets with bilious little pre-scripted tirades.
Five, maybe ten minutes pass. I have a flash of paranoia – I am downstairs part of a tiny polarized minority, upstairs we are being wrongly described as politically correct softies and spoilsports; the cool, tougher types, the anti-intellectuals, are jeering at us for not being able to take a joke.
So Whyyyyy? Can't I take a joke?
Why Tony? Why?
Cos the fucking jokes, and the fucking arsehole telling them, just aren't fucking funny enough, that's why!
Tony Allen 9th Dec 2008