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Gregg Turkington on how to make a Neil Hamburger movie

With "Entertainment," Gregg Turkington's longtime fake stand-up comic Neil Hamburger gets his own, very unusual movie. Turkington and director Rick Alverson talk about playing with audience's expectations.
Rick Alverson Gregg TurkingtonNeil Hamburger

For the last 25 years, Gregg Turkington has played to crowds small and massive dressed up as Neil Hamburger, a fake, decaying Borscht Belt comic with a bad tux, a worse combover and an endlessly supply of hilariously stupid/offensive jokes. He’s been reluctant to talk about his creation out of character, but he’s been making an exception while promoting “Entertainment,” a movie about Hamburger — or a guy named “The Comedian” who looks and quips just like him — roaming through a sad life of bad gigs and cheap motels. Turkington, much jollier than Hamburger, and director Rick Alverson, who also made “The Comedy” with Tim Heidecker, sat down to talk about the film and the nature of what’s funny.

Fans of Neil Hamburger might not expect the particular tone and feel of this movie.

Gregg Turkington: This would be the movie I would have dreamed of doing for this character. Because I always believed this character was pretty glum offstage. When other people wanted to film this character in an offstage setting, they wanted pranks or hijinks or hilarious things happening. If you listen to the early records — and I don’t think you should — but if you did you’d see the tone of the early material is, a lot of the time, just glum and grim. It’s when it went from a recording project to a live project that it actually became funnier. A lot of fans may not realize that the roots were in a study of depression and failure.

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Depressing can be funny. Even the fact that this is serious is a form of comedy.

Turkington: I find a lot of it very funny, but they’re not necessarily the kind of laughs you get seeing someone slip on a banana peel and falling down stairs. The Tye Sheridan character, when he’s doing the mime act, I do find it funny, though it’s not a specific scene that’s funny. It’s just the continuum of what he’s doing that I find very funny.

Rick Alverson: It’s incredibly funny, but also profoundly depressing. [Laughs] I think the more tragic and more pathetic the story became, the more me and Gregg got a huge kick out of it. We did test screenings for this, because we wanted to see if it was relentless and uncomfortable in the right ways. Was it achieving the thing we wanted to engineer it to achieve? Fifty percent of the audience didn’t know who Neil Hamburger was. It was important that those people didn’t need a prerequisite for the thing to work. To them it was a tragic story of this anonymous wasteland of a human being. There wasn’t a single laugh from them. There are people who have a different access to it, through Neil. I think everyone ends up in the same padded room at the end.

That must be odd for the people who don’t know Neil Hamburger to have people laughing during what seems to them a straight-up drama.

Turkington: There was a girl in Richmond the other night who came up to me and said, “I really liked the jokes in the movie. Do you tell jokes normally? I want more jokes like this.” Then this review came out the other day where half the review was just this guy saying, “These jokes are not funny. There is no wit in these jokes. These are bad, bad jokes.” He couldn’t get past that. His criticism of the movie was that these were unfunny jokes and we were bad people. “No, these aren’t good jokes, you’re just shit.” [Laughs]

Alverson: But they’re also bad jokes. They’re both.

Turkington: I get 80 year olds who really like the jokes. They’re jokes that don’t arrive at the laugh in the traditional way. Sometimes it’s the setup of a joke that has a turn of phrase in it that’s very funny. The payoff to the joke is bad and not what you’d want. But if you think about the joke, the setup is funny. When I tell a joke live I’ll hear people laughing at that part. If I’m getting a laugh, to me they’re good jokes, regardless of where the laugh comes.

There’s so many ways to read the jokes, to find humor in them. Sometimes the punchline is funny, in a way.

Turkington: That’s what I like about them. Sometimes I know that if the jokes were told by a comedian someone really liked, they’d say the jokes were really good. When I put together a set, I want a certain number of jokes that are going to bring any sort of momentum that’s been building up in the set to a screeching halt. Then there are jokes that are out of date, they’re about subjects most people won’t recognize anymore. There’s just different types. You want to mix it up. I want the live show to be this rollercoaster of emotions, where they think, “This isn’t any good, let’s get out of here,” then I bring them back in with something and they say, “No, this is good.”

Alverson: The whole movie is constructed the same way. It’s doing that. When I and Michael Taylor [his co-editor] were cutting it, we were thinking the exact same thing. We were equally interested in the dead zones, where get people get squirmy — when it’s flat and uninteresting. Then you love what happens next. How restless can you make a person? Because that makes them really active. When I see Gregg do his stage performances, everyone’s really activated. There are a lot of people who understand exactly what they’re in for, but it gets funnier when they’re uncertain about where this thing is going.

At this point there are a larger number of people who know who you are, especially compared to early on when few people had any idea what they were in for.

Turkington: That makes it easier. The weird thing is the big shows, like in New York, those are the easiest, because the audiences are so smart and so in on it. You can almost do no wrong. A show that I booked in some rural town in Missouri or something is going to be the show I’m going to sweat about and be nervous about all week, because I really don’t know what will happen. There probably will be a bigger number of people who are furious with it and storm out.

At this point do you have a repertory of responses to heckling?

Turkington: Maybe not specific lines but specific ways to deconstruct what they’re doing and silence them — even something as simple as [loudly coughs] into the microphone that drowns them out.

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You’ve often said you actually don’t want people to hate you.

Turkington: I want the people who need to have a good time to have a good time, because they’re not getting it anywhere else. I’m playing to myself. I’m doing things I would personally like, and I don’t have the most normal taste. A lot of the things that are weirdo films I like even less than the mainstream films. It’s just a very peculiar aesthetic. I feel like if I like it there’s other people who do too, even if it’s just a few. If wanted to just f— with people with stuff no one would like, then we would cut off the head of a chicken and have someone fall down a well and then just vomit uncontrollably until the well fills up with vomit.

I would watch that.

Turkington: If you’re making art, there are some people who say they’re making it for themselves. I’m not sure I believe that. If you do that then just make it for yourself. Why are we hearing about it?

I think the title could be interpreted many ways, but one idea is that it’s about the fringes of the entertainment world, with someone who won’t conform to what everyone wants.

Turkington: It’s as much about the entertainment world as Britney Spears, you know? There’s more people like this than there are people at the top.

Alverson: And we should say the Britney Spears story is much sadder than “Entertainment.”

Turkington: She has worse material than I do.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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