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The person behind America’s $1 funny man: In conversation with Gregg Turkington a.k.a. Neil Hamburger

Thursday 10th, September 2015 / 19:17
By Joshua Erickson
Photo: Simone Turkington

Photo: Simone Turkington

VANCOUVER — Silently, over the past two and half decades, Gregg Turkington has been racking up one of the most impressive resumes in the entertainment business. Comedian, actor, writer, singer, recording artist, record label owner, touring band manager, and more – the man has done it all and didn’t plan for any of it.

“No, I never had any plans… I am very surprised at ending up in some of the things I have ended up in. Because there was no real career plan. I never set out to have a career in show business. I just set out to [do] stuff that interests me,” explains Turkington over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Some things, if you stick around long enough, stuff will fall into place.”

Speaking very nonchalantly, Turkington describes his days in San Francisco as a teenager singing in “shitty punk rock or conceptual weirdo art bands” and how he used to talk and make jokes a lot in between songs and how that inadvertently lead to him becoming a comedian. Being dissatisfied with the comedy available at the time, Turkington began experimenting with characters and this eventually lead to his most well-known creation yet – the infamous Neil Hamburger, America’s $1 funny man (as opposed to #1 funny man, in case you needed that explained to you.)

The cheap suit, greasy comb over, the irreverent jokes, the crude language, the spitting, the phlegmy voice, they are all parts of the complex character of Neil Hamburger. However, not everyone “gets” Turkington’s Neil Hamburger character, the least of which being those that label Turkington’s outsider sense of humour as “anti-comedy,” a label he describes as “idiotic.”

Gregg Turkington_ Neil Hamburger 1“The thing is, when I’m doing stuff it is supposed to be funny. It might reach that point through a different route than other things. It might not be as obviously as someone slipping on a banana peel or some Adam Sandler movie or something… For me, there are other ways. I’m not necessarily interested in broad humour that appeals to everyone, I’m interested in things I find funny. And for what I find funny, I don’t necessarily laugh out loud. Its more of a weird tickle that you get inside you. Something where you’re like ‘I can’t fucking believe this!’ Or, like, you’re coming to terms with a mystery. Something that is kind of blowing your mind. That’s the kind of thing I find funny and what they’re calling ‘anti-comedy’ is just a non-traditional approach to [comedy.] I don’t understand it because the stuff that is often called anti-comedy is getting huge laughs, y’know? There’s a lot of people who like it!” laughs Turkington.

And he is right, as there is a growing demand for a type of humour that doesn’t simply appeal to mainstream sensibilities. The ever infamous Tim & Eric may perhaps be the most poignant example of that right now as their popularity continues to soar, however inexplicable that may seem. It is also an obvious reference point for Turkington, as Tim Heidecker (aka “Tim” of Tim & Eric) and Turkington have a long history of collaboration together. The seventh season of the ongoing On Cinema saga has just premiered (a show where fictional versions of themselves review films, which doubles as a complex character study of the dysfunctional duo), the premiere of the third season of Decker will be happening later this year (an On Cinema spin-off where the two characters set out to make James Bond-esque crime drama mini-films), as well as a bit role in Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, in which Tim Heidecker starred.

In the spirit of collaboration, Turkington’s work with Alverson sparked a creative partnership between the two which in turn led to Alverson’s latest film, Entertainment, described by Turkington as “a grim art film” staring Turkington himself in the lead role. The film has seen only a few small releases thus far (including at the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival), but the early buzz seems positive. What critics say about the movie means very little to Turkington though.

Gregg Turkington_ Neil Hamburger 2“[We] are fully expecting quite a few people to despise the movie,” deadpans Turkington. What matters to him is twofold: that the people who the film was made for are enjoying it; and that he and Alverson set out to make a film, the end product is exactly the film they set out to make, and he couldn’t be happier with the result. Seeing both of these things come to life has made Turkington both humbled and elated.

“For me its exciting seeing this thing come out, followed of course by the steady flow of people storming out of the theatre in disgust, ripping up their ticket. And then, the people that stay, being, y’know, excited by it…. Those are people that deserve some entertainment themselves because there isn’t always a lot on offer for them. It’s just a matter of taste. We were just at the Locarno film festival, in Switzerland, for the international premier of Entertainment… It’s just so flattering and so fun to, y’know, make this film out in the desert in Bakersfield and then be in Switzerland and have these folks come up to you and say how moved they were by the movie.

“And there were these kids! They had this independent jury award at Locarno. And it was mostly kids around 18, mostly from Italy, from Milano, and they chose our film for this award! It was great because they had a little ceremony and it was outside and the Swiss Alps were behind the stage and… then afterwards all these kids were just super excited to meet me. We were just talking and hanging out and I just felt like ‘what the hell is this!?’” belts out Turkington with a laugh. “All these Italian 18 years old kids were out drinking champagne in front of the Swiss Alps and it’s just bizarre… and exciting to see what we did resonates in this way.”

If you have seen the trailer for Entertainment and think it’s a mockumentary about Neil Hamburger, you would be forgiven for thinking so, but that isn’t the case. Instead, the film borrows the character of Neil Hamburger and uses it for a different purpose. The film examines the psyche of a small time performer trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. A very different kind of performance than the one you will see on the upcoming Neil Hamburger tour.

Photo: Simone Turkington

Photo: Simone Turkington

For the Vancouver shows, Neil Hamburger will be headlining September 12th at the Fox Theatre, while on September 13th, he will be the special guest of the Sunday Service, the Fox’s weekly comedy show. Will there be anything special planned for Neil Hamburger’s guest spot at the Sunday Service?

“I’m not totally sure, I mean I would say ‘possibly anything could happen.’ Anything. Anything could happen. We might come onstage – myself and the whole troupe – and announce ‘Look. We were gonna do a comedy show – I was gonna do stand-up and these guys were gonna do some sketches and we worked out a couple sketches together – and then we were talking backstage, sharing information we had regarding natural cures for cancer and we got a couple of beakers and some reagents and some test strips and we started experimenting and we got an apricot pit and ground it up and added some acetic acid and it dissolved the pit and I gave it to a friend of ours that had cancer and the cancer was cured. And so now were are here to announce that this a press conference for the cure for cancer.’ And then we will open the back door of the theatre and a truck will deliver cases of champagne and everyone in the audience will toast this great scientific breakthrough that happened in the green room there. And I think that even though no actual comedy would take place, it would still be a great night.”

Whatever happens, you are guaranteed some entertainment.

Neil Hamburger performs September 12 and 13 at the Fox Theatre. Entertainment premieres on September 27 and October 4 at the Rio Theatre as a part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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