COMEDY DVD/CD When comedian Neil Hamburger appeared in the mid-’90s, he didn’t exactly burst onto the scene. He floundered, groaned, and groveled his way through jokes that have often been deemed intentionally bad. “It’s so bad it’s good!” went the typical assessment of the comedian’s act — an assessment that’s not only insensitive but also a bit simplistic. Hamburger may not have been the smoothest, most polished comedian, but no one tried harder or battled against longer odds, and his willingness to muddle forth in the face of repeated failure and humiliation was at least mildly inspiring.
Based on his early track record, Hamburger’s recent success — appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a role in an upcoming Jack Black movie, sold-out shows at the Hemlock Tavern — has been unexpected. Listen to his earliest albums, 1996’s America’s Funnyman and 1998’s Raw Hamburger (both Drag City), and you’ll find there’s not a lot of laughter. Groaning, hissing, clanking silverware, and ringing slot machines, yes. But not many genuine laughs. Since those days, his persistent cough has gotten worse, and his jokes have grown more offensive, yet his audiences have grown bigger. The younger rock ’n’ roll audiences he plays to have been much more receptive to his hard-R-rated humor as well as his Q&A-style delivery (“Why did God invent Gene Simmons? To boost sales of the morning-after pill”) than to the more observational musings of his earlier sets.
The recent Drag City DVD, The World’s Funnyman, offers a window into Hamburger’s evolution. The feature is more or less a typical Hamburger show circa anytime since 2003, featuring off-color jokes about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other top stars. The highlights of the DVD, however, are relegated to the special features section: two minidocumentaries, Neil Hamburger in Australia and the Canadian-made America’s Funnyman, along with a video for his song “Seven-Elevens,” from the 2002 album Laugh Out Lord (Drag City). Best of all, though, is the black-and-white cinematic depiction of scenes from Left for Dead in Malaysia (Drag City, 1999), perhaps the darkest and most trying of Hamburger’s albums. Basically, the audience doesn’t understand a word he’s saying, but that doesn’t stop him from treating it like any show. After all, as he notes, “some things transcend the language barrier — like a disinterested audience.” The credits mention that this is a teaser for a feature-length film entitled Funny Guy–itis. If that’s true, then please, someone get this guy a movie deal and finish it, pronto.
There are those who claim that Neil Hamburger is actually the alter ego of former Amarillo Records head Gregg Turkington, but then again, these are the sort of folks who argue that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, that Batman is really Bruce Wayne. There’s no hard evidence. Still, some of Hamburger’s most harped-upon themes are echoed on Turkington’s most recent efforts, on the Golding Institute’s Final Relaxation (Ipecac). Coproduced with Australian television producer Brendan Walls, the album is billed as “your ticket to death through hypnotic suggestion.” As the extremely creepy narrator, Turkington stresses that certain people are not qualified to participate, including “pregnant or lactating women” and “those who have booked expensive overseas vacations or plane tickets.”
Obviously, Final Relaxation is not 100 percent effective — otherwise I’d be writing this from beyond the grave. Still, the disc casts a disturbing enough pall over the listening environment, with Turkington offering up plenty of negative reinforcements (“You will not be able to cook like a television chef. Your time on earth will be spent failing”) and bizarre commands (“Please, please break some of the teeth in your head — for me”) amid Walls’s sickly electronic noises. It’s not a laugh-a-minute affair, but like many of Hamburger’s albums, it walks a fine line between cringe-inducing ineptitude and head-scratching ridiculousness. And yes, that’s an endorsement. SFBG
Michelle Devereaux is in Toronto. Here’s her first report:
“I’m hearing Oscar buzz!” a giddy audience member shouted after the second public TIFF screening of For Your Consideration Tuesday afternoon, kicking off a 10-minute-plus Q&A with the cast and director Christopher Guest. She was being ironic — the film-within-the-film is a little indie that receives tons of Oscar speculation — but who knows? She might not be too far off base.
ACTRESS AND AUTHOR If you love to watch cult movies and pay tribute to the stars that make them great (and in San Francisco, who doesn’t?), Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass screening of Death Race 2000, featuring a live appearance by Mary Woronov, is something special. Woronov isn’t your average actor — she’s a painter, great writer, and performer whose roots in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous are often unjustly obscured by her Warhol-era exploits, both of which predate her Roger Corman–produced bouts with Hollywood. And Death Race 2000? We’re now six years past the date targeted by Paul Bartel’s 1975 movie, yet its nightmare vision of fascist TV remains hideously funny — right on time, if not ahead of it.
“It is,” Woronov agrees by phone from Los Angeles. “As a country, we’re out of our minds! We’re the greatest polluter, we have the most corrupt government, and we have the biggest weapons of mass destruction. We’ve conducted the most wars since World War II. And I’ve been living here under the illusion that we’re democratic.”
“The media has completely lulled us into nothingness,” she continues. “People can be told that their pensions will be taken away but the head of the corporation will increase his own pension two million dollars — and they don’t do anything! They don’t riot! They just go, [assumes a zombie voice] ‘OK.’ What happened to us?”
A big question, but Woronov’s next novel, What Really Happened, might answer some of it — even if she makes a point of saying the book isn’t political. What it is, though, is the latest outgrowth of a creative birth that took place when Woronov, facing the idea of death (“I got an illness that was merely an infection, but they told me it was cancer”), kicked drugs at the age of 50. “My brain started working and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started writing,” she says.
The results have included one memoir (1995’s Swimming Underground), one short-story collection (2004’s Blind Love), and two novels (2000’s Snake and 2002’s Niagara, which sports this great first sentence: “I started drinking in the day, and by the time I got to the supermarket I was so loaded I need a cart to stand up”). Publisher Amy Scholder discovered Woronov, and Gary Indiana has raved about her work, but even if she’s now able to call herself a “great writer,” she can also be hilariously blunt. “I wrote Swimming Underground because I thought it would make me famous,” she says. “To my disappointment, I got a review in the New York Times that said I was too busy crawling around the bathroom floor to say anything real about Warhol.”
As if the New York Times qualifies as an authority. In fact, Woronov’s take on the Factory uptown era, praised by Lou Reed as the best of what is surely now a library bookcase worth of efforts, is as distinct and dominant as her appearance in films such as 1966’s Chelsea Girls. Were the other Superstars intimidated by her and by the whip wit of her friend, the infamous Ondine? “People were very intimidated by Ondine,” she says. “People were mystified by me. For one thing, I didn’t have sex. For another, I acted like a guy, merely as a counterbalance to the transvestites and the female energy there. I did theater and I was a really good actress, so I didn’t have the desperation of the other girls who thought Warhol was somehow going to make them a star.”
The theater that Woronov “did” wasn’t exactly forgettable Broadway nonsense. Along with Ondine (who once played the role of Scrooge there), she took part in the Café Cino scene memorably described in Jimmy McDonough’s Andy Milligan biography The Ghastly One. She also worked with Playhouse of the Ridiculous’s great Ronald Tavel and John Vaccaro. “Their sensibility was extremely feminine, extremely bizarre,” she says. “They were camp at its highest level, where you accept the most strange things and are entertained by them.”
This sensibility inspired some of Woronov’s most memorable film performances, such as Miss Togar from 1979’s Rock ’n’ Roll High School. “I dressed like an aberration of Joan Crawford,” Woronov says. “Everyone else is in modern dress and I look like I’m from the 1930s. The thing about [Miss Togar] is that, you know, she’s a fucking pervert. What makes it wonderful is that I don’t play a pervert. I play someone commenting on perversion — just like a transvestite plays someone commenting on female-ism.”
Woronov’s own female charms suit Death Race’s Calamity Jane, and another classic collaboration with Bartel, 1982’s Eating Raoul, truly allows her Amazonian sexiness to bloom. “I knew I was sexy, but there was still a dichotomy of gender slippage,” she says, discussing prude-turned-dominatrix Mary Bland. “I was still denying [sexiness] and yet showing it — like an underslip.”
At the forefront of ’90s new queer cinema with roles in movies by Gregg Araki and Richard Glatzer, Woronov continues to add to one of the world’s most colorful filmographies. Recently, she appeared in The Devil’s Rejects, and she praises the film’s director, Rob Zombie, as an honest man and class act in an industry full of phonies.
Today, Mary Woronov remains in LA. “For writing, you can’t beat it, it’s such a peculiar place — it’s like a swamp,” she says with a laugh. “Everybody I know is moving to Europe or talking about moving but not moving. I have decided I’m not going to move. I really want to stay here and wait for the revolution. I do believe there will be one.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
MIDNIGHT MASS: DEATH RACE 2000 AND MARY WORONOV
Sat/5, 11:59 p.m.
3010 Geary, SF
For a complete Q&A with Mary Woronov — and to find out why she hates Warhol — go to the Guardian’s Pixel Vision blog, at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.