Gregg Turkington is best known as a character he created, Neil Hamburger, a Borscht Belt-y comedian with a cheap suit and a bad combover, who does celebrity jokes while cradling three or four drinks. Turkington stars in Entertainment, which opens this week in New York and OnDemand. He’s been loathe to do interviews out of character in the past, though he does do an Adult Swim show with Entertainment co-writer Tim Heidecker, On Cinema at the Cinema, in which Turkington plays an enthusiastic movie lover named “Gregg Turkington.” In Entertainment, Turkington plays a comedian with a lounge act stage persona named “Neil.”
You get all that straight? Gregg isn’t Cinema Gregg, Neil isn’t Entertainment Neil, and Gregg isn’t Neil or Entertainment Neil, but Gregg plays Cinema Gregg, Neil, and Entertainment Neil. Now then, moving on. Turkington’s generally evasive about the differences between himself and his characters, so in doing a press tour — where “How are you like your character?” is a standard question, even for a Shakespearean actor playing a galactic centaur — it almost feels as if Turkington has designed his own perfect nightmare.
“Neil Hamburger” (“America’s $1 Funnyman“) started as a conceptual recording project from Turkington, who used to sing in punk bands and had a zine. The idea behind the Neil Hamburger albums, Turkington has said, “was that [Neil] was 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.”
The character eventually evolved into stage shows all over the world. In Entertainment (from director Rick Alverson, who previously directed The Comedian, starring Heidecker, and co-wrote Entertainment with Turkington and Heidecker), Turkington’s character travels around the Mojave desert for a series of depressing shows with a mime played by Mud‘s Tye Sheridan, and his bumpkin cousin, played by John C. Reilly. The film is at least partly a character study of Neil Hamburger, as Turkington originally envisioned him.
Of course, that’s a little reductive and un-fun, so when we talked over the phone, I mostly avoided the existential “Who is Gregg?” questions and focused more on the nuts and bolts of shooting a movie in the Mojave desert. This proved to be fertile territory that had Turkington telling me how he found himself inside Neo-Nazi bars, abandoned prisons, airplane graveyards, and the house of a helpful local who turned out to have a giant Swastika flag in his home.
I saw you at a show at Sundance with Bobcat Goldthwait and some other people, where you guys were–
Oh, God. [laughter]. That was fucked.
–telling moviemaking anecdotes, I think.
That was fucked, I got sped up on that one.
You got sped up?
Well, I was told we were going to do this storyteller anecdote thing and I said, “Sure,” and then as Gregg, not as Neil Hamburger. But then when I got there, a lot of comics were on the bill, obviously, and they were just doing material. I didn’t feel like people were really telling stories. I kind of thought it was going to be more like a long table with everyone sitting there, like a discussion. And suddenly it seemed like it was a stand-up set, and everyone’s supposed to go up to the mic and put on a show. I wasn’t prepared. So I got up to tell a couple stories that are pretty dry, really, for what the mood was. I wish I’d brought my damn suit, and I could’ve just done a stand-up set like everyone else was doing. It felt like a real bait and switch.
At the same time, I remembered your stories and I didn’t remember a lot of the rest of other people’s sets.
Really? [Chuckles.] That’s actually good to hear, because I really felt like I was just floundering, you know?
[Editor’s Note: This was the show in question. Until re-reading it, I barely remembered that Ken Jeong and Kevin Pollak, whose sets were probably the most stand-uppy, were even there. Who gets huge laughs in the room and what people remember later often aren’t that closely related.]
No, I didn’t think that. I remember you had a story about ending up in Neo-Nazis house or something. What was that?
Yeah. We were shooting out in the Mojave Desert and sometimes we were dealing with locals, for using their facilities for various things. We had this guy, who had been very generous, offering his space for us to set up as a base camp and to park vehicles and things like that. We needed some electricity for the guy that was taking the digital information off of the [SD cards] and putting it onto the hard drives, so that the cards are freed up so you can film more stuff. This local said we could use his garage and set up there. And so the guy went into the garage and here’s this giant swastika flag on the wall [chuckles]. His name being “Feldstein,” he just packed up his stuff and left.
There were a lot of these sorts of moments going on out there in the desert. We were going to shoot at a bar ’cause you’re always looking for bars for a movie like this, because so much of it takes place in bars and nightclubs. And we found one that was visually perfect, and these guys were willing to rent it out for a real small fee. And in doing a little more research, we realized it was actually the number-one white supremacist bar of the area.
Well, yeah, that’s why it was cheap, you probably got the white supremacist discount.
Yeah, maybe that’s it. I think our AD that went back there, they started asking him about his heritage. That’s when we started to to figure that something was wrong. “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” That kind of thing.
What was the answer?
I think he chose to run for his life.
So what was the most sort of guerrilla style thing you ended up having to shoot out there?
We were getting permits and doing things by the book because we were shooting in Kern County and we actually approached the film commission there, and they were very eager to help. They actually suggested early on, “Do you want to film in a prison? We can get you a prison.”
And they were really helpful. You know the airplane graveyard scene that opens the film? That airplane graveyard is something I’d seen a million times when I was driving through the desert, but it’s not open to the public. It’s on a military base, essentially. And there’s a landing strip but sometimes dozens, maybe hundreds of these decommissioned commercial jets that are out there rotting. When we asked Kern County Film Commission about filming there they said, “Yeah, we can set that up for you.” But the facility gave us, I think two or three hours total to film there and we were not allowed to film in certain directions. I guess because there were either military plane or commercial planes that they didn’t want documented, which I thought was kind of interesting.
And so that prison scene, you guys were actually in the prison? Were those extras or were they prisoners?
That was a real prison. Those were extras, but it was prison where I think a certain portion of it maybe, was being repaired or modified – I’m not sure what was going on – but it wasn’t functioning at that time. It was a very big prison complex. We brought in our extras, and I think a few of them may have been there before.
Did that really set the mood?
I was glad to get out of there, I’ll tell you. You really feel the history of despair when you walk into a cell or stand out in the courtyard, it really feels like — with the plants, and the rocks, and the cement and everything, have absorbed all this human misery for so many years and it’s all just still sitting there.
So with Neil Hamburger, you started out just doing albums, right? At what point did that evolve into this live show?
Yeah, the record started back in ’93 or so and they were faked live recordings. That went on until about ’99. I refused to do shows for many years because I didn’t think that I looked the part. But eventually as they say, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so I decided to try it out just to see how it would work. That was in 1999. I did a pretty extensive Australian tour to kick things off, and I liked the way that I had to change certain aspects of the character in order to adapt to the situation of having a real audience. As opposed to the studio, where I would sit there and clap into the microphone and multi-track it. You know, take clapping off of other comedy records and put that in there, and clink glass together and go to casinos and record slot machines and layer that in there. It was very different having live people out there. But once I got my head around it and once I actually started doing it, I enjoyed it, and I’m still doing it to this day.
Have you had any sort of spontaneous audience reactions that were memorable, that you never could’ve predicted, that turned out being really great?
I’ve done thousands of these shows, and probably anything you can imagine has happened. I’ve always found it interesting — there’s this perception that the audience for this are basically urban hipsters or whatever, but I take this out onto the road and pretty small towns and some pretty sketchy rotations. I’ve gotten people who were in their late 70s, and religious, or whatever, that really related to it. And then I’ve had shows where people in the coolest band in town storm out in disgust five minutes in because they can’t stand it. So, I don’t think it’s it’s as easy to pigeon-hole as some people might think.
The Neil Hamburger character is somewhat antagonistic towards the audience at times. Have you ever been scared by an audience?
Oh yeah. I’ve done shows as an opening act for bands in giant venues. I did 30 shows with Tenacious D. You get a mob mentality sometimes when people don’t like the show, and they start chanting and turning on you, and the wall of hatred is actually, literally deafening. Like you can’t hear yourself talk. And you just keep going on nonetheless.At least with those big types of shows, they can’t get to you. There’s always a wall of security guards at the front of the stage and barriers and things like that. Sometimes you’d want to slip out the back stage door during the height of the headliner’s set so that you can be sure that there’s no one waiting for you out there to beat you to death [laughter]. And then in smaller clubs you get somebody who’s had too much to drink, who is aggressive and doesn’t like the show and they might come after you. It’s not good. It’s not a good thing. [Chuckles.]
Do you feel that it’s important to sort of stay out there and weather it, or do you opt for self-preservation?
I won’t back down. I’m doing the show. I’m not going to let somebody dictate when the show ends. On the Tenacious D tour, which was the most sustained one of these I’ve done, I never cut my set short even one second. I did the 30 minutes I was hired to do. I had toured with Maynard Keenan’s band, Puscifer, a lot too. And again, it’s like whatever my time was, 20 minutes or something, I’m going to do it. That’s what he wants, that’s what my employers, the headlining act, that’s what they want. There’s people out there that are into it, I’m not going to let the bullies ruin the night for them either. These people need to learn that they’re just going to have to sit there and wait, learn some patience.
What are some of the parallels between the shows you’ve done as Neil and some of the shows from the movie?
The shows in the movie are fiction. There might be certain aspects — I’ve had definitely people throw things. I think at this point, you know, probably there’s fewer shows like those in the movie than there were early on. But I’ve toured rural Australia and rural U.S. and there are definitely shows that were very, very similar to what you are seeing in the movie. I think that I’ve made my point in in braving some of those. I probably don’t want to have the five-people-there-in-a-hostile-town-in-the-middle-of-nowhere shows at this point. I think I’ve earned the right to avoid the more dangerous situations.
What’s the weirdest thing that would happen at of those shows?
We did a show in Yosemite — in the national park, in a tent, essentially — for some of the… I guess they’re not quite maids, but they’re people that clean up the campgrounds. They work out in the national park for the whole summer, and they get bored, and they brought me in to entertain them and they paid me well and all this. They brought me out there and they set up this little tent and put a microphone through a boombox and it was at one of the campgrounds, and I was doing the set for maybe six or seven folks. But the sound of it was traveling all through the woods, to other parts of the the campground. In the middle of the show, some guy bursts into the tent with his fist raised. He’s like, “You mother-fucking asshole! I’m out here with my kids, having to listen to all your faggot-fucking jokes about all this bullshit!”
If he thought I was swearing during the course of the show, he should listen to a recording of himself. He basically threatened to pulverize me if I didn’t stop and and then he went to the ranger’s office the next day and demanded a full refund for his campsite. And, you know, it was a little bit frightening. I actually had a friend with me who was trained as a crisis a counselor for battered women, and so she was very good at talking this guy down, because he was really, really angry.
So in the past, you’ve sort of avoided the question of how much you’re like Neil and such-and-such, and now that you’re doing press for this, where you play a fictionalized version of Neil, aren’t you just constantly getting asked that?
I never wanted to talk about any of this stuff, but that’s not really feasible when you’re lucky enough to have a motion picture out. You’ve got to answer some questions about it. So yeah, it did start out as nightmare, but I figured out a way to do it that it’s not so bad for me. I don’t think that the character — the off-stage comedian character in Entertainment — is really very much like me at all, but I would hope that people would realize that anything they see on a screen and on a stage, it’s a show. It’s not a documentary.
Sure, but then Robert Downey Jr. gets asked how is he like Iron Man, so it’s kind of just like the question that everyone asks on a press tour for some reason.
People don’t often realize that anything that happens on the stage is a show, whether or not it’s being presented as somebody talking straight from the heart or it’s somebody in a banana costume. Either way, you’re not getting a true representation of the person.
Is any part of Entertainment the back story that you had imagined for the Neil Hamburger character all along?
Yeah, a lot of it is, really. There were certain details that had been part of the story for many years that are not in this movie, but you’ll notice that the movie doesn’t credit the character as Neil Hamburger. It was important that we make the movie not being tied down by a bunch of rules based on something that I said on a record in 1995.
How did you get hooked up with with Rick Alverson?
He contacted me about being in The Comedy. He contacted me and asked if I would be interested. Which I initially wasn’t interested, because I wasn’t interested in being an actor. I was kind of more into the stand up, but you know, he’s persuasive and he convinced me that it would work, so I decided to give it a shot. I think he’s very good at seeing aspects of people’s performance that would work in the context of what he’s doing.
How much thought goes into certain physicality aspects of the Neil Hamburger character? It kind of seems like he has a stiff neck — things like that, is that something that you think about and then give a back story to, or is that just spontaneous?
I would not call that spontaneous, no. You’re working with — you’re taking aspects of things that exist and then putting them in a different context.
So you guys were out in the Mojave. Did you and Rick talk about why you guys wanted to shoot it there?
Yeah. We took a road-trip and looked around at different places in California. I was really sold on the Central Valley [where your intrepid editor was born and raised, FYI]. We also took them out to see that airplane graveyard, and then suggested that he take a look at a town called Trona out on the edge of Death Valley [not in the Central Valley]. And we just went and looked at these places. There were certain aspects of filming out in the desert that I think Rick really liked, thematically.
How do you think being in the desert affected the mood of the film?
Well I know how it affected the mood of the crew. [Laughter.]
Yeah, tell me that, that’s probably more interesting.
The crew was exhausted. Because we shot that in July. I know how it affected my mood — in a good way, I think for what ends up on film. That little white car that I’m driving around in, the air conditioning on that died pretty quickly in the process. There were some days we were shooting driving footage especially, where I was just soaking wet and exhausted from the heat. [Chuckles.] Exhaustion is something that Rick was very interested in exploring in this movie. There’s some true exhaustion that turns up in that.
Entertainment opens Friday in New York, and is available via On Demand.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.