Interview: Gregg Turkington
Entertainment begins its theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 13.
Gregg Turkington is the star and co-writer of Entertainment, the new film by Rick Alverson, in whose film The Comedy he had a small but memorable role, discussing the immaculate cleanliness of hobo dicks. In Entertainment, Turkington plays a man named Neil whose stage persona is that of a lounge act comedian named “Neil”—and though he is not explicitly addressed as such, the character of “Neil” is very near to that of Neil Hamburger, a character who Turkington has played, on stage on album, for nearly 25 years.
As if this weren’t confusing enough, Turkington also plays “Gregg Turkington,” the co-host, with Entertainment co-writer Tim Heidecker, of On Cinema at the Cinema. Begun as a podcast before being picked up by Adult Swim and produced as a regular online video segment, On Cinema features Turkington and Heidecker as two entirely indiscriminate movie reviewers who give every new release the maximum rating of “Five bags of popcorn.” (The “bags” are actually buckets.) As the show developed, reviews gradually took a backseat to a mortified character study of the hosts—Turkington’s hapless, schlempy expert, Heidecker’s bullyish prima donna—and their intrapersonal psychodrama, and the On Cinema “universe” expanded to include Heidecker’s vanity special-agent series, Decker (currently premiering new episodes on Adult Swim), and the Twitter accounts of both @timheidecker and @greggturkington.
To back up for a moment, here are the known facts about Gregg Turkington—not Neil, or Neil Hamburger, or “Gregg Turkington.” He was born in Darwin, Australia, and raised mostly in Tempe, Arizona, where he cut his teeth in a weirdo punk scene whose luminaries included the Meat Puppets, Jodie Foster’s Army, and Sun City Girls. He performed in a number of bands; edited the Bay Area zine Breakfast Without Meat, which focused on bargain-bin esoterica; operated the Amarillo Records label; and, in the early 1990s, introduced his alter-ego, Neil Hamburger, “America’s $1 Funnyman.”
FILM COMMENT spoke to Turkington on the phone as he was preparing to leave for an Australian tour as Neil Hamburger, about his various projects and personas.
I’m a little confused as to what foot to get off on here, because there are a couple of different Gregg Turkingtons…
….as well as Neil Hamburger in the mix. So, in Entertainment you’re playing, as you have for years, Neil Hamburger, but you’re credited as Gregg Turkington on screen. There’s also another “Gregg Turkington” who appears in On Cinema at the Cinema and Decker, and the movie Entertainment doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that that “Gregg Turkington” would write.
No. And in general, the last thing that I’m willing to talk about is any of this stuff, out of character. Because we’re promoting this movie, I’m being a little more flexible than I would be normally, but in terms of wanting to go into all these different things from my past… if you can call it a career, from my career. I’m always very reluctant to get too into the nuts-and-bolts of that stuff because I think it kind of diminishes some of the mystery that you work so hard to build up with these things, and I hate to just explain it all away.
With the movie Entertainment, we decided to make it not exactly “Neil Hamburger” but an interpretation of that, which was actually very liberating for me because I can discuss that without having to discuss the whole Neil Hamburger thing, in a way that I don’t necessarily want to do after spending the last 25 years being evasive about that.
I remember when I first because aware of Neil Hamburger records, which would’ve been sometime in the mid-1990s. In part because the Internet wasn’t quite the thing it is today, there really was a veil of secrecy around the character. I didn’t know anybody who really knew what the story was.
When you took the character out in the early days, when people really didn’t know what the story was, did you get genuinely hostile audiences like those we see in Entertainment?
When those first few records were made, the first three albums, I think, there was no live show. Those records were intended originally as conceptual recording projects, documenting an actual working comedian. Especially the first album, America’s Funnyman, but also there were a couple of singles that came before that, Looking for Laughs and Bartender, the Laugh’s on Me!!!!. With those singles, the idea was that I was making them up to look like this depressing regional comedian who was printing these records and putting them in the cheapest, crappiest sleeves possible and then just abandoning them in thrift stores, because I liked the idea of somebody stumbling on this thing and just scratching their head and saying: “What the fuck is this? How can this be? This is ghastly.”
And then Drag City approached me about doing the album America’s Funnyman, and at that point I couldn’t believe that there was going to be an entire album based on this concept. But I decided to put everything that I could possibly think into this album, every gag—some of them are technical glitches, weird audience response things, jokes that go nowhere—a million different concepts were crammed into that record. But at that point there was no live show. The audience sounds were either things that I recorded while lurking around bars with a tape recorder in my coat, or else using Four Track to multi-track myself applauding a lot or laughing or whatever, or getting friends to come in and be hecklers or whatever.
There wasn’t a live show until six years or something after the first singles. And that’s why you’ve got drawings on the covers of the records—I mean, I was just too young to look like what I thought Neil Hamburger would look like. But definitely after that, when I actually began performing out, there’ve definitely been plenty of shows that were as shitty as the shows seen in the movie. Partially because I’ll go out of my way to book shows in places that are a little iffy, just to see what would happen. Just to keep the character honest, really.
Has that extended to physical altercations?
Yeah, we’ve had a few. It’s actually a thing… I think because YouTube is out there, some of the most horrible things that have happened at these shows wind up on YouTube, and then you get people coming to the shows: “Hey, I saw on YouTube where somebody’s throwing rotten tomatoes at you, so I brought my own rotten tomatoes.” That kind of thing. They think it’s part of the show. But I don’t think there are too many people who would build into a show that they get to be physically attacked on stage. It’s happened, but not very often, fortunately.
Where did the idea for Neil Hamburger’s look come from? I was recently watching a documentary about owls recently, as you will, and at one point it was discussing how their feathers aren’t waterproofed, there was all of this footage of soaking-wet hoot owls caught in the rain, and I thought: “That’s Neil Hamburger!”
Wow! I think, when I did the first record, I needed a cover, and I took from my collection of private pressing, vanity pressing lounge acts… I think it was somebody else’s cover, a drawing that I then took a razor blade and cut, altered, re-drew parts of the face, added this and that to it, made the hair much worse than it was. And then for the second single, Bartender, the Laugh’s On Me!!!!, I found a drawing in this book about alcoholism… I was flipping through a book in a thrift store and I found a drawing that looked exactly like the guy from the first record, it was just a very weird coincidence. So that sort of solidified the look, and then when it became an actual stage show, it was just a matter of studying these drawings and trying to make things look that way. So this horrific comb-over, which was done through collage and bad art, I had to actually reproduce.
The Hamburger voice, it sounds like you must drink a quart of heavy cream before recording in order to achieve that degree of phlegminess.
I guess that was just trial and error. Doing thousands of shows… I mean, the voice has changed over the years, basically because the first recording of this stuff is nearly 25 years ago, so it kind of mutates, like a real comedian’s voice changes throughout time, or a singer or whatever. It’s amazing, if you listen to the early Frank Sinatra records, what a sweet, high-pitched, angelic voice he has, compared to the also beautiful but more gruff, low voice that he ended up with. And certainly the Neil Hamburger voice has aged quite a bit over the years. I’ll tell you one thing, there was never some time where I was sitting there practicing, trying to figure out the perfect voice. It was more something that just came out and seemed to work, and as time went on, and it changed based on the circumstances of what this guy might be doing and where his voice might go after being beaten down from years and years on the road… Definitely the weariness in the voice made sense for a guy who’s been doing this for as long as Neil Hamburger has, both fictionally and realistically.
The other detail I love is the two drinks pinned under the arm. It’s like he loads up at the bar because he’s afraid he won’t get to spend his drink tickets after he performs.
I like that interpretation. Again, these things, you do them one night, and it clicks into place, and before you know it, that becomes part of the standard look.
You talked about doing the first Drag City record and loading it with as many miscues as possible—I wonder if you could talk about the paradox in doing so much work to create a professionally bad act.
Well, I mean… This gets into the question of what really is bad. The fact is that people really like those records, and if I do the show, people have a good time—well, y’know, not all of them—but a lot of them. And there’s plenty of comedy records that come out that nobody would say they’re intentionally bad, but they are just bad. Sometimes I think it’s a little strange to throw around terms like “bad” and “good” for things, because a lot of the things that are really bad aren’t discussed, they’re just forgotten or ignored. A throw-away Mike Myers movie or something, an Adam Sandler movie, to me these movies are truly bad—you can’t even sit there and let them wash over you, it’s too painful, you’ve got to get up and turn them off or run screaming from them. And yet people are always going to refer to my stuff as bad, though I find that people tend to enjoy the things that I’m doing, so… I dunno. There’s definitely a lot of thought that goes into these intentional glitches or strange turns of phrase or archaic topics that are brought up in the show, but I’m reluctant to call it bad, even in the way that you’re describing.
But there’s certainly an element of aggression towards the audience. In Entertainment you have the scene in which Neil idly picks up the trophy while performing and pantomimes gunning down his audience at a house party…
That’s definitely a bad performance for that character, it’s definitely the result of being thoroughly beaten down. Also, you know, the guy who goes on beforehand does something which comics do all the time, which is… You’re hanging out backstage, having a pleasant conversation, getting to know this person, and they tell you a pleasant anecdote, and you think: “Well, that’s kind of funny, what a nice funny guy this is.” And then they walk out onstage and proceed to tell the exact same anecdote, and you realize that it wasn’t a genuine conversation, but they were testing material on you, manipulating you into thinking you were having a friendly conversation, and you feel completely used. So, to me, something like that is actually bad—that’s a bad, bad thing to do, a bad thing to do as a person, it shows a real soullessness that you would do this to somebody and not clue them into what you’re doing, and then go onstage and, word for word, replicate this thing that they thought was a conversation. And I think for Neil, standing on the side watching this guy do just that, this definitely added a layer of disgust to what was already there based on the things that’d been happening during the course of the movie. It’s just time to explode.
One striking aspect of the movie are all the odd bits of tourism that Neil embarks on, to the oil fields, the airplane graveyard…
You’d have to talk to Rick [Alverson] about that—those are things that he brought in. He would be the guy to ask about the greater meaning of that. But the airplane graveyard was something that, when we scouting locations, I knew about, and took him over to see, and we both agreed that visually it was pretty interesting. They don’t actually give tours of it, so we had to pull some strings to actually shoot there, because there is no such tour—in fact, none of those tours actually exist, those were all fictional. But the airplane graveyard is a place I’d actually been wanting to get into for years, so it was nice to have a reason, though they only gave us a couple hours to shoot there, because it’s part of a military facility, and you could only shoot in certain directions.
It definitely gives a backdrop of capitalist wasteland, with Neil’s comedy just one more element on the trash pile.
I like it. This is why I’d rather just read people’s interpretations of these things, rather than give interviews.
Since you don’t buy into the comedy/anti-comedy dichotomy, would you call the title tongue-in-cheek?
I wouldn’t, no, no. I don’t think there’s anything inaccurate about the title. I think people might genuinely expect, if the first thing they hear is the word “entertainment,” they might expect something more like what you’d see in the movie That’s Entertainment!, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, things like that. But for the most part, the majority of entertainment that’s taking place in the world is on a much lower level, a much smaller scope. Even the smallest town has got a stage or two in it where somebody’s putting on a show, and the majority of people who work in the business known as entertainment are not making the big bucks.
I also thought of the Gang of Four record, though I don’t know if that was intended.
I don’t think that had anything to do with it. There was also a Bollywood movie that came out the year before with the same title, which we found out after we were completely done.
Probably not chasing the same audience.
Maybe. I’d say 10 percent. I would watch both of those movies, personally.
On Cinema at the Cinema
This will eloquently segue into On Cinema at the Cinema, which I would also like to talk about, however it works to talk about it. This season began after a contentious split with “Tim Heidecker.”
One episode, before Tim came back to rescue me… It’s tough… I mean, I’m not sure what angle… who’s speaking to you right now, you know what I mean? It’s kind of hard to start talking like that Gregg Turkington in the midst of talking about this other stuff, because they’re so different. Even though the Gregg Turkington in the TV series On Cinema at the Cinema bears the same name as me, I feel like he’s less like me than most characters I’ve ever played.
He almost certainly wouldn’t see Entertainment.
No. Unless he purchased it in an unmarked box, a grab-bag of movies at a discount shop. “Fifty movies for 50 dollars!” I think when On Cinema was just an audio podcast we did occasionally stumble into strange foreign films and art films that had come our way, but as a web series or TV series or whatever you want to call it, when you’re doing two a week it definitely tends to be the two biggest movies of the week, and it’s doubtful that Entertainment would be one of the two biggest movies of any week.
It seems like the defining characteristic of that Gregg Turkington is just a totally indiscriminate enthusiasm for whatever it is he trips across.
Yeah, I think we know all know folks like that… I won’t say it’s an epidemic, but I’ve certainly encountered a lot of people who seem to be fairly happy with the things being offered to them, in terms of food, movies, TV, book, whatever.
On Cinema at the Cinema
He does have a rather touching loyalty to the VHS cassette format.
Well, y’know, it’s funny how people just turn their backs on these formats so entirely. It’s happening right now with DVDs. You get these huge chunks of time where everything’s released in a format, and then the new format comes out—and it’s a mistake to believe that everything that was released in the old format is now going to be available in the new format. A huge percentage of things are left behind, and whether it’s CDs or LPs or anything, it’s crazy to throw out an entire format, because you’re going to lose a lot of great titles. With VHS there’s so many obscure horror movies—I don’t know if they’re great titles, but people pay hundreds of dollars for the VHS tape because it was never made available in any other way. In the meantime you’ve got these tapes that you can buy for a dollar a piece…
And I can remember when I was a kid, before people had home video systems, the idea that you could have your own film library seemed otherworldly and magical, that you could actually own movies rather than just waiting for them to come on TV or to come to a revival theater. And when VHS tapes first were for sale, they were really expensive, like $79.99 to buy some movie that you were interested in. And now time has passed, and you literally can have this incredible film library for 25 cents a movie, if you’re willing to put up with the shittiness of VHS tapes. And I can see where this guy kind of sees the magic in that, that he can have this incredible archive without having to put much money out there. You can walk into any thrift store in the country and walk out with a ton of movies, especially if your taste runs more towards mainstream garbage, like these guys’ does.
His particular sweet spot seems to be light comedies released between 1994 and ’98.
Yup, you’ve got it.
I saw that Bye Bye Love was used as a plot device in the most recent Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii.
And of course there’s a debate going on in the world of Twitter about whether or not that plot even makes sense, that Gregg would say: “I’ve never heard of this movie, I’d better add this to my collection, I don’t know this one.” A lot of the Gregg defenders are saying: “That’s ridiculous, that couldn’t be, of course he would know this movie.”
Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii
In addition to On Cinema at the Cinema and Decker, you have this supplementary Twitter material, all part of this ever-expanding universe that radiates out from On Cinema. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a multi-platform shtick quite like it.
I don’t think there’s been anything like it, it’s so multilayered… You’ve got two different shows that you’ve got to watch in order to piece together what’s going on, and then stuff that takes place on Twitter and in interviews and stuff like that is, again, a huge component to a lot of these plotlines that are going on. This month in particular, we’ve got weeks of daily Decker episodes as well as On Cinema episodes coming out in the midst of it. It’s insane. I wish that I was just a fan tuning into this, because I’d be pretty into it. I mean, it’s funny, the guys at Marvel Studios are obsessed with the On Cinema world, and these guys are into creating their own universe and figuring out the rules for it, making sure there’s a consistency to it. And that’s what we have to do a lot of the time, to make sure that things fall into place as they should, and that we’re not, for the sake of a laugh, selling out some of the details about what these guys’ lives are about, and how these things fit into place with one another.
The little spats that carry over from one show to the other, and from one week to the next…
It all has to be really carefully plotted out. The dialogue’s all improvised, but the plots have to be plotted out, because when you’re filming these things in advance, you have to be sure of how they’ll fit together properly, like a puzzle, because they air at a different time than they’re shot, and with two different shows going on, and the Twitter stuff… It could be really easy to slip up, and screw up the timeline, and we don’t want to do that.
And how have you been dealing with pushing Entertainment, which is a different beast entirely, on Twitter?
I’m not. Really, I don’t really have a Twitter account for myself. You’ve got the Gregg Turkington one, which is strictly the character from On Cinema, and it doesn’t make sense for that guy to be talking about Entertainment, or anything like that.
And who does the Taco Bell illness–related tweets?
Those are Neil Hamburger tweets, and that’s another account. It does make it strange, I think, if people watch Entertainment and then say, “Huh, what’s the story with this guy?” and they end up at the Gregg Turkington Twitter feed and find this inane movie bullshit going on—it’s probably pretty confusing. But that’s okay, I’m fine with that, I’m fine with somebody being confused by that. Maybe they’ll dig a little bit deeper and get into that as well. Really these things are coming from the same perspective, they’re just being presented in completely different ways. It’s great when somebody taps into that and appreciates all that, while other people can’t make any sense of it. Y’know, that’s okay, too.