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.
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.