The end game of comedians is obviously to make their audiences laugh, but the great humorists know how to mix jokes with an unsettling sense of sadness.
The late Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright’s wry and deadpan everyday observations are comingled with references to anxiety and existential dread. Even the manic characters that inhabit Tim Robinson’s Netflix gem “I Think You Should Leave” are imbued with a sense of pathos—deeply insecure individuals who defend those insecurities to ridiculous ends.
It is that combination of comedy and tragedy that impelled the creation of Neil Hamburger, the gauche alter ego of Gregg Turkington. A repugnant and washed-up comic with a greasy combover and oversized glasses, Hamburger was inspired by the bygone lounge lizards that inhabited Z-list club circuits in Reno and Lake Tahoe. But Turkington says the character also had roots from a particularly troubling scene he witnessed in San Francisco.
Apparently at the advice of his psychiatrist, one aspiring comedian took to the stage at the venerable Holy City Zoo, the bygone comedy spot on Clement Street. The idea was to exorcise his demons of anxiety and social discomfort through the healing power of comedy and human connection. Predictably, the foray took a disastrous turn.
“The guy disintegrated out there,” says Turkington, who will perform as Neil Hamburger on Saturday at the Mint Plaza. “He wasn’t a performer. He was just a sick man.”
Neil Hamburger straddles the line precariously between being a performer and a sick man. Spewing out callous, groan-worthy jokes on topics that have little relevance in today’s society, Hamburger is the encapsulation of an anachronistic past that’s not returning anytime soon.
Turkington plays up the unforgivable louche character, but what makes the performance work is the commitment to the bit. There is no wink-wink, nod-nod to his antics, just pure chaos and a lot of uncomfortable laughs for the uninitiated.
With a comedic act so dependent on the call-and-response, interactive nature of live performances, sitting out the past year and a half has been particularly tough for Turkington, who has been touring consistently for decades. Without the feedback of audiences to inspire him, Turkington sought other ways to engage with his fans during his long absence. For $10 each, he started sending detailed Neil Hamburger-penned postcards to fans across the world. The postcards were written in Hamburger’s trademark cranky style from locales that would be typical of a fifth-rate performer.
“I would think of where a Neil Hamburger type would be on his fictitious tour,” said Turkington. “So, the postcards would usually come from like a Travelodge in some weird Florida town or from some greasy burger joint in Cleveland. It was actually a good way of keeping that character fresh.”
Turkington lived in San Francisco throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, and his comedy career really took off while he lived in The City. He would record crank calls and distribute them on cassette tapes to his friends. He said coming back from his absence for his first “real” show back in San Francisco (he did a quick set in Los Angeles a few weeks ago), was significant to him, given his local roots.
A regular at the Independent and other indie rock venues, Turkington always has strayed from traditional comedy clubs, and his Mint Plaza gig will continue in that tradition. (He said he was intrigued by the site after learning that legendary local Peaches Christ appeared there.)
Without giving away too much, Turkington said that Neil Hamburger probably will offer a few unseemly opinions about the pandemic at the Mint show.
“He’s never been the most topical guy,” said Turkington. “But I’m sure it will come up. In a way, making jokes about COVID is kind of fresh, because no one has seen any live comedy since the pandemic is started. Anything is better than recycling the same old jokes about smoking weed.”
Fans can expect some laughs and some groans and maybe a touch of earnest connection, but they canrest easy knowing that Turkington is not onstage at the advice of his therapist.
IF YOU GO
Where: Old Mint, Fifth and Mission streets, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 7
Tickets: $30 (sold out)