A funny thing happened at Pop Montreal on Sunday night: Neil Hamburger mounted a tiny stage at the cavernous Zoobizarre in the “discount prom-dress” district of St. Hubert and Beaubien with one goal: sending his already uncomfortable audience into a torrent of hysterical laughter. A comedian at Pop Montreal you say? Well why not…isn’t everything “pop” these days? Besides, the mood had already been set by a severely drunk audience member telling everyone in the room – in between bumming smokes – that she was “From New Orleans!” and “Really f@#kin’ drunk!” More on that later. Back to the sweaty comedian in the cheap tux who started his show with guttural moans and snorts into the mic.
Hamburger has a strange way of lulling you into a lowered set of expectations. But he ain’t no lame uncle. There is an inherent craft to his comedy that has more to do with dense cultural critique than easy-breezy Friends-style laughs. And much like all of the truly great comedians, Neil Hamburger formulates an individualistic narrative spell of sorts with his concealed criticism of consumption and celebrity worship.
He started the set with a barrage of tasteless and rather archetypal Michael Jackson jokes that left a lingering feeling that you heard your kid-brother dropping the same one at the dinner table a couple of weeks back. By about the tenth Jackson-the-child-molester joke, I got really nervous. I wondered if I was in store for an entire night of “Why did Michael Jackson hang his kid out of the window of that hotel?” And that’s when I found myself starting to laugh.
The highlight of the evening came in the form of some unexpected improv, when Hamburger had to navigate his set around the obnoxious, heckling outbursts of the aforementioned “New Orleanian party girl”. Being deliberately funny seems to attract haters more than any other form of spectacle, and it has become an art-within-the-art to quell the heckler. Hamburger dealt with this front row lush in a way that most comedians would only fantasize about. He began by grunting and screaming into the mic whenever she’d attempt to kill his momentum between jokes, effectively filling the tiny space with ear-splitting wails. After she forged on, he requested that someone in the audience provide him with a gun so that he may “end her miserable f#@king life”. But, of course, this only egged her on further. Then Neil Hamburger pulled the coup d’