'I'm Playing for the One Percent Who Do Like it': An Interview with Gregg Turkington

Talking with the actor and comedian also known as Neil Hamburger about keeping a repellent character authentic, the joys of creating intricate meta-comedy, and coping with a room full of boos.

November 6, 2015

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has written for NPR and The Believer, among other places. Chris...

Gregg Turkington in a still from Entertainment.

February 2007: a sour-faced man in a cheap suit, Coke-bottle glasses, and the most appalling combover in entertainment history takes the stage at Madison Square Garden. He clears his throat and announces, “My name is Neil Hamburger … yeeEAAAhhh … and let’s get this party started!” before coughing up more phlegm. The audience, who has gathered to see Jack Black and Kyle Gass’s comedy/metal band Tenacious D, is then forced to hear a full 33 minutes of jokes, brutally crude in both form and content. A sampling:

• “Why did Robert Redford stick his cock in a jar of Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce? … Well, the two men have been friends for over 40 years. Do you think he’s going to stick his cock in a competitor’s product?”

• “What do you get when you cross Sir Elton John with a sabre-tooth tiger? … I dunno, but you better keep it away from your ass!”

• “Why … did al-Qaeda, under the direction of Misssster Osama Bin Laden, burn, in a public town square in Kabul, Afghanistan, over 10,000 copies of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album? … Well, because it’s a terrible album!”

The audience is unrelenting in its hatred. Neil Hamburger—who, for all his profanity, looks more suited to emcee a Friar’s Club dinner than a stadium concert—replies: “You cocksuckers! If you don’t pick up the audience response, I’ll tell you one thing: you’re never going to see your heroes JB and KG! No, it is written into my contract that I have to get at least 10,000 decibels of hearty belly-laughter of Tenacious D will not perform!” He insists, “These jokes were choreographed by the great Russian ballerina Rudolph Nureyev!” When the audience starts chanting the band’s name, Hamburger retorts, “Okay, every time you say ‘Tenacious D,’ I will add two more jokes to my set!” This 33-minute set, immortalized on the album Hot February Night, was one of 26 such opening acts that the mysterious Neil Hamburger performed for Tenacious D. Few comedy albums have ever made me laugh harder.

In reality, Neil Hamburger is Gregg Turkington, a 47-year-old independent record producer turned alternative comedian and cult folk hero. Turkington hatched the character of a desperately unfunny open-mic comic for a string of underground records in the ’90s before evolving into a Brylcreemed, cufflinked touring comedian. Like Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton persona—to whom he has often been compared—Neil Hamburger is an extreme version of a certain kind of slumming, entitled creature of showbiz. He makes you laugh at the sheer baseness of his jokes, then at your own laughter, then at the audience’s reaction.

In recent years, Turkington has also played “himself” on On Cinema at the Cinema, a satirical movie-review web series he hosts with Tim Heidecker. Beginning as a “meaningless, nonsense, no-information podcast about movies” to satirize “lazy, empty podcasts” (to quote Heidecker in an interview with the A.V. Club), On Cinema has evolved into an elaborate soap opera in its seven seasons on Adult Swim’s YouTube channel. In this world, “Gregg Turkington” is a pitiful “film expert” who boasts of owning one of the largest VHS collections in the world, and who craves recognition from the egomaniacal, bullying Heidecker. Fueled by the passive-aggressive feuding of the hosts, the On Cinema universe now encompasses a spin-off web series (the action spoof Decker), an annual live Oscar special, and in-joke cameos for Turkington and Heidecker in Ant-Man and Fantastic Four.

For years, Turkington resisted interviews, except for the ones he gave in character (even his Twitter account is as his “film buff” persona). But he’s stepping out to promote his new film Entertainment, a bizarre comic mood piece directed by Rick Alverson. Turkington stars as Neil Hamburger—or, at least, a Neil Hamburger-like comedian—who drifts through a series of bad performances in the Mojave Desert while pining for his estranged daughter. Alverson, who previously explored the darker side of Tim Heidecker’s corrosively ironic persona in 2012’s The Comedy, imagines Neil Hamburger as a lonely, monosyllabic man who uses his onstage character to express the anger he can’t access in real life. Heidecker, John C. Reilly, Michael Cera, Tye Sheridan, and Dean Stockwell also drift through the film, which opens November 6 in New York and November 13 in Toronto.


Will Sloan: I didn’t know what to expect from the movie, because it’s hard to imagine the Neil Hamburger character having a life offstage. Did you go into this with any trepidation, or any feeling of protectiveness about the character?

Gregg Turkington: Oh, god, yes. I mean, I had worked with Rick before, and he had suggested a movie, and my first instinct was that I wasn’t interested in having some sort of comedy. A lot of people when they’ve approached me to do things with Neil offstage, they sort of look at it as a Borat type of character, where the hilarity continues offstage as well. To my way of thinking, this guy was always a shell of a man when he wasn’t onstage, and that’s how it would have to be portrayed. But most people don’t see it that way. Like, “Let’s get a camera and go out on the street and these hilarious things will happen,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know if anything funny’s going to happen with that guy offstage. It’s questionable if it’s happening onstage.”

The thing that was odd was, because I controlled this character myself for 20 years, I was really terrified of letting go of certain aspects of it, such as being seen without glasses, or not talking in that Neil Hamburger voice. I was assuming we were going to do that the whole way, and Rick said, “That’s preposterous—you can’t be in a serious movie if you’re going around like that.” He’s right, but it took me a little while to get used to the idea of all that.

And in the end, we didn’t actually call the character “Neil Hamburger” in the movie, which I think was a good thing. As Rick has said, we kind of borrowed the character for the movie, but we wanted to be able to tell the story without having the distraction of me insisting that it stick to the preexisting Neil Hamburger mythology, which had been built up. I mean, there was a real backstory that had existed, and I don’t know, it wouldn’t have been a great working environment if I said, “Oh, no, no, we can’t do this because on the second Neil Hamburger album I refer to this incident, and that contradicts that.” It just wouldn’t have worked.

But especially with the glasses, I was like, “No, no, you can’t see this guy without the glasses, then it’s not Neil Hamburger.” I also had this fear, not being a trained, professional actor, that if I took those glasses off that I would lose the character because I’ve always done the character dressed up and in the glasses. That turned out not to be true.

The good thing was, to get funding for a movie like this is going to take a long time and have a lot of false starts, so that gave Rick and I a couple of years to talk about this so much that by the time we actually got to filming, we were completely on the same page, and those sorts of issues weren’t issues anymore.

I assume a lot of the movie is based on your own experiences—such as the scenes with audience interaction, or maybe even the scenes with John C. Reilly [as Neil’s supportive though somewhat baffled cousin]?

Y’know, not so much. I mean, I’ve probably done about 2,000 shows, so a lot of awful things have happened, and we talked about those. I think in the original first-draft script there were a lot of situations that were drawn more from my touring experience, but a lot of those ended up disappearing from the script. Things like the John C. character that Rick wrote, that actually wasn’t anything that I’ve dealt with. There are definitely bits and pieces, or lines of dialogue that might be taken from preexisting situations, but even the whole concept of me touring around alone like that isn’t really how I do it at this point.

It’s strange, because when I initially came up with this character, it was just such a glum, loser sad sack, and the reality of it was as the thing went on, there was actually a fan base that developed. To have the sorts of really terrible shows that you see depicted in the movie, I would kind of seek those out and ask my booking agent, “In between the great show that we’re going to have in New York and the great show we’re going to have in Boston and the great show we’re going to have in Toronto, could we book something in this town where we won’t have a great show? I want to keep the character and the experience honest.” I’ve definitely had fans from the bigger cities who will travel when they see a small town on the schedule because they think those shows will be the authentic experience that they want. I sure don’t blame them, because those shows are often where things do go haywire.

Hot February Night is one my favourite comedy albums.

And that’s definitely a situation where things were going haywire. That was 26 shows I did with Tenacious D, always in venues that were huge, and as soon as I would walk out on the stage, the booing would start. It wasn’t even that it was an off-putting act—which it is—but anything is putting people off when they’re waiting for their hero headliners to come out, so I’d already lost the battle from the beginning. But the nice thing about doing that many shows is that you become accustomed to what to expect from these sort of audiences, and you can start developing almost a crowd-control approach to it.

By the end … I mean, I wasn’t really fazed by the negativity, because in the first place, if you have a character like this, you’ve got to be able to deal with people not liking it or it’s debilitating night after night. That doesn’t really faze me because I always know that if it’s 99 percent of people that hate it, I’m playing for the one percent of people who do like it, and I’m happy to be communicating with them because I’m on the same page with them. That’s all I’m asking for: to reach the people who are on the same page as me, because that’s an exciting feeling. With the Tenacious D tour, Jack [Black] and Kyle [Gass], they’re the ones that wanted me on it, and they were at the side of the stage every night just clutching their sides. They loved watching the whole thing go down in flames, and I realized this is who I’m performing for, and the people in the audience are just bystanders to it, and aiding in the whole thing.

The funny thing with that record was, I didn’t think to record these shows until we were almost done, and by then it was too late to really have them recorded, so I just asked the sound man, “Can you get a tape or whatever and put it in?” He could only do that recording as a board mix, which doesn’t really include the audience sounds other than what you’re hearing coming through the microphone—there’s no room mic. When I hear the record, it’s so much more merciful of a sound than what I experienced, because on stage, it was a wall of booing so that I couldn’t hear myself think.

You and Tim Heidecker often perform allegedly as “yourselves,” but you don’t really have a default persona, or a friendly, talk-show version of yourself. Given that, and given that you perform for audiences that give you a hostile reaction, you don’t seem to reflect the common stereotype of a needy comedian who’s seeking audience approval.

Well, I really don’t care if people like it or not. I was really into music when I was a kid, and I was into the Bee Gees and the Beatles and the Who, and then the punk rock thing started and I really got into this band called Flipper. Around 1982, the shows that Flipper would do were a revelation, because they truly, truly didn’t care what the people thought—they wanted to express what they wanted to express, and it would just alienate 90 percent of the crowd every time. To the 10 percent that liked it—I was part of that—it was just the greatest thing. It was like, “Finally, here’s something that actually speaks directly to me.” And the fact that they were fine with that small group liking it, and fine with the rest of the people screaming and storming out and hating them—to me it was a revelation, because you just didn’t see that in showbiz. I think watching those guys for so long, I took that to heart. It’s not that I don’t need any approval; I just am satisfied with a small percentage really liking it.

The people that I idolized as a teenager … like, Phil Ochs was my hero, and this is someone who really had a very marginal career and did a lot of things that people thought were him shooting himself in the foot and ruining his own career, and I found all that stuff very brave and exciting. I think having influences like that makes it very easy to not worry about it.

Now, if I had nobody in the world interested, I don’t think I’d be too happy. You can’t do this stuff in a vacuum. But it’s weird, I talk to other comics who are like, “How can you deal with that? I’d be absolutely crushed.” But a lot of comics—and I’ve actually seen this expressed on a TV show about comedy—a lot of the comics’ goal is not to make people laugh, it’s to make people like them. I heard a teacher on … I don’t remember what the fucking show was, but the guy said, “It’s more important to be likeable than to be funny.” I’m afraid that’s where a lot of these people are coming from. With a lot of comedy—character comedy or anything—there’s this nudge-nudge, wink-wink thing, because it’s not palatable to people if they don’t understand that they’re in on the joke. I kind of like the confusion. It’s like a magician or something: if you go out and put it out there, and people have to dig a little deeper or think a little more to realize it’s a joke, I’m not winking at them and telling them it’s a joke. That’s the comedy that’s always inspired me.

In the first few Neil Hamburger albums he sounds more like a bad ’80s or ’90s club comic, and then later he becomes more of an “old pro”—this guy who’s kind of out of time. How did that evolution happen?

It’s just very natural. In the first place, when I did the first three or four records, there was no stage show—the records were simply a recording project. I was in my twenties and I was way too young, really, to ever portray that character at that point, and I also wasn’t interested in having a stand-up career. I was doing music and I had a record label, and I was interested in putting out records because I just love records. I love the format of an album, and I liked the idea of making these fake comedy albums where I recorded all the audience sounds myself—so any heckle or any clinking of glass in the audience, all that stuff, it was like Foley for a movie.

I was fine with that for a few years, and I kept getting offers to do shows, and I really felt like if I do a show, that ruins the whole thing. You can’t capture the feeling of the records when you actually have actual audience members that like these records and are thus actually laughing or getting into it or throwing out heckles that are contrived.

But I decided eventually, when I got an offer I couldn’t pass up—which was to do a tour in Australia, which is where my wife is from and we needed to go there anyway—I just decided to roll the dice and see if I could make it work. That’s really a turning point in terms of the records as well, because once it became a living, breathing character, the show had to change. It wasn’t a real show—it was a fake show—and once it becomes a real show, certain aspects of it changed naturally over the years as I did more and more shows, and sometimes took on the grueling schedules. When I started actually doing those … as you say, you do become literally the seasoned pro. When you’ve had people attack you on stage, and you have the days where you’ve driven 700 miles to a show for eight dollars and all these awful things happen, it definitely changes the act.

Your work is fairly jaded or cynical about show business, but it also has a very deep understanding and knowledge of it, whether it’s film or comedy. Are you someone who grew up with a lot of un-ironic love of show business?

I still have it. I love music and comedy and films and all these things. What people see as cynicism I think is sometimes more a reaction to a disappointment that you get when these things aren’t as good as you hoped they would be—or, with people that you respect, when some of the magic is stripped away when they deteriorate artistically. No, I’m a real fanboy, quite honestly.

Y’know, people are like, “Oh, you hate all these things, what do you like?” as if I’m just this Grinch that hates all this stuff. Especially with music, because I’ll talk about all this indie rock and say, “Oh, that’s a pile of shit,” and people are like, “What do you like?” The fact is I have a bigger record collection than anybody I know, and I’m more excited about this stuff than anyone I know. I think it’s a misunderstanding.

With that in mind, how much do you identify with your character on On Cinema?

I think when I was 12 or 13, that was probably about where I was at. It was really before I got into punk rock, which was something I was only into for about a year before the corruption started to become apparent and I moved on. I was super, super into watching movies when I was a kid, and this was before home video was really readily available—or at least not readily available to me, because we didn’t really have any money for that—but I didn’t know anyone who owned a VCR or anything, so I was really into going to art house theatres and going to the multiplex and paying for one movie and then trying to stay there all day, slipping from one to the next trying to see as many movies as I could. I had a little book where I kept track of everything that I saw and rated them all. I was super into it.

I think that I kind of lost that interest at some point. I still like movies, but I might watch a couple a month—as opposed to that point, when I was 12 or 13, when I would watch, like, 40 a month and document them all. But I think that that character on On Cinema is less like me than Neil Hamburger is like me.

By the way, I really love On Cinema, and the whole byzantine, detailed universe it’s created.

It’s been a dream doing that. It’s weird in 2015 that it feels like actually paving new ground, because once we started in with the Decker stuff, you’ve got these fictitious characters creating fictitious shows, except that it’s all real and it’s playing out like that, and then you’ve got the battles going on with Twitter. It’s really a soap opera. When we started doing it, it was more of a straight-ahead parody of self-appointed “experts,” but it just mutated into this other thing that’s so exciting to do. And the team that we have that works with us—everyone is so on the exact same page on all of this, and everyone just brings great ideas, and everyone’s so into serving the project at all costs, and nobody’s offended when somebody shoots down an idea and says, “Nah, this wouldn’t work for this universe.” It’s just a dream to work on.

When we shoot those things, Tim and I, the biggest problem is us bursting into laughter and spoiling the take, which just happens all the time because it’s improvised. We don’t know what’s going to come out of our mouths next a lot of the times, and we’ll laugh at our own crap or laugh at each other’s crap and it just gets impossible. I don’t know how the editor can deal with it, to chop all those outbursts out.

For years you didn’t do interviews as yourself. Did you feel that talking about the work would cheapen it?

Oh god yes—to me, this is a nightmare! God, I kept away from this for 20 fucking years, and I would do all those interviews in character, and I got really used to doing it that way—and maybe a little bored of doing it that way, because the Neil Hamburger character is only going to give certain types of answers, y’know?

When we made the movie—I mean, c’mon, getting a movie made is pretty fancy. When you get the distributors and the investors and stuff, and everyone wanted me to promote it, and I start out with, “Err, I only do interviews in character…” and then realizing this isn’t even the same character as the Neil Hamburger who’s doing these interviews. I don’t want to do interviews as a sullen, non-communicative shell of a man—that’s not going to make sense—but if I’m doing the interviews and going, [Neil Hamburger voice] “MmmmYEAH, well…” it doesn’t make sense either. So I realized I’ve got no choice, I have to just talk, and it scared the hell out of me, because I do really feel like it diminishes things to talk about it.

In the end, I just decided, “Y’know, I’m not going to think about this and not be guarded, and just go in and talk.” And then unfortunately for the fine journalists who turn these interviews into articles, I can’t read any of these things because if I do, I’m going to feel horrible about the whole process.

I’ve always been happy to talk about this stuff. The people that like what I do, I’m excited to meet them and hear what they think about it, and they always ask questions about it because I don’t give these interviews. I’ll do a show and whoever comes up to me at the bar, I’ll answer any question they have for as long as it takes. But I just never wanted that stuff on record—it boxes everything in and it gets rid of some of the magic, if you want to call it that. But I have no choice, so I just do the interviews and try not to dwell on what I might have said.

In a way, it’s nice, because it’s so different from what I’ve done that it actually feels like this new thing, just being open. It’s bizarre. And it’s also nice not to be doing all these interviews in character. I actually said, “Alright, I’ll do those, but I’ll never do another one in character.” That’s amazing.

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has written for NPR and The Believer, among other places. Chris Tucker once tweeted him a birthday greeting, but only after he asked.