Gregg Turkington is one of the greatest comedians of our time and you probably haven’t heard of him. If we're being honest, it's likely he'll stay pretty far off your radar. He’s best known for his alter-ego/character Neil Hamburger, whom the ghost of Andy Kaufman would adore.
Hamburger’s comedy is polarizing. It’s really filthy, often ugly comedy, but if you like his punchlines, you’ll quickly join Team Hamburger.
At Oak Cliff Film Festival this weekend is a movie Turkington stars in and co-wrote with Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) and director Rick Alverson. Entertainment is about a comedian, referred to simply as The Comedian, who travels through the Mojave desert on tour. His route takes him to bars, prisons and any place that will have him. After each routine he calls his daughter, who may or may not exist.
The Comedian’s comedy — and Entertainment itself — can be alienating. But whether you leave the theater loving the movie or hating it, director Alverson accomplished his goal. He doesn’t make movies for you or me, he makes movies to tell a specific kind of story and it’s just a bonus if it finds an audience. Entertainment is Alverson's follow-up to his first feature, The Comedy (starring Heidecker), an equally divisive film and one of my personal favorites. If you’ve seen that one, you have a sense of what's in store.
Turkington will be in Dallas this weekend, but chances are you'll meet Neil Hamburger instead. We reeled him in (Turkington, that is) for a conversation about his character in the film, how he balances different personas and his experiences in the comedy world.
You’ve established yourself as a pretty well-known comedian and your audience just keeps getting bigger. Does that change the way you think about comedy?
It's still a pretty small audience. But either way, no, I'm going to do what I'm going to do. Most any subject is sensitive to someone ... I'm trying to be funny first and foremost, not offensive. If you've seen the Joan Rivers documentary — the scene where she lashes out verbally at someone who complains about her Helen Keller joke was the final word on the subject of a joke's perceived "offensiveness," as far as I'm concerned.
In Entertainment, the name of your character is labeled The Comedian. Are you playing a loose version of Neil Hamburger or are we watching Neil Hamburger?
It's a variant, but there have been variants over the years already. As long as there is consistency within a particular project, I'm fine with that. A full-length feature thing is a difficult enough thing to produce as it is — it would not be helpful if we had to make sure the character had to conform to some detail from a Neil Hamburger 7" single from 1998.
I have the iPhone app The “On Cinema” Film Guide and I love that you’re always the guest. The alter ego you’ve created, Neil Hamburger, has a big following. How do you balance the comedy you perform as yourself, like for On Cinema, and characters like Hamburger?
These are all characters. I would not call the On Cinema guy "myself". Despite sharing a name, I'm probably more like Neil than I am like that guy.
In Entertainment, The Comedian does all of his routines in really shitty bars and places nobody would want to be in. Do you have any stories you can share from when you first started out doing standup in places like these?
"First started out"??? — I'm STILL doing shows in places like those! Honestly, I've done hundreds, bordering on thousands, of shows over the years, and pretty much every eventuality has come up. You never can tell when a show is going to go very sour ... sometimes the most remote, podunk places end up having the coolest audiences, and vice versa. Let's see— there was the show at a dumpy little bar in Las Vegas where a guy feel asleep standing up, with his elbows on the stage, right at my feet... when he started snoring, thus disrupting the show for the seven other people who were there, I had no choice but to pour my drink slowly over his head. It looked amazing in the spotlight, but alas, did not wake him.
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The Comedian gets heckled during a lot of his routines. What’s the worst thing a heckler has done to you and how did you handle it?
Well, it's never right to be physically assaulted for something you say — I mean, look at what happened to Jesus! It does happen. I think a more mundane but very consistent annoyance is having to deal with people who yell out punchlines from jokes of mine they've found on YouTube ... it's not funny, or charming, or proof of anything other than that they are a pile of shit.
All of The Comedian's material in Entertainment — was that written for the film or do you use it in your routines, too?
I believe all of them were plucked straight out of the real live show. We shot 8 or 9 "fake" shows for the movie — in real bars but with Bakersfield extras for an audience.
You co-wrote the film with Alverson and Heidecker, two men as weird and wonderful as you. Who do you think takes the cake on being the strangest and why? This question is crucial.
Those guys are both very normal and kind-hearted people, and true artists in every sense of the word. "Strange" is a word I would more apply to people who do comedy or music or art of any kind even though they have no point of view and nothing to say. A common situation, to be sure ... but I always find it sinister.
Entertainment is screening at the Oak Cliff Film Festival at 9 p.m. Friday and Turkington will be there to intro the film and Hamburger will perform afterward. Or maybe the other way around. Tickets and festival passes can be found here.