Too-live crew: Neil Hamburger, Todd Barry and the hazards of live comedy

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Neil Hamburger
  • Photo by Danny Norton/ Creative Commons
  • Neil Hamburger
Neil Hamburger/ Todd Barry
Kings Barcade
Aug. 17

In this age of comedians getting raked over the coals for being comedians—the slightly-est offensive, work-in-progress joke getting laid out in a comedy-club setting only to be regurgitated (usually very badly) by some online prude, pitifully looking for other people to join along in the I-can’t-believe-he-said-that circus—a writer could feel conflicted while reviewing a stand-up comedy show.

Even if I do like the jokes the comics dispense, I still won’t do them a kindness reciting their material in print. For many comics, especially the trio of comics I saw at Kings Barcade last Friday night, you really have to be there to get their jokes. The two comics who were headlining, Todd Barry and Neil Hamburger, are certainly distinctive performers, but their humor is best experienced if you get it from them.

The breathy, lazy, low-maintenance riffs Barry (whose potbellied slothness works in his favor onstage) went on during his 45-minute set would seem almost impossible to recreate even if you were hanging out with your friends. Try explaining to your pals what was so funny about the effortless, extemporaneous run Barry did when he suggested, after admitting he’s been doing sound effects during his set, he should be in the next Police Academy movie. (“Police Academy Durham — whaddya say?” he asked the audience, before wondering why saying Durham didn’t get a louder response.) There were recitable moments where you could get why Barry had ‘em howling, like when he recalled seeing a homeless dude sing “American Pie” on a subway platform (“Jack be nimble/Jack be quick — Where is that faggot-ass train at?”) or—his big closer!—reading a copy of an Esquire article a woman wrote about what a man can do to make a woman feel good and adding his own commentary. (“’Smell like something all the time’—easy enough.”)

You could recite Hamburger’s material, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. A twisted creation more than anything else, Hamburger shuffled onstage in a barely dry-cleaned tux, a horrible combover and Peter Bogdanovich glasses, carrying under his right arm three glass tumblers of some concoction he kept spilling on his suit. His 38-minute set basically consisted of telling blatantly tasteless jokes, the kind of jokes you hear burnout kids tell each other to sound edgy. But since it’s coming from the mouth of a guy who looks like a Borscht Belt comic who’s knocking on death’s door (he incessantly cleared his throat, as though his insides were drowning in phlegm), you’re basically laughing more at what you’re witnessing than what he’s saying.

Whether he was doing a so-called award-winning “tribute to ice cream” that consisted of two off-color jokes about Ben and Jerry’s and Justin Bieber, or going off on Steven Tyler for five minutes that ended with him asking the audience why he had a 16-year-old girl sit on his lap during the American Idol auditions (Answer: “To hide the erection he’d get when the 13-year-old girls auditioned!”), or weirdly ending his set doing knock-knock jokes where he quasi-sincerely paid tribute to the late Whitney Houston, Hamburger is all about getting the audience to laugh until they’re eventually uncomfortable with the whole thing. A couple did get up to leave during Hamburger’s Tyler rant, prompting him to ask, “What are those—Tyler people walking out?”

As you could probably tell from the headlining comics and the venue where they performed, this was an evening for alternative comedy fans. (The audience smacked of hipster types I usually avoid at all costs. But at least this audience didn’t consist of assholes pulling out their iPhones, recording the comics or tweeting about how inappropriate the jokes were.) The tone of the night was established by opening comic Brendon Walsh's 21-minute set. Walking onstage without an intro, sporting a bearded, shaggy look that made him look like half the editors at the Indy, you’d swear Walsh was a stoner if he didn’t do a bit condemning stoners for their paranoid attitudes. He did do sensibly droll bits, like priding himself for not being the sort of guy who uses sex toys like the Fleshlight (Google it) or what he calls a “rubber ass-pussy combination.”

Ultimately, this was an enjoyable night of comedy. I know I probably didn’t do it justice in this review. But, trust me—you had to be there.

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