For the last 20 years, comedian Gregg Turkington has made a name for himself pretending to be Neil Hamburger, a hapless anti-comedian who’s toured internationally.
Now, Turkington has co-written and starred in “Entertainment.” His character is based on his alter-ego, but the film, which he co-wrote, paints an impressionistic, dark and surreal picture of the struggles of low-level entertainers everywhere:
So what does making a film like this mean for a comedian who’s made a name for himself pretending to be someone else?
The story of Neil Hamburger
When Gregg Turkington takes the stage as Neil Hamburger, he wears a tuxedo, carrying (and sometime dropping) an elbowful of drinks. He coughs loudly into the microphone. He berates the audience for showing up late or not laughing too quietly. His repertoire is made up almost of entirely what/why jokes with off-color, sometimes offensive punchlines. Here's a video of his 2006 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Hamburger's network TV debut:
Neil Hamburger's real identity was as open as an open secret could get. Sure, Turkington would never talk publicly about Neil Hamburger. And yes, Neil would reciprocate in interviews. But almost every news story about Hamburger correctly identified him as Turkington's alter-ego. And the question could be answered after 30 seconds of Googling, at most.
"I've never been one who likes to do comedy where you're letting the audience in on the joke right away," says Turkington. "I kind of like the mystery of it. And I don't know that most people that see Neil Hamburger take it at face value and believe in it, but that's how I like to present it."
Part of the intended mysteriousness behind Neil Hamburger lies in his origins. Originally, Hamburger was a character on a prank call album recorded by Turkington and friends. He started getting requests for more from the character.
At home, Turkington started recording comedy albums under the Neil Hamburger name. It was a simulated stand up record: he'd mix in field recordings of casinos to simulate a live audience. Friends would pretend to be hecklers. After Neil delivers a punch line, Turkington would mix in awkward laughter just as often as he'd leave it out.
As fans of Neil Hamburger grew in numbers, so did demand to see him live. Gregg accepted an offer to open for a punk band touring Australia. It didn't go well:
I remember the second show I ever did as Neil Hamburger, it was an underage show. In Australia they don't have all-ages shows, at least in Victoria. It's either everyone's over 18 or everyone's under 18. Everyone was under 18. So I thought "well this will be fun, these kids."
And they [were] like a lynch mob! These sweet little kids I see lined up before the show turned into the nastiest monsters you've ever seen. They just lined up at the front of the stage and just spit, and spit, and spit, until the black tuxedo was covered in spit.
The spit dried off, and Turkington says he came out of the experience surprisingly upbeat. "There was something about performing, I felt like I could take this in some other directions that aren't explored on the records."
Neil Hamburger has opened for bands like Tenacious D and Bad Religion, appeared on dozens of Network and Cable TV shows.
During all this, Turkington controlled the Neil Hamburger's public image completely. That changed when director Rick Alverson proposed making a film based on the character.
Taking to the big screen
In "Entertainment," Turkington stars as The Comedian — not Neil Hamburger. But he wears Neil's tuxedo, tells the same jokes, and friends and family even call him Neil. But where Neil Hamburger is a lovable but grumpy antihero, The Comedian is a sad figure. He travels the California desert playing bars to crowds that are mostly indifferent, sometimes hostile. When he isn't on stage, The Comedian tours depressing landmarks and leaves desperate, unreturned voicemails for his daughter.
It's a weird, impressionistic journey dotted with moments of surreal comedy and violence. The appearances by A-list stars like John C. Reilly and Michael Cera make the movie even more odd:
"One thing that I really liked, was a psychologist told me that she thought it was the most accurate depiction of clinical depression that she'd ever seen on film, which I thought was really interesting." says Turkington, laughing a little.
By starring in the movie, though, Turkington starts a new chapter in his career: It compelled him to talk publicly about Neil Hamburger for the first time. And in making the movie, he gave up control over a character that for 20 years made up part of his identity to collaborate with Director Rick Alverson and co-writer Tim Heidecker.
"It was tricky," Turkington says. "It was very strange to be letting down my guard in these ways. Because I trust Rick so much, and his vision, I eventually just said 'You know what? I'll do what you need.'"
Can a film like "Entertainment" transform a career? Turkington, a veteran performer, stars in an Adult Swim web series and has appeared in movies like Marvel's Ant Man lately. A movie like Entertainment shows there's much more going on than Neil Hamburger.
"Entertainment" opens at Cinefamily on Thursday, November 19 and will be available on iTunes, Netflix and other streaming services worldwide on November 13.