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He scuttles onstage like an ornery hermit crab emerging from an oil spill, the remains of his hair slicked across his scalp into a grotesque comb-over, three vodka tonics tucked beneath his arm. He’s Neil Hamburger, a cult stand-up comic whose act consists of telling horrifically mean-spirited jokes, usually at the expense of celebrities like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and Angelina Jolie. (But not exclusively: He also targets corporations, chain restaurants, politicians and other headline makers.)
It’s a put-on, sort of. Hamburger is actually the “anti-comedy” alter-ego of Gregg Turkington, a 47-year-old musician-turned-actor who was born in Australia, raised in San Francisco and currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles. His trademark character has elicited an almost inconceivable amount of audience antipathy over the years — 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden once chanted “Asshole!” at Turkington in unison — but also has earned him a sizable fan base, all of whom enjoy being in on the bad joke.
Now, thanks to Hamburger, Turkington’s career is taking some interesting turns. After landing a few unexpected acting parts (he plays the manager of a Baskin-Robbins in Marvel’s Ant-Man), Turkington next stars in Entertainment, a bleak art house drama inspired by the Neil Hamburger character. Helmed by Rick Alverson (2012’s The Comedy), the film — which premiered at Sundance to mostly glowing reviews — follows a version of Hamburger as he performs at a string of low-rent venues across the California desert. The results, much like Hamburger’s live act, can be startling, disturbing, surreal and unexpectedly funny. The Hollywood Reporter recently had a chance to speak with Turkington, in one of his first media interviews as himself.
I must admit, you baffle me as much as you fascinate me.
For 20 years I refused to give interviews out of character because with art that I like and music I like, I prefer being baffled. I find it the most interesting response — that something elicited in me is confusion. It makes me pursue information and try to solve the riddle even more. Now that we’re promoting the film I realized I can’t really pull that anymore. So now I have this new policy that I’ll answer any question I’m asked.
Where does Neil Hamburger come from?
I was living in San Francisco in the early ‘90s and me and a group of friends were into making prank calls, just having a couple shots of whiskey and getting on the phone and basically being obnoxious. We started taping the calls and these tapes started getting around. On one of the calls, I had dialed a comedy club in San Francisco and just started improvising: “You gotta book me. I’m a comedian! My name is Neil Hamburger.” I made these desperate, insane, non sequitur type jokes. People who heard those tapes were intrigued and said they wanted to hear more from the character…. Now it’s 15 years and I’m still doing the act.
How did you find Neil’s look?
On the records, I had done drawings of what the guy looked like, and they were pretty similar to what he looks like now. It was a question of buying a ratty tuxedo, buying the right glasses and hair gel and putting it all together, and you have a completely different character that no one recognizes. It’s sort of a reverse version of the Clark Kent-Superman thing. I can finish a Neil Hamburger show and people can come stand next to me at the bar and not realize it was me.
Neil makes a lot of mean jokes about celebrities. And Entertainment offers a pretty grim take on show business. Is Neil supposed to be a commentary on Hollywood?
It’s never so calculated. [His material] just naturally gravitated there over time. I think it’s probably a combination of Neil Hamburger being this real showbiz guy to the extent that he feels it’s necessary to wear a tuxedo onstage no matter what, and also [celebrity] is kind of a universal language at this point. People are going to know more about the doings of celebrities than they are the contents of the Bible.
When you tell a joke like, “Who is the biggest star in a tour featuring Dane Cook, Carrot Top and Aziz Ansari? The pilot that flies their plane into the side of a mountain,” is that you saying that or Neil?
I definitely will make jokes about things I like or people I’m friends with, and be really nasty, because it suits the character and because it’s funny…. But this format also ends up giving you a soapbox with which to point out things that are galling to you. There is definitely a decline in quality in the output of professional entertainers, particularly in music but in a lot of fields. It’s nice to be able to have a chance to put that opinion out there in a way that’s hopefully funny.
Do you prefer to have the audience laughing or dead silence?
I prefer a variety of responses. It’s fun to do a show and have it be a lovefest where people are laughing before you get even two words out of your mouth. But then the next night you have an audience standing there with their arms crossed and dead silence. I find it exciting to not know what you’re going to get. I get it all, from people physically attacking me to people who want to put me in their movies.
Have you been physically attacked?
I have…. And I will lash out at someone in the audience if they are screaming out things and stepping on my punchlines and ruining the show for people. I warn them that I’ll throw a drink at them. I give them a few chances, but then I do throw a drink at them.
I enjoy your Taco Bell food-poisoning retweets on Twitter. How did those get started?
I honestly believe it’s a public health issue. If you look up any other fast-food chain and do searches for phrases like “food poisoning” or “I got sick,” you don’t find them. They need to hire consultants in a hurry to figure out what it is they’re doing in their kitchen that’s causing this. It’s something that needs to be brought up — because for every 17-year-old kid who gets sick from Taco Bell and says, “I’ve been home with food poisoning for three days from this 59-cent burrito,” how many old people bought that burrito and dropped dead? But it’s fun. I’m not going to pretend I’m Florence Nightingale. I certainly enjoy the humorous aspects of it. The language people use to express getting sick is all over the map. Just the cumulative effect of looking at 100 of these in a row is crazy. I try to place them in a certain order to tell a narrative. You get the right combination and you end up crying with laughter, it’s so terrible, and then you throw in some tweets from some stupid new band going, “We’re excited about our new partnership with Taco Bell!”
I imagine you’ve felt the wrath of the social-media mob?
I put out a couple shitty comments about Britney Spears’ voice or lack thereof a couple years ago. People scouring Twitter for any negativity about their queen found it and lashed out, starting with, “You ugly old man, who cares what you think!” And then I would retweet that, and they would see that and started going after me more. Before you know it I have 100 people threatening my life and getting so nasty and mean, I couldn’t believe it. “I hope you’re wife gets raped,” and that kind of thing, because I dared say Britney is poor-quality entertainment.
Does it ever get to you?
I think it rarely does. I have a pretty thick skin from situations where I’m onstage at Madison Square Garden with a sold-out crowd at a Tenacious D concert chanting the phrase “ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!” at me for half an hour. Stuff like that will make it easier to handle some 14-year-old kid saying they want to cut your throat.
What do you do backstage after something like that?
Laugh and laugh and laugh, shaking with adrenaline and the hilarity of it! The crowd might be screaming that, but Jack [Black] and Kyle [Gass] from Tenacious D are going, “That was amazing!” The crew and everybody involved in our production thinks it’s hilarious. I did 25 shows with those guys in giant venues. It was so much fun.
Did you get the same reaction at all of them?
Pretty much, yeah, pretty much.
When someone asks you what you are, do you say comedian? Artist? Actor?
I would tend to say a comedian. It gets weird when you go through customs and you have to fill out a form that lists your occupation. In that, I tend to write “actor” more often strictly because I don’t want a customs officer to ask me to tell them a joke, which has happened.“ Tell me a joke,” and my mind is churning with every horrible joke.
What were you and director Rick Alverson trying to achieve with the film Entertainment?
You see so many stories about the good aspects of entertainment, but not so much about people stuck in a rut, going nowhere. To me that’s always been interesting —putting on a show night after night but not living the dream. We didn’t want a Neil Hamburger picture where it was like Borat, hilarious from start to finish with gags on the road. We wanted a grim, art house type of drama that had some moments that were almost inappropriately hilarious.
Does the character in the film think of his stage persona as a “bad comic,” in the way you think of Neil Hamburger as a bad comic?
I don’t think that’s quite right. He knows there’s different ways the show can be taken. It can be taken as straight comedy, it can be taken as performance art. There are moments when fans show up who are super into it. He knows the limits of this. Sometimes you might have an act that people are taking from different point of view, some might be laughing at you, but you don’t want to give up on them because you need them to keep the numbers going.
What’s going through his head when John C. Reilly’s character, a long-lost cousin, gives him sincere advice about improving his act?
I don’t really know. I would say probably some mix of, “Well I’ve been doing this for a long time, I think I know better,” and then also that kind of thing where you’re so stuck in your ways you’re no longer listening to any advice that anyone gives you. Kind of like when you try to talk to your grandparents about gay marriage…. You don’t get the full story with this guy, but he’s probably tried many entries into show business success and they haven’t panned out.
What’s your endgame with Neil Hamburger? Let’s say he tips over into Pee-wee Herman territory, and they wanted you to appear on the MTV Video Music Awards. Are you prepared to take him there?
I want to do the things that make sense to me, that I like, that have a point of view, that I relate to artistically and that I’d personally want to see from a character like this. I’m definitely happy to turn things down if they don’t feel right. I’ve got this beautiful art film that I feel really good about right now, and to be on the MTV Music Video Awards right now, which is something I really despise, that feels really unsavory to me. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do certain things that weren’t 100 percent where I’m coming from, but it’s a gut feeling you get. I did a guest spot on CSI recently, not as Neil Hamburger but just acting as a bombing suspect. I thought it was really insane but really interesting. It was fun.
Entertainment opens in New York theaters and on VOD on Nov. 13 and in theaters in Los Angeles on Nov. 20.
6 of Gregg Turkington’s cult-film Inspirations for Entertainment
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
“This Robert Bresson movie is about a donkey who leads a miserable life. The movie charts his life over the course of his 20 years on Earth as he’s passed from one owner to the next.”
Kansas City Bomber (1972)
“I was very inspired by a movie called Kansas City Bomber that was about a Roller Derby girl. It was almost like a documentary in terms of showing what life was like in the low-level world of professional Roller Derby. This slog of bus rides and grim hotels and poorly attended roller derbies and these girls could get traded to another team and suddenly they’re living somewhere else. I was really interested in getting a depiction of this world of low-level entertainment.”
Two-Lane Blacktop (1972)
A 1971 road movie starring James Taylor and the Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and set along U.S. Route 66.
Best Friends (1975)
A cult film starring Richard Hatch as an engaged guy who embarks on a Winnebago road trip with his fiancee and his best friend, a Vietnam war vet who loses his grip with sanity.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Martin Scorsese’s drama about a widowed housewife (Ellen Burstyn, who won an Oscar for the role) who relocates to Phoenix, Arizona, where she becomes a diner waitress.
Zabriskie Point (1970)
A Michaelangelo Antonioni film shot in the titular location in Death Valley and set amid the counterculture of the era.