Arts & Culture News

Gregg Turkington's Fans Include Robin Williams and a Guy Trying to Throw Tomatoes

Gregg Turkington will be playing two Denton shows as the hilariously unpleasant Neil Hamburger.
Gregg Turkington will be playing two Denton shows as the hilariously unpleasant Neil Hamburger. Simone Turkington
Since the time he blossomed in the Phoenix and San Francisco punk scenes of the 1980s, Gregg Turkington has worn many hats: musician, record label owner, zine writer, stand-up comedian, actor, voice actor, screenwriter, tour manager and probably more titles we don't know.

A Renaissance man in his own right, Turkington is perhaps best known for the characters he portrays. His comedic personas range from a malevolent stand-up comic named Neil Hamburger to the fictionalized Gregg Turkington, the cinephile and self-acclaimed movie expert who co-hosts web series On Cinema at the Cinema with Tim Heidecker.

“Sometimes, I wish that we had different names for [the On Cinema character], because I have, say, [Twitter handle @GreggTurkington, which] is just completely dedicated to Gregg Turkington, the character,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

At the time we speak, post-production work for On Cinema’s fan-favorite Oscar special is nearing completion.

Gregg Turkington, the character, is a self-described film buff who is known to engage in persnickety musings on movie trivia while simultaneously praising virtually any film ever. While an astute fan of films ranging from Casablanca to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Turkington the character has given “five bags of popcorn” ratings (which he has maintained is the "highest popcorn rating” he and Heidecker can give) to movies considered by veritable yet supercilious critics to be among the worst made of late: Grown Ups 2, Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party and Nine Lives, just to name a few.

“I definitely have watched a lot of movies in my time, but I would say that my taste for movies is not the same,” Turkington says. “The character in On Cinema pretty much likes every movie. I’m more discriminating.”

But unlike Turkington’s Turkington character — who not only likes just about every movie, but likes just about everything except for the Tim Heidecker character — Turkington’s Neil Hamburger character hates just about everything, be it the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Carrot Top, Courtney Love, Gallagher, Steven Tyler, his ex-wife’s dentist "slam piece" and every audience member he deems filthy or degenerate.

In some cases, the audience’s hatred of Hamburger has been reciprocated.

“Really, it’s like, you get some punk band where the audience [consists of] mainly teenagers or young people, and you have some old guy in a tuxedo coming out and saying horrible things about the band, you can kind of guess where it’s going to go,” Turkington says while recalling an Australian tour in which Neil Hamburger was billed as an opener for punk bands NOFX and Bad Religion.

While Turkington says that the crowd wasn’t the most hostile bunch he’s ever dealt with, he told the powers-that-be that he would only agree to the tour if each of the venues served drinks in plastic cups. To his surprise, they readily agreed.

“These kinds of audiences throw shit, and I’ve had that stuff thrown at me, and I don’t like it, so I wasn’t really looking forward to playing for a crowd of 3,000-5,000 people, whatever it was, where they were all armed with glass,” he says.

One of Turkington's biggest career moments came in 2007 when he was tapped as an opener for a Tenacious D world tour. One of his most famous albums was a recording of his full 30-minute set, as Hamburger, at that tour’s stop at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The album, Hot February Night, shows Hamburger alienating the crowd of thousands with crass call-and-response jokes, which are delivered between him violently hawking loogies and whimpering, as the crowd erupts in boos and chants such as, “You suck! You suck! You suck!”

The comedic brilliance of the album lies heavily in how Turkington works the antagonistic crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen: all the way from Los Angeles, California … Tenacious D … ’s crew!” Turkington says to the impatient crowd in true bait-and-switch fashion. After introducing the crowd to a crew member who, per Hamburger, “opens the boxes [Tenacious D] receives,” he goes on to say Tenacious D will take the stage in about five hours due to his set going over its allotted time.

Predictably, Tenacious D’s crowd of Guitar Hero-loving bros did not take well to these tactics.

When the tour passed through a more intimate venue in England (where the crowd had better reach toward the stage), Turkington said an audience member threw coins at him and hit him in the face. For context, quarters in the United States weigh roughly 5.6 grams, while a 10 pence coin in the United Kingdom (roughly $0.14 USD) weighs 6.5 grams. Pound coins weigh 8.75 grams.

“These kinds of audiences throw shit, and I’ve had that stuff thrown at me, and I don’t like it, so I wasn’t really looking forward to playing for a crowd of 3,000-5,000 people, whatever it was, where they were all armed with glass.” – Gregg Turkington

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“[My wife] punched the guy in the face,” Turkington recalls with a laugh.

When Neil Hamburger is the headliner during shows, audience members tend to be more in on the joke, but Turkington says even this setting isn’t completely immune from bad apples.

Or rather, rotten tomatoes, a bag-full of which he once intercepted at a show.

“In Melbourne, Australia, a guy came to the front door of the venue with a giant trash bag full of rotten tomatoes, and the door man was like, ‘What’s this?’” Turkington remembers. “And [the guy] said, ‘It’s rotten tomatoes. I got them from behind the supermarket.’ And the [door] guy was like, ‘Well, why do you want to bring that in here?’ And the guy was like, ‘I want to throw [them] at Neil Hamburger.’ And the guy [said], ‘That’s what he likes; that’s what he wants.’ And I happened to be there, and I was like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, no, that’s not what I want. Why would I want that?’”

Tomato-wielding dumpster divers notwithstanding, Neil Hamburger’s caustic brand of anti-comedy has earned him a dedicated following of fans ranging from artists like Maynard James Keenan and Mike Patton to comedians and actors such as the late Robin Williams.

As most Hamburger fans would likely agree, Williams being a fan was especially fascinating given that the movie star had been the butt of many a Neil Hamburger joke. (“What does a plate of asparagus risotto have in common with sex with Robin Williams? Well, both of them make a woman’s urine smell peculiar.”)

But as Turkington tells it, Williams approached him a few months before his death in 2014 to tell him how big of a fan he was.

“He couldn’t have been nicer,” he says. “He was so sweet and so nice and so into what I was doing, then I was just like, ‘Fuck,’ you know? I definitely felt like a jerk.”

Turkington doesn't know if Williams ever heard Neil Hamburger’s various jokes at his expense, but says he is inclined to believe that he didn’t and would not have been as likely to approach him if he had.

“I was asking Bobcat [Goldthwait] who was best friends with Robin about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, I bet he didn’t hear the jokes about himself, because he was very sensitive to that kind of thing,’” Turkington says. “I think it’s also possible he heard those. It’s a character that’s lashing out at a lot of things, including a lot of things that I personally like and a lot of things that I personally hate. And so, yeah, sometimes the venom that you see in these things is real, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just funny.”

Neil Hamburger is playing two shows
on April 15 and April 16 at the RGRS Psychedelic Mixer at Rubber Gloves in Denton, along with Martin Rev, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, Kool Keith and more.
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