We chat with Gregg Turkington about bringing Neil Hamburger to life
Neil Hamburger is a difficult act to visualise. He's crass, angry, uncomfortable, and – in his own way - a hilariously important figure.
As the wonderfully tragic creation of alternative comedian Gregg Turkington, Hamburger's an unshakable satirical mirror that reflects the social intricacy and ego that comes with the world of entertainment. Turkington has been playing Hamburger for over 25 years, and has witnessed an interesting evolution to the self-proclaimed "America's Funnyman."
"I think with all of these things, I have a point of view that I'm putting out there," Turkington says. "I don't think that it always has to be expressed directly. It's more a question of getting the character into your head so much that when you're answering, you're converting your own opinion as expressed through this character. I don't tend to want to say a lot of things that don't mean anything. There's always some thought behind these jokes and these sorts of characters. Hopefully it's intuitive, the way it comes out. On the one hand, I would say that if you're hanging out with Neil Hamburger, it wouldn't be in any way like hanging out with me – but at the same time, I don't know that Neil Hamburger is saying a lot of things that I actually disagree with."
Hamburger, in a nutshell, is a hack – an unlikable anti-comedian who tells groanworthy puns and insulting observations. He's human, however, and Turkington masterfully crafts natural cracks in Hamburger's facade to illustrate the man's desperate desires for success and adoration. Turkington recently explored his complexity in 2015's Entertainment, a film about a variant of Hamburger directed by Rick Alverson (of The Comedy).
"I always thought that it was best left to the imagination what Neil Hamburger was doing when he wasn't performing," Turkington says. "I might talk about it, but I never wanted to film it or show it on video – you never saw me out of the costume. To do a movie, of course, you can't do that. You have to delve into the thing a little more, so it was important that we were on the same page.
“I was used to doing things my way and controlling the lack of information coming out about Neil's off-stage life, and Rick wanted to show Neil's off-stage life and tell that story. We had lots of discussions and some disagreements, but we hammered it out over a long period of time, so that by the time we started filming, we were totally on the same page as what the character in the movie was going to be about. In the end, it was kind of liberating to not actually use the phrase "Neil Hamburger" in the movie, and let it be a variation on the character. That way, I wasn't clinging to some of the mythology that I'd built up about it, and go with where the movie took us."
With the importance of vision and an artistic understanding (referring to Alverson as "a genius"), Turkington recognised immediately the importance of translating the spontaneity and social commentary from live performance to the screen. It's this creative freedom that he relishes in his various projects, including satirical film review show On Cinema (with Tim Heidecker), action spin-off Decker and a memorable ad-libbed cameo in Ant Man ("It blew my mind," he says, explaining that he was called in purely because there were various fans working on the film).
"A lot of it comes from having a personal comfort level," Turkington says. "People that are your friends, that you're relaxed with and especially that you share the same sense of humour. That's really a lot of it.
“I know with Tim and I, we're sitting around trying to make each other laugh. If it's working, then we know we've got something. It doesn't feel like work, although we do work hard. We shot two seasons of Decker and one season of On Cinema over the last few months. It was a lot of work – 12 hour days, writing stuff, pre-production and then shooting – but it was fun, every step of the way. I think if you've got people where you're squabbling and arguing, and a lot of that shit going on – in my experience, that's going to be the kind of thing where nothing comes out of it.
"It's like anything – you're just going to get better the more you do it," Turkington continues. "Nobody's going to put on a good show the first time they set foot on stage doing comedy. It's not possible – and if they did put on a good show, in five years from then, they'll be putting on a great show. You've got to do stuff and see what works. Do as much as you can, stay busy. Be open to trying different things and hitting things from different angles. Really be committed to the art. If your commitment is to having a career, then I think you're fucked. You're barking up the wrong tree. When you get the art down – when you're actually doing worthwhile art that actually means something to people, and to you – then I think the audiences will follow."
By Jacob Colliver
Neil Hamburger will perform at Northcote Social Club on Thursday February 16 with Dr. Elsuavo and Daniel Tucceri.