You may know Gregg Turkington by one of his alter egos, such as the combed-over comedian Neil Hamburger, or the film critic who shares Turkington’s name on the Adult Swim show On Cinema. The former is a character that Turkington has been developing for over twenty years, starting as a series of comedy albums before Turkington toured the U.S. and beyond as Hamburger, sharing this odd character’s unique brand of humour with audiences all over the world.
It’s the Hamburger character that inspired writer/ director Rick Alverson (who had worked with Turkington on The Comedy) to make Entertainment. The film examines the bottom rung of entertainers, the ones who make up the majority of the industry but perform to mostly empty rooms. Billed simply as “The Comedian”, Turkington’s central character looks and sounds like Neil Hamburger, and even tells the same jokes, but Turkington wanted there to be a distinction.
“It’s a variance of it. As Rick says, and I think this is the best way of phrasing it, he says he borrowed the character for this film. I’ve controlled everything about that character for 20 years, it would be hard to just give it all up. There’s a lot of backstory for Neil Hamburger and when we first started writing this, we would try to write things and I’d say, ‘but this contradicts the backstory from this,’ or that ‘on the second record Neil says that this is what happened.’ At some point you have to give up on all that and let the piece of art stand on its own and not be tied down to trying to be consistent with something that already exists. For that reason, it made sense just to make a variance of Neil Hamburger and I also think it’s more interesting to audiences if the film is presented as a film about a comedian rather than here’s the “Neil Hamburger Movie”, you know? If you’re not a fan or you’re not familiar with it, for me if I didn’t know a comedic character and heard there was a movie about them I would assume it was some sort of crappy promotional film, that wouldn’t interest me. I think it would diminish the film in a way if we stuck to that.”
Entertainment has been making the rounds on the Festival circuit since it premiered at Sundance last January, and recently had its international premiere in Switzerland. Even during the screening, Turkington was unsure of the Swiss reaction.
“I think there was something like 1500 or 2000 people at the premiere and I kept just seeing people streaming out the door and thinking ‘oh boy’. If we can’t win over the art film crowd in the birthplace of the art film then we’re in trouble, but then I was talking to one of the ushers, he said like 50 left and a lot more walk out at a lot of these movies. He actually told me that they had a movie there a couple days before that had 2500 people there and he said 1000 walked out within the first half hour, so I guess that’s just what they do at film festivals.”
It’s a difficult to film to pin down. It’s definitely not a comedy. The character is depressed and depressing, but there is an underlying dark humour to it all. Some familiar faces show up, such as Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, John C. Reilly, and frequent collaborator Tim Heidecker, but it doesn’t follow any genre convention, so it’s best to just go in with an open mind.
“I always prefer that everyone sees anything blind, unless you’re making excuses for why something is crappy, and then sometimes it’s good to give context, but I don’t think this is crappy so I didn’t need to do that.”
Entertainment will certainly evoke different reactions and interpretations from viewers, and Turkington enjoys reading the good, the bad, and the ugly responses.
“Straight up reviews are interesting. Sometimes people pick up on things that either you didn’t even notice about your own film or that you did and then forgot that you’d done, and that stuff is interesting. I often feel like professional writers, that’s their thing, is writing about this stuff, they’re very eloquent at it sometimes and it’s really nice to read it because to my way of thinking, everything that I have to say about the film is in the film. You spend months and months working on the thing and you’re trying to express the ideas that you have on these subjects as clearly as you can in the movie and it feels kind of crazy to me to then be put on the spot to summarize these things in one or two sentences. So that’s why I like reading reviews sometimes, because they’re coming from a different angle. Sometimes they just nail it in a really interesting way. People that just hate the thing, sometimes I don’t necessarily disagree with their point of view, just as sometimes there’s good reviews that I hate because I feel like they missed the whole point of it, or it’s just annoying somehow.”
These reviews and insights are the antithesis of the kind of movie analysis Turkington’s On Cinema character gives on a weekly basis.
“I don’t think it’s really influenced the On Cinema stuff at all, I probably get more influence for that from reading really inept illiterate amateur reviews that people post on Amazon or Internet Movie DataBase. Somebody reviews Back To The Future III and misspells 9 out of 10 words, I find those kind of reviews really interesting.”
You may have also spotted Turkington in this summer’s Ant-Man as the Baskin Robbins manager who has to fire Scott Lang for his “cool” crimes.
“Peyton Reed was so easy to work with, he wanted us to improvise that, which I did not expect from a Marvel film. They sent out the script and I learned it, but when we were actually on set, it was just like, you guys fuck around, have some fun. We had a lot of really weird takes, we went all kinds of really crazy directions that were obviously not going to end up in the movie but I think when he cut all that together it still had the vibe of what we were doing which was just improvising and having fun with it.”
If we’re lucky, we’ll get even more “Dale” in the upcoming Ant-Man Blu-ray special features.
“Man, I did this whole fucking thing after we were done shooting, one of the crew, an AD or somebody said let’s do a tour of your office. They just held a camera on me and I walked through this Baskin Robbins office and explained what every item in it was and what its history was to me as the character, it was just improvised nonsense but it came out really good. I can’t imagine that they would find that important enough to put on a Blu-ray or that anyone would want to see it but it was fun to do. Maybe it’s one of those things that you buy at Best Buy and there’s one additional disc with the real dregs, maybe it would end up on that.”
What’s on Gregg Turkington’s Dork Shelf?
“Oh my god, my shelves are bursting at the seams with bullshit. Lots and lots of records, especially with people that I really like, I’m pretty fanatical about getting original pressings and white label promos. If it’s The Beatles or The Who, I want the British mono pressings, stuff like that. I’ve got a lot of Colonel Sanders memorabilia even though I’ve been vegan for 25 years, I just really like some of the old Colonel Sanders shit like, I’ve got a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket but it’s a lamp made of glass silkscreened with the old bucket graphics on it so you can mount it to the ceiling. Frank Sinatra Jr. is my idol and I’ve got so many weird old artifacts and knickknacks and old postcards and flyers and things relating to his career. Lot of tiki stuff, like old tiki mugs. And just fukin’ billions of CDs and records and DVDs, it’s a nightmare.”