Let’s start with a fact: Gregg Turkington, on the whole, does not enjoy doing interviews. There are innumerable reasons for his position on talking to the press, but it boils down to transparency. In elaborately creating Neil Hamburger — the fictitious stand-up comedian who delivers alternately insufferable and ingenious jokes — Turkington wishes to keep the mystery intact. Fair enough. However, in talking with Turkington about Entertainment, his first feature film, he was open about his upbringing and where his head was at while creating this abrasive, sonically assaultive comedian. There’s no clear explanation for who or what Hamburger is, and there probably never will be. That said, what follows is a candid conversation with the man as he touches on everything from “dark periods” in his life to how much he hates the Star Wars franchise. – Sam Fragoso, Director of Programming
Are you going to be doing this interview in character?
I do them all as Gregg now. I used to do them in character, but when the movie came out, it was problematic to be promoting as Neil Hamburger, in character, since the character in the movie isn’t even exactly Neil Hamburger, you know what I mean? When I was just doing the live shows, I would do things in character, and really, that’s what I would have preferred. I was never really so hot on talking about this stuff. But, you know, it’s pretty exciting to have a feature film out. It’s worth making adjustments.
Do you think making those adjustments compromises the artistic integrity of things you’ve done in the past?
That’s what I always felt, but since I started doing this, it’s actually been fine. I thought it would be more problematic than it turned out to be. And it’s just what people are interested in — they were never able to get any information about this. And I liked that. I didn’t feel like they were entitled to that information, but they seem to enjoy it, and it doesn’t seem to have diminished things like I thought it might. It’s been okay. Part of it has been that I don’t read any of the interviews that I do, because I think if I did read them, I might feel horrible about having done any interviews out of character.
“Entitled” is an interesting thing, because we do live in an age where privacy is nonexistent, and everyone seems to think that they are entitled to know everything about the people and things they like.
I think it’s horrible, because when I was a kid, the stuff that I would be interested in, I would go down to the library and go through microfiche and really spend a lot of time finding out every little piece of information, and there were so many things that interested me that were so mysterious. With no Internet back in the day, you really did have to pore through old magazine issues, do all kinds of the weird independent research to find stuff. And now, people are like, Oh, this really obscure thing is good. One click on the computer, and they download this person’s entire back catalog. Some director made a movie that would have normally taken you 15 years to be able to see, and now it takes you 15 seconds.
I subscribe to the theory that nothing of value ever comes easy, and yet most films can be found on Netflix or Amazon Prime, which takes no effort.
I’m not saying it should be more impossible, but I think sometimes people don’t have as much commitment to things. Like something that you’ve tracked down for 15 years, you’re probably really going to pay attention to it now that you’ve found it; whereas, in just 15 seconds downloading it, after having heard about it, you’re more likely to watch 10 minutes of it and turn it off. It’s definitely that way with music. I remember buying records I didn’t like, but listening to them 15 times trying to get into it, trying to figure out what’s going on there. And now, people delete mp3s in five seconds if it doesn’t grab them. I enjoyed that kind of mystery that I was trying to solve, and I enjoyed that process of trying to figure out where these people were coming from with the art they were making, and sometimes never really understanding it. And so, for me, it’s almost disappointing reading interviews with people where they explain away what they were doing, because I let people interpret things their own way and not having it fed to them.
That’s true. So let’s not explain away. You were born in Australia?
Yes, I was.
Tell me about that.
Well, my parents, they grew up in Los Angeles and they got married in Kentucky and they decided to travel around the world, and they got on a freighter ship that had a few rooms available, and took that to Australia, and got there and decided to stay a few months. And then they ended up eventually moving out to the outback, out to the northern territory of Australia, towards Darwin and settling down there. They were living in essentially what they call a caravan park there, which is what we could call a trailer park. But they were living in a tiny shack in the middle of the outback, where it was super-humid and hot, and they just ended up staying there. After a few months of trying to deal with an infant in a shack, with no air conditioning or running water, my mother just said, Fuck this, let’s get the hell out of here. So they came back to America.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in LA and San Francisco and Phoenix.
LA remains a mystery to me.
I probably spent more of my childhood in the Phoenix area, but I did live here for several years as a kid. I feel most at home here [LA]. It’s a really misunderstood town. Where I live, I can walk everywhere. I got a couple movie theaters, restaurants, health food stores, all kinds of things. I can walk to Griffiths Park. It’s a wilderness; we got coyotes, deer, and skunks and things flocking down on our driveway.
Coyotes are a selling point?
[Laughs] No, I’m just trying to tell you that I think people say that LA is just a bunch of traffic and a bunch of Paris Hilton-type people, and these are things that I’m not really dealing with here. And it’s a big-enough place with so many different areas to it that I think especially people that visit a couple times and stay in a shitty place like near the Sunset Strip, like Hollywood or West Hollywood, places I try to avoid, it might seem like an unlivable hell hole.
I know that Neil Hamburger originated in LA, but when?
Well, it started as a character on a prank phone-call record in 1992.
And you were 25 then?
Something like that. But it didn’t start as a live character. There were several albums out. It was a recording project, essentially, and actually, Trey Spruance, from Secret Chiefs 3, worked with me on those early records, because they were all studio things. And, you know, it took till 1999 before I decided to do it as a live show, and that was something I was reluctant to do, because I liked it as a recording project, and I liked controlling the audience response on the record. I just thought live would be a whole other receptive crowd, rather than the fictionalized disaster crowds that we had on the records.
What brought you to that point in the early ’90s, when you were creating that character?
The thing with it is, it was never something where I sat down and said, All right, so this is the character, and these are his traits, and this is the backstory.
Were you interested in doing characters for comedy in high school?
I was interested in doing characters and things right after high school, when I moved to San Francisco. When I was living in San Francisco and I was in bands around town…a lot of them were bands where they were character-based, almost conceptual-type projects that involved characters. When I did these things, I didn’t sit down and sketch it out and write it like that. It was more like, “This would be funny.” And then each time you do it, the more details come out, and you improvise the specifics of the character through performances. Like with the Neil Hamburger character: I’ve been doing that for so many years, and there are things that have changed. If you look back at the record Great Phone Calls Featuring Neil Hamburger from 1993, it’s really different from one from 2013. It’s more an intuitive process, and naturally mutates based on things I’m interested in or offended by, or that I would relate to at any given point in time, and how those things end up incorporated into the character as you go along—which is true of anything, really. A Pink Floyd record form 1967 bears no resemblance from one the early ’80s, but it wasn’t like the whole thing was by design. That’s how I feel with this. There were lots that came out during a show—something came out of my mouth, and it was perfect for this character, and then it would be added.
Would you say there is a through line of self-loathing in this character?
Yeah, I think the character definitely has self-loathing.
Is that a reflection of how you’ve felt throughout building this character?
I’m not really a self-loathing person, but I mean, we’ve all had real black periods in our lives that were wretched, where there was a lot of self-loathing, and there was bleak, black depression. Those kinds of periods of your life make a real impression, and you do everything you can to avoid going through a period like that in your life again. I would say, any kind of darkness to the character probably came from some personal experience. It’s not especially like the movie Entertainment. The off-stage comedian is not really what I’m like.
Given our past dialogue, that doesn’t surprise me. You seem calm. But in the beginning of all this, was the character born after one of those dark periods?
I mean, what does Marvin Gaye say? “We’re all sensitive people.” I’m sensitive to a lot of different things, and I’ve definitely had bleak periods of my life. A lot of times, art has to do with that. One of my idols is Leonard Cohen. Flipper was something that was a big part of my life. These are artists that deal with dark days and pessimism, things I’ve always been interested in — failure and disintegration. When great bands or great artists make really horrible records, I seek those records out. I’m like, Wow, what happened? Who sold out really hard? It’s unfathomable to me how some of these people can go so off course, and that’s always interesting to me. And maybe it’s not the most positive type of interest.
You’re someone who enjoys the autopsy.
It’s funny you should say that, because I have a game that I play on tour with whomever is opening for me (and is unfortunate enough to be in the car for one of these trips) called “Album Autopsy,” where you go out to a record store and find an album by a group that everyone knows, but it’s an album that nobody knows, that has no hits on it because it’s really late in the game. These tend to be best when they’re late-’80s, early-’90s by groups that had hits in the ’60s or ’70s. Or even, you get the eighth album by Huey Lewis and the News, whatever. Or a Bob Seeger album from 1998, stuff like that. And then you just listen to it over and over and over again. And the first time, you’re just appalled. Why would these guys do this? This doesn’t sound like something anyone would want. These songs are terrible, and it sounds like they’ve got these gaited drums, not this slick ’80s shit, and it doesn’t sound anything like this band everyone knows and loves. And then you listen to it a second time and start to find a couple songs catchy, even though you find them loathsome. And then by the fifth or sixth time, suddenly you’re actually in the mindset of the people that made the record and understanding how they felt that this was a worthwhile part of their catalogue. It’s kind of like Stockholm syndrome, where you repeat these horrible records over and over until you can understand what the mood might have been like when they were making them. You can really tap into what they were doing.
Except, unlike Stockholm Syndrome, you’re choosing to endure these albums. It’s almost masochistic.
Where do you think that interest in failure comes from?
I’m interested, especially in music, just in honest expression, and sometimes people’s worst stuff can actually be a great representation of what they’re really all about. There’s a lot to be learned from it when you get past the “is this good or is this bad?” It’s the same reason people like The Room, the Tommy Wiseau film. On the one hand, you can say, This is terrible. But on the other hand, I’ve watched it 25 times, and it’s very watchable and very interesting, and every time I watch it, I finish it thinking about all of these different issues, and it’s really engaging. So I would say, it’s not bad. I would say what is bad is The Phantom Menace. Seriously, you can’t get through a film like that. Honestly, I don’t really care for any of those movies. To me they’re super boring.
All of Star Wars?
Yeah, I don’t like those films; they’re just not my thing. I just prefer some sort of personal expression, whether or not it completely succeeds or not. You’re trying to understand what someone’s trying to do, and it’s just more interesting to me than a bunch of CGI. Just succeeding in this kind of bland entertainment, that’s harmless enough, but it’s not really compelling, to me.
You’re allowed to have an opinion!
I get that most people would watch Entertainment and hate it and sit there seething, but that’s how I would feel if I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I would be more enraged sitting there than they would be sitting watching my film—but the thing is, there would be more people that would be happy with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So I think they should just deal with it, because I’m dealing with it all the time. I mean, the majority of movies that I see would probably put me in a pretty bad mood—and then people see this and say, That put me in a bad mood, how dare you! Because they could probably sit and watch a 100 movies and enjoy 95 of them.
You’re making everyone else suffer the way sometimes you suffer.
Well, I’m not trying to make them suffer; I’m trying to make [something for] the people that might enjoy things the way I enjoy them, and provide some entertainment to them. They’re in the minority and might not be catered for as much, so it’s more exciting for them. And I don’t know who those people are. It’s not a snobbery thing, where I’m like, People into good movies like this and people into bad movies like that. It’s more just a peculiar taste thing, where you might find something like this interesting. I certainly get a lot of feedback from people that say, Where’s the plot, asshole?
Has anyone come up to you in person after the movie and said that?
When people are criticizing stuff, they’ve got the shadows of the internet to do it, so they’re probably less likely to say something to your face, but more likely to get on their stinking computer, as Frank Sinatra Jr. calls them, and complain to you that way. I didn’t complain to George Lucas when I went to see The Phantom Menace. I didn’t write him a letter. But, you know, they will write letters to me, and that’s fine.
If you saw Lucas after your screening just in line to buy some popcorn, would you approach him?
No. I accept that there are certain kinds of meals that you get that you don’t like, but the restaurant is still in business. I certainly would as Neil Hamburger. As the character, it’s a great opportunity to be able to complain about things I dislike. But generally, if I go to see a movie and I don’t like it, I’m just going to leave before it’s over. I’ve ordered a meal before and had a couple bites from it and put down the money, and walked out. Better than keep eating it.
So is Neil Hamburger your way of being maybe your angrier self?
No, but it’s certainly been healthy to have an outlet to express yourself. There are things that are offensive in this day and age—when you’re looking at music and some of these other things, it feels like an assault, and it’s nice to be able to respond to those publicly. I go into Albertsons, or Bonds, or Safeway, or one of these stores and this fucking music is blaring when I’m just trying to buy some groceries.
Just shitty, horrible music. Maroon 5 or something is playing. And it’s like, I really don’t like this, and I bet you most people in the store really don’t like this, but the people that do like it control the airwaves, and there it is for you to listen to, whether you want to or not. And then you go and try to pump gas at Arco, and they have a screen there running clips from Jimmy Fallon.
I was just about to mention that!
Yeah! I didn’t ask for this. I’m just pumping gas; I do not need my mind to be distracted with shitty entertainment every second of the day. Just let me spend the one minute pumping gas without having to watch one of these fucking clips. If I wanted to see these fucking clips, I’d tune in. It’s an attack on your ability to just live your life. When you’re standing outside of the gas station, fucking music blaring from the speakers, they’ve got the things on the TV screens, and when you go in, there’s more of it—just a nonstop barrage of this shit. And it’s nice to have a character to address some of this stuff—some of this stuff that annoys you the most, that feels like a plague right in your heart. It’s nice to go up and make a mean joke about some of this stuff and try to even things out a little bit.
Is life just an attack on you?
Nah. Getting gas is at Arco, at least. And I think Chevron is getting into it, too. You have to create your own world and surround yourself with the stuff you like and the people that you care about and find interesting. You don’t want to go down the road hating this stuff all the time, which is why it’s nice to have the character, maybe, as a way to get all that out in one good burst. Kind of like throwing up a bad meal.
Note: This interview was published in conjunction with our two-night only event for ENTERTAINMENT, Gregg Turkington, and Secret Chiefs 3. Event details here.