First of Dismay begins with a Heath Ledger joke. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It begins with Neil Hamburger stumbling over the word Heath, declaring that “we’re not going to do any Heath Ledger material tonight,” and then berating a woman in the audience for spilling her beverage. “What do you have to say, PIG?” he asks. It’s … well, it’s perfect.
Hamburger, born Gregg Turkington, has been alienating audiences since the early ’90s, rarely deviating from his formula: Bark out a crude, illogical “joke,” then drift into a phlegmy cocoon of self-deprecation before doing it all over again. That his act is a cruel parody of the sad, broken comics of yesteryear is no secret, but Hamburger also resonates as the kind of obnoxious everyday schmo who won’t rest until everybody knows that Kim Kardashian is “only famous for a sex tape!”
The Hamburger of First of Dismay is no different, again culling comedy from the very fabric of his jokes and delivery rather than the punchlines themselves. Recorded live in Los Angeles, London, and Savannah, some of the biggest laughs from this album’s audiences come during a painfully long setup for a bit about the mime Marcel Marceau. There’s nothing funny about it, but Turkington’s commitment to crafting such an intricate lead-in to what the audience knows is going to be godawful punchline (and it is) creates the sort of anticipatory glee one feels when watching an oblivious doof amble toward a banana peel.
That image, like so much of cringe comedy, hinges on the distinctive, despicable joy we find in the humiliation of sad sacks. It should come as no surprise, then, that Drag City’s been labeling First of Dismay as “somber” and “melancholy,” emotions that only the most self-aware Neil Hamburger fan would admit to indulging in at one of his live shows. But First of Dismay takes it a step further by devoting nearly half its tracks to dirty country ditties that are only funny in the most abstract sense.
Aside from “Endless Roll”, a disco-country stomper about Kirkland Signature trash bags, these are not novelty songs. Yes, they sound scraped off the bottom of a gas station bargain bin, but those familiar with 2008’s Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners will know what to expect: sincere covers and a couple originals, sung in Hamburger’s nauseating croon. But here’s the thing: With a different vocalist, “Nickel Candy”, a song seemingly inspired by Jim Reeves’ “Nickel Piece of Candy”, could absolutely tap into the cathartic tragedy of a regretful alcoholic father. Instead, when buoyed by Hamburger’s growl, it’s baffling and, despite competent musicianship, completely unpleasant.
But that’s the point. Right? I mean, if it isn’t, then what is? Character-building? Like Louis CK and, yes, Andy Kaufman, Turkington understands that comedy isn’t always supposed to be funny. By perpetuating Hamburger’s passion for butt-country and associating him with the tragedy interwoven into these songs, Turkington is challenging audiences, daring them to accept the varied dimensions of a character it would be all too easy to label as “repellent.”
Tapping into this kind of thought is, fortunately or unfortunately, the key to understanding Hamburger and the sometimes difficult First of Dismay as a comedic creation. If it helps, consider Hamburger the closest thing the comedy community has to a Tommy Wiseau, whose misguided earnestness breeds the kind of belly laugh that’s wholly separate from the kind you’ll find in a comedy club.
Of course, this big-picture stuff may not make the songs easier to stomach. Luckily, those disinterested in Hamburger’s musical endeavors will find plenty of the comic’s gruesome onstage antics to delight in.
“What is the only thing uglier than Limp Bizkit fans?” Hamburger asks early on. “Limp Bizkit merch.” A pause. The audience is unimpressed. Hamburger sighs. “Well, fuck you.”
Glad to have you back, Neil.
Essential Tracks: “Heckler Mumbler”, “He Spoke”, and “Mama Tried”