Neil before the king of comedy

Neil Hamburger’s first Halifax appearance marks a trend of underground comedians booked by fans. Stephanie Johns plays the straight man to the comedy nerds.

Neil will be sitting pretty at Gus’ Pub on Sunday. - RACHEL FOX
Rachel Fox
Neil will be sitting pretty at Gus’ Pub on Sunday.

Neil Hamburger is a trooper. Despite his claims of being "in the midst of total financial and personal ruin" the "anti- comedian" asserts that he will still play "wherever a laugh is needed."

Like Hamburger's almost Sysiphean sticktoitiveness, Halifax similarly trudges through adversity (distance from other major Canadian cities, comedy club closures and lack of urban population) in the name of good comedy. But with more DIY comedy groups and nights starting up, and music bookers taking it upon themselves to bring their comedic heroes to town, the underground comedy scene is quickly overtaking the mainstream.

"Comedy nerds are a community now, just like music nerds," says Stephan MacLeod, guitarist in Windom Earle and newly minted local comedy booker.

For MacLeod, booking shows is the only way he can hope to see the comedians whom he idolizes. MacLeod brought Derrick Beckles from TV Carnage to town last fall, and collaborated with Gus' Pub booker Christian Johnston to bring Neil's phlegm-filled act to Halifax.

"When I started getting more serious about comedy I realized that some of the comedians I liked played with a lot of the musicians I liked. It just made sense," MacLeod says. "Why don't I just use the things I've learned doing shows at Gus' for bands and try to apply it to weird comedians that would never come to Halifax on their own?"

Not all of these attempts have been successful---"I have tried to shoehorn comedy into music shows and failed miserably at it," he says---but MacLeod perseveres. "If you love something enough, try to make it happen."

This past year, there have been a slew of internationally recognized comedians in Halifax: Paul F. Tompkins; Louis CK; TV Carnage's Derrick Beckles; Doug Stanhope and now, America's funnyman, Neil Hamburger. With the exception of Louis CK, who performed two sold-out nights at the Cohn, and Doug Stanhope's first show (he played at the now-defunct Jokers), these comedians didn't perform at a comedy club. Instead, their shows started out with emails from fans.

The "I Wanna See Paul F. Tompkins in Halifax" Facebook group started up after Tompkins claimed he would play in any city where he had 300 projected attendees of the event on Facebook. That number was reached, then surpassed. Tompkins played two sold-out shows at The Company House in March, afterwards quoting Halifax as one of his favourite places to have played. He is coming back next spring, using the same booker, musician and Coast contributor Mark Black. After Tompkins' Halifax show, he recommended the artist who made his show poster, local boy Mike Holmes---another Coast contributor---to Patton Oswalt, who has since commissioned Holmes to do several of his posters.

Halifax is gaining a foothold as a comedian's comedy town, and it started with the locals. Picnicface's popularity has spread like wildfire, garnering them a book, a television show and a movie in the works. Their off-kilter sketches have put Halifax on the comedy map.

Picnicface's Cheryl Hann---who, along with MacLeod's found footage showcase, TV Party, is opening for Neil on Sunday---says, "Comedy attracts weird people and fans of comedy are generally weirdos, especially of alternative comedy, the weirder the better. You want the fantastical and you don't want things to make sense."

This focus on "the weirder the better" marks a shift from Halifax being an ambitious stop on a cookie-cutter comedy tour, to the city being known as an appreciative destination for comedy that pushes the envelope. "We noticed last year that the Canadian crowds were especially receptive," says Hamburger. "And thus decided this year to hit even more Canadian cities and see if lightning would strike again."

Halifax is still a far cry from comedy-rich cities like LA or Chicago, but our lack of comedy venues isn't the only thing that may be holding us back. "There's also this cliche thing that comedians could have like, 'Oh, I'm going to play middle of nowhere in a shitty small town, they're all a bunch of fishermen'" says MacLeod. "'They won't understand a smart, talented person's view on the world.'"

Neil Hamburger (real name Gregg Turkington)---with his penchant for throwing drinks, clearing his throat into the mic and coaxing his punchlines about celebs to fall flat---may not provide you with an overly insightful view of the world, but he is undoubtedly talented.

A former avant-garde musician and founder of Amarillo Records, Turkington (as Hamburger) piles on the pomade, sweats through a cheap suit and plays with comedic tropes. His jokes are anti-climactic and the act baffling. It's not necessarily a pleasant show, nor one you will soon forget.

"Neil Hamburger's best fans and his worst enemies together are what create the best Neil Hamburger show, it's all about the interactions with the haters and the people that love him so much they ruin the jokes," says MacLeod.

"He's not what the audience expects, he messes with their expectations," says Hann. "You are expecting jokes and he's not giving you that. A lot of what makes bands and comedians good is challenging expectations."

Such a challenge can clash with drunken bachelor parties and those looking to hear jokes about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus. This is why many comedians are looking to perform in alternate venues.

In advance of his March show, Tompkins specifically requested a list of venues and immediately ruled out any clubs with "zany names," MacLeod says. It's not merely a personal quirk---many comedians would prefer not to work the comedy club circuit.

"Speaking as a comedian who plays in a bar"---Picnicface's early shows were at Ginger's Tavern every Sunday---"that was definitely our choice," says Hann. "Even once Yuk Yuk's opened up they tried to get us to move our show there and we said no, because performing at Ginger's the environment was so relaxed that we felt we could do all this weird shit and have it be OK. People weren't going there expecting 'Joke-jokey jokes.'"

Hamburger concurs.

"The problem with the comedy clubs is that they tend to attract people who are looking for a generic night out with their co-workers, with a comedian as a backdrop for their night of teasing each other about work-related things...many of these patrons are not sincerely in need of a laugh," he says. "Also, many of my real fans are poor, and cannot afford the two-drink minimum often enforced by the comedy clubs, not to mention the indignity of eating some of the low-quality nachos and hot dogs that tend to be on offer at those establishments."

Food related quibbles aside---like a noise musician knowing it's best not to play a folk fest---good comedians know their crowd and understand the value of both artist and audience having a reasonable expectation of the type of entertainment they'll provide.

Consider this your advance warning.

"He's just a guy on stage telling jokes with a punchline, but he keeps doing all the weird things he can to hurt your brain, all of his effort goes into the set-up and he puts no effort in the punchline," says MacLeod. "He works so hard at coughing and inappropriate sounds and bad stage presence, he's a master at playing with those tools and creating a show where you can never feel totally comfortable. This is not comedy club comedy, this is something different."

"I kind of like awkward uncomfortable comedy, I feel like it's almost cathartic to dwell in awkwardness and break that tension with laughter," says Hann. "There's something weirdly therapeutic about it."

But the therapy doesn't always carry over to the performer. When asked about his rigorous tour schedule, the answer is comically grim. "I wish I could relax. I would like to buy a pet duck, to have to talk to. The combination of doing 35, 40 shows a month in 35, 40 different cities, while being in the midst of total financial and personal ruin, is not a good one. Perhaps vitamins would help," says Hamburger. "It is the hardest life when you are a third- or fourth-string entertainer, working the circuits that I work. I eat a lot of canned fruit cocktail. That's really the best thing you can do. And I try not to dwell on my problems too much during the long drives between cities."

Hopefully the sheer love of his enthusiastic fans will erase some of his problems on Sunday, as their devotion is nothing if not inspiring.

"You're a fan," says Hann to MacLeod. "You're not doing it for the money, you're doing it because you love Neil Hamburger."

"I'm willing to lose money to bring him here," MacLeod says.

"You don't get that kind of care in the corporate comedy world," says Hann. "No one is going to lose money to bring you anywhere."

Blending the DIY sensibilities of punk shows with underground comedy has long been a staple of festivals like SXSW and All Tomorrow's Parties and, thankfully, Halifax is getting a taste.

"I want these shows to be as memorable and as important as the Fugazi show at the Bingo Hall or Q and not U at Celtic Corner," says MacLeod. "It is so special to me to have someone I care that much about coming here and actually having everything aligning. I already feel like work is done, this show is already a legend in my mind."


By Sandi Rankaduwa
Comic and Coast cover story subject Neil Hamburger plays Gus' Pub, and audience members tell us what the show was like.

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