In Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” alternative comedian Gregg Turkington plays a character he’s toured through hundreds of bars, rock concerts, and general booze-soaked cesspools for more than a decade—a lounge act from hell known as Neil Hamburger. Dressed up in a tuxedo with a greasy scalp while cradling at least two drinks under one arm, Hamburger’s comedy is an exercise in a riled audience's discomfort, as a presence inspired by Frank Sinatra Jr. nonetheless confronts his crowd with question/answer jokes about the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ heroin addiction (to name just one example from the time he opened for the band Faith No More). Brilliantly, “The Comedy” director Alverson places the Hamburger persona on a polarizing canvas of clichés—on a road trip that hardly leads anywhere—creating an immaculately mundane cinematic experience for the viewers who don’t walk out. Opening this weekend in NY/LA and VOD, the film also stars John C. Reilly, Amy Seimetz, Michael Cera and Tim Heidecker.
A self-proclaimed fan of Ebert’s since "Sneak Previews," Turkington co-writes and co-hosts his own movie review show on Adult Swim called "On Cinema at the Cinema," a parody of every half-baked review show inspired by "Siskel & Ebert." He and "Entertainment" co-writer Tim Heidecker play movie fanatics who review movies in critic-whore speak and blind movie fandom, without a trace of critical thinking to the opinions they've been sharing for now seven seasons.RogerEbert.com spoke to Turkington about adapting Neil Hamburger to “Entertainment,” how his performance was inspired by the donkey from Robert Bresson's “Au Hasard Balthazar,” his favorite "Siskel & Ebert" segment and much more.
What was the seed for this project and how did it end up that you, Rick [Alverson] and Tim [Heidecker] were writing it?
I was in “The Comedy,” that Rick did, and at some point he made an offhand comment about, “You know what would be good? A feature based on the Neil Hamburger character.” And I said, “Sure. That sounds good.” I was assuming that it would never happen, and that it was just an offhand comment. But when Rick and I both talked about it, he was of the mind that this guy’s life offstage was very glum and dull, and not very dynamic, which is how I always saw it. That made me very excited about the project, because people had approached me before about possible expansions of the Neil Hamburger character into film or TV. They always were looking for almost a prank-type approach, using a camera and going out on the streets with me in a tuxedo, seeing what hilarious things would happen. To me, that was absolutely wrong for the character, and Rick and I really bonded on the approach that would be appropriate, which would be more of this “Two-Lane Blacktop” art film kind of vibe.
So, essentially the Neil Hamburger character has always been on your terms?
It’s probably to my detriment, but that’s the way it has been. It was never structured as some sort of vehicle to have a career. I started doing it as joke on certain things. The original Neil Hamburger records are more soundscapes and commentaries on the tone and the rhythm of comedy then they are actual comedy. If you do something for long enough, you want to take it in different directions, just as a Beatles record from 1963 is completely different from one in 1968. It has depended on what I wanted to say at that time. But it was never designed to be a career, and it really blows my mind to be in this position where we’ve got a feature film for this character, and this character just started out as a character as late night prank phone call character that my friend happened to record one night. It’s weird. I wouldn’t say it’s random, as I’ve been doing it for years so it’s been building towards this, but it was nothing that I was aspiring to.
When it comes to your acting in the movie offstage, was that a particularly different comfortability than doing standup scenes? For example, like when you’re walking around, shirtless.
It took a long time for me to get my head around that, and it took a lot of discussions with Rick because I was so used to controlling this character 100% percent, and never showing the character without glasses, and never showing the character talking in a normal voice. Up to this point it had always been [in Neil Hamburger voice] “Weeelll … “ That kind of shit. Initially I was clinging to that: “You can make the movie, but I still have to talk this way, and wear the glasses.” Rick just looked at me like, “Are you insane? You can’t make a credible movie like that.” And he was right, but he had to draw that idea away from me, and then we had to figure out an offstage version of this person, which I don’t think is very much like me at all. I’m not sitting around in my hotel room staring glumly at the TV. It’s a whole other character.
What influenced these non-Neil aspects of your performance?
Definitely the Robert Bresson film, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” about the donkey. That to me was the biggest reference for acting in this movie that I can think of. I would think back to this donkey’s fine, fine performance that this director was able to get—this kind of performance out of a mule—which I thought was just this deep, deep performance. And I would think about that mule when we were shooting a lot of the time, and wondering what was going through his head. And because Rick wanted so many blank moments and dead stares like that, it was a really good point of reference.
The film has a definitive purgatorial pacing, which your character seems to be trapped in. How much do you see the structure and tone of “Entertainment” as a reflection of playing the Neil Hamburger character over and over and over?
The initial structure of the film is stuff is more Rick’s doing. When I’m doing a show, I don’t go in with a complete plot of what is going to happen, but I do like a complete roller coaster ride for the audience. I do like it where people are having fun and then starting to say, “Maybe I don’t like this.” When I have the audience won over, I like to start throwing some jokes that aren’t as friendly, or that are duds. And then when I start to feel like I’m starting to lose them, then I come back with things that I know will win them back. It’s a little bit of a kind of game, but I like that roller coaster ride. I feel like it makes for more of a memorable evening. And I think that structure that applies to show, even though it’s a little bit vague, I think Rick uses a similar game in the movie itself, in terms of speaking to traditional movie forms, almost cliché forms, and then subverting [them] later. To win people, get them involved, and then maybe boring them a little bit with scenes that just go on and are very slow. I think we both like that thing.
When it came to the writing process, how did you guys go about brainstorming these images? Was this writing process vastly different for you than writing comedy?
I think that some of the scenes that take place in the movie are based on real occurrences, some of them are almost things that Rick brought in characters, that he thought would be interesting for various reasons. Definitely writing standup comedy is a completely different process than something like this. The dialogue in the movie is improvised, and really more based on descriptions of the tone or the mood that was needed in particular scenes, and kind of running with that. But the script was pretty fleshed out in terms of what was going to happen.
One element that’s particularly hard to watch within “Entertainment” is The Comedian’s relationship with women, namely how he interacts with them. He’s terrified to talk to his daughter on the phone, he has a vicious confrontation with a woman (played by Amy Seimetz) at a bar, to name just a couple of examples. Was that a type of reflex to the self-aware white male misery in “Entertainment”?
I think some of that came out in the editing more than was in the script. In the initial script, the daughter actually a character, and actually seen, but not in any way where Neil was able to relate. Then there's the scene when The Comedian is lashing out at the woman in the audience. It feels not deserved at all, she’s just talking a little bit, but then I go completely ballistic with really ugly language. But in reality, if I’m at a show and somebody is heckling, or throwing things at me, or won’t shut up yelling out punchlines or whatever, as a comic you use the tools that you have in your arsenal to rip them apart. When we shot that scene in the script, that woman was actually more aggressive, and was doing things that were pretty disruptive to the show, and I was kind of warning her, and she wouldn’t stop, so I lashed out at her like that. So, I think when it was being edited, it was more effective to not have it be set up, but to have me more unbalanced and misogynistic just to lash out randomly like that.
Following in line with how “On Cinema” critiques those who do not engage with the art they love critically, “Entertainment” is, in one form, a critique on what people expect from entertainment, and how they’re programmed to act in a certain way with the comfortable and uncomfortable.
Something like a movie, there’s so much that goes into it, and so much time spent on it, it’s hard to boil it down to these few things. That’s definitely something that we talk about. But it just takes so long, and there’s so many different scenes and so many different meanings to everything. It’s not a major thrust to it, I don’t think. But I have always been fascinated with entertainers and entertainment in all of its different forms. I would read any showbiz bio, whether it was about somebody that I liked, like Frank Sinatra. From an early age that’s what I really wanted to read, and I think I really absorbed a lot of that in terms of seeing where people make mistakes later in their career, and let down their guard and become weary of the whole thing, and then where things start to disintegrate for them. And it’s stuff that has always been on mind. I think these things kind of end up … Rick’s got so many different ideas, I’ve got so many different ideas, sometimes it’s not all spelled out as carefully as you might think, but you have a conversation about art and music and film, and somebody will say something, and it triggers something, and then it ends up in the movie.
With this being your first lead role in a feature film, and your involvement with “On Cinema at the Cinema,” what has your own relationship with movies been like? How do you reflect it with your “On Cinema” film critic character Gregg?
I just loved, loved movies when I was a kid, and I would watch any movie. I have a book that I kept for like a year and a half where I wrote down the date and the movie that I saw that day. There were months where I was watching over 50 movies. And I would watch anything, I was very much in love with the form. And then I went to see “The Decline of Western Civilization,” and when it was first-run in the theater and I was at the right age, I really flipped for that type of punk rock and what it meant compared to what music had come before. It’s really funny, when I see that in the book, from then on you see the quantity of movies disappear really fast, and before long I was just more interested in music. But with “On Cinema,” I’m not doing it consciously, but sometimes that character almost reminds me of myself when I was 12 years old. There’s a simpleton quality. And I didn’t plan it that way! It was a couple of seasons before I started thinking about it, and then I was like, “Oh my god.” And I was more into art films at that age then that guy is into art films at his age. Definitely the enthusiasm and the excitement over anything movie-related, I hate to say it but I had that for a long time.
You mentioned to me earlier that you used to watch "Sneak Previews" with your family when you were younger. Do you remember having a favorite “Siskel & Ebert" segment or review?
I used to really love the “Dog of the Week” segment. They didn’t have it every episode, but when they had a “Dog of the Week,” that was the movie I was going to see. And especially when it would be some big budget movie that you would almost expect that would get panned on the show, but then it would be marginalized as “Dog of the Week” … I don’t know, that always got to me. And their championing of “My Dinner with Andre” on that show, when I was a kid and into movies, and they’re talking about this movie that’s just these guys having this conversation, I was like, “Okay, I’m convinced, I’ll go see it.” And then I flipped over it. I flipped over it. I went to it over and over again and talking to every adult that I knew saying, “You’ve got to see this movie, it’s just conversation,” and then these adults would go and come back and say, “That was terrible. Why did you recommend that?” And I felt like, “No, no, but Siskel & Ebert loved this movie. And I loved this movie. And fuck you, you’re wrong.”
Do you read criticism now?
I’m not really interested now in too many current movies. I see maybe one or two a year, but I do like reading about older movies and some movies like “Night of the Hunter” or “Midnight Cowboy,” “Two-Lane Blacktop” or “West Side Story,” I would literally read any word on the subject, looking for books about these things. But somebody writing about the new Bond movie? I wouldn’t read that.
When making this film, what was your dream in terms of making something that an audience could connect to, but not allowing them to get too close where the distance is a part of the very experience of “Entertainment”?
I feel that it’s very important to reach the people, who feel as I do, that this is the type of movie that they’d like to see. I know that if I saw this movie I would enjoy it, and I know that some, not the majority, would feel the same way. There’s also going to be a majority that will see this and say, “What the hell was that? That was a nightmare. Where was the plot?” And I’m not consciously trying to make something to ruin those people’s evening, and to make them tear up their ticket in disgust, but I’m prepared for it. Because if I go see the new Clint Eastwood movie or some action movie, I’m going to be more disgusted, and more distraught, and more angry for days, probably more than people will be with my film. And that’s what I’m dealing with on a daily basis, of being pretty frustrated and disgusted by everything. I’d like to see the tables turned a little bit so now they can feel the revulsion that I feel when I walk into Walgreens and Justin Bieber and Diplo’s music is blaring through the speakers, and I’m paralyzed with horror like, “Why do I have to fucking hear this? I’m just here to buy some Q-tips, and I have to listen to this fucking shit?” Like, I’m under attack by this bad art constantly. Now, they can maybe feel under attack by something that they don’t relate to and is alienating to them. And guess what, they get to go back to feeling pretty good about most things on TV and with most music, and I have to continue to live while being bombarded by bullshit.
[Laughs] I’m not foaming at the mouth. I swear, there’s no foam.
Along with this reaction to popular entertainment, do you personally see “Entertainment” as reactionary to art-house movies that might have lost their value overall?
I’m not that interested in things that are thought of as the extreme, weirdo movie. Sometimes those seem like they’re the most contrived of all, that they’re pandering to audiences that are looking for something that isn’t mainstream and making something that has its own rules and regulations, and is even more pandering sometimes than mainstream movies. I mean, I like a lot of art-house movies, but I think my favorite movies, and certainly my favorite music, are really traditional types of things as well. Like, I am a real sucker for “West Side Story” or “Rebel Without a Cause,” or whatever. So, I wouldn’t say that it was a particular dig at the art-house thing.
I was at the world premiere of “Entertainment” at Sundance 2015 and some people were walking out. Their loss—but I guess that’s going to happen with the Neil Hamburger Experience.
We lost a couple folks that night. They were such sweethearts. I think a lot of those people just ate bad food and they were running to the bathroom. Most of them. That’s what I like to think.