Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Gregg Turkington’s “Neil Hamburger” character has evolved considerably since the pre-historic days when Turkington introduced the alt-comedy icon to a bewildered public on 1992’s Great Phone Calls. The voice Turkington uses as Hamburger in his first CD bears only a slight resemblance to the delivery he would use on seminal albums like 1996’s America’s Funnyman.
In his 1990s incarnation, Hamburger was the saddest, most pathetic and hopeless standup comedian around, an exhausted sigh of a human being living a tragicomic life heavy on tragedy but light on comedy. Hamburger/Turkington was, and remains, a leading light in the strange, nebulous world of anti-comedy and not surprisingly, he’s worked with Tim Heidecker on a number of projects, most notably the podcast and videocast On Cinema.
As the decades progressed, Hamburger morphed into an angry, confrontational comedian in the Tony Clifton mold, a bitter crank who takes great delight in alienating and insulting audiences with filthy, celebrity-bashing jokes delivered in an intentionally abrasive, nasal roar a far cry from the defeated delivery of Hamburger’s early albums.
On 2007’s Hot February Night, Hamburger illustrated Ali G-level audacity and testicular fortitude by continually baiting and insulting the Madison Square Garden crowd impatient to see headliners Tenacious D in ways that elevate heckling the audience to a sublime art form. A record label head in his non-Hamburger life, Turkington has made his alter-ego a novelty singer as well, both with a country album (Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners) and with projects that combine music and comedy, like his most recent release, First Of Dismay.
Hamburger and Turkington have a longstanding love of conceptual comedy that informs his short-lived podcast New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger. The idea was that every episode of the podcast commemorated the music and entertainment of a big extravaganza happening in “Times Square, Hollywood” (a place presumably both in New York and Southern California, spiritually if not geographically) leading up to a countdown to 11. Why 11? Well, a chagrined Hamburger explains that Ryan Seacrest owns the copyright to a New Year’s Eve countdown from 10 to zero, so he and his more low-budget production consequently have to end their own New Year’s Eve countdown at 11 for legal reasons.
For sixteen podcasts that ran from October 18th, 2012 to January 1st, 2014 (on iTunes; on the Feral audio site it lists its final run date as December 31st, 2013), Hamburger and his sidekick Major Entertainer Mike H. introduced songs, conducted man-on-the-street interviewers with revelers in attendance and counted down to (almost) the new year.
It would be hard to imagine entertainment more time-based and time-sensitive than New Year’s Eve countdowns/entertainment. A few years back I wrote about an insane New Year’s Eve broadcast hosted by what appeared to be a deeply inebriated Jamie Kennedy that failed spectacularly as professional entertainment but succeeded wildly as anti-comedy.
Merely watching a New Year’s Eve broadcast after New Year’s Eve had long passed felt weirdly transgressive and wrong. In New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger, New Year’s Eve is of course a day on a calendar but it’s just as much a state of mind, and a weird one to visit any night other than December 31st. New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger further adds to this weird time-warp element by featuring as its primary entertainment obscure, long-forgotten acts whose music and style both belong to a much earlier era.
The first song on the sixteenth and final episode of New Year’s Eve, for example, is a bizarre number presumably from the late 1960s or 1970s about a black man convinced he needs to get his hand on a gun, or a series of guns, in preparation for armed rebellion, or even just resistance. Lyrically, the song is clued into the anger and rage and social consciousness of the black power movement but sonically the song is uncharacteristically chipper and upbeat, more the sound of people trying to entertain the establishment than take up arms against it.
Neil Hamburger’s shtick is that he’s the saddest, most pathetic and talentless comedian around. Yet in the weird, time-warp world of New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger, he’s out sad-sacked at every turn by sidekick Major Entertainer Mike H., whose stage name seems increasingly ironic every time he opens his mouth and says something so sad that it inspires pity even in an epically pitiable creature like Hamburger.
The idea of hosting a New Year’s Eve-themed podcast that never runs on New Year’s Eve is so inspired, and perverse, and Neil Hamburgery that it almost seems like a shame that they abandoned that concept on the final podcast. New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger was always a podcast out of time, in part because it revolved around the kind of cheesy, variety-show style entertainment, music, and comedy that pre-dates the podcast era by decades.
Like previous Pod-Canon honorees Pistol Shrimps Radio and Reality Show Show, New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger took something intensely time-sensitive and ostensibly irrelevant past a certain date (New Year’s Eve festivities) and transformed it into strangely timeless podcast entertainment. New Year’s Eve is now defunct. It’s been a dead podcast for the last two and a half years, something that, perversely enough, only adds to its time-warp appeal.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.