Published on theMusic.com.au, Jul 2016
From being showered in spit in Melbourne to the star of a feature film, Gregg Turkington tells Daniel Cribbhis onstage alter ego, Neil Hamburger, has Aussie punks Frenzal Rhomb to thank for it all.
“Hello, please state your name after the tone and Google Voice will try to reach… Neil Hamburger,” says a robotic voicemail message spliced with a recording from the alter ego of Aussie-born US actor Gregg Turkington. “Jeez, maybe I should fix that, huh?” the funnyman says on the next try.
Having conceived the character in the early ‘90s through a series of prank calls and established it through years of touring, he never imagined the Neil Hamburger would be at the helm of feature film Entertainment 20 years down the track, and he’s quick to praise Aussie punk legends Frenzal Rhomb for their part in the character’s development. “Those guys started the whole Neil Hamburger live thing,” he reveals. “The first actual live Neil Hamburger show was six years after the first record at the University Of Sydney, opening for Frenzal Rhomb.
“I love those guys. I just have so many great memories of hanging out with them and I’m so grateful to them for pushing me in that direction, because I was like, ‘Well, I like Neil Hamburger as a recording project, but I don’t think I need to do it as a show,’ and they talked me into it.
“I think the second show we did on that tour was an under-18s only and those kids just soaked me in spit. It was just the nastiest response I’ve had ever, and I’ve done a couple of thousand shows since then.”
The backstory of the tormented fictitious character was never explored, which was intentional on Turkington’s behalf. “I always thought it was best to leave it to people’s imaginations to fill in the blank. So much of what Neil Hamburger brings to stage is stuff that shouldn’t be brought to stage — personal issues and depression and exhaustion.”
Although the character has a film now, there’s still plenty of mystery surrounding Neil Hamburger in Entertainment — the onstage comic in the movie isn’t actually called Neil Hamburger and the offstage comic isn’t Greg Turkington, rather unnamed (although given a few throughout, including Gene, during an awkward bathroom interaction with Michael Cera).
Many envisioned Hamburger’s life off stage to be just as funny, but that couldn’t be further from Turkington’s take. “I had been approached by people over the years who were interested in doing a Neil Hamburger movie that would be more of a comedy, and while they had some good ideas, to me the story always worked best as a drama.”
And that’s where co-writer, director and producer Rick Alverson comes into play. Turkington had worked with Alverson a few years earlier on The Comedy, along with long-time collaborator Tim Heidecker. “I just really love how he works and his vision for things and it was obvious that this was the guy and this was the direction to take this.
The Comedy challenges film conventions and the idea of what art/comedy is, which is what Turkington and Heidecker do on almost a daily basis through their comprehensive list of collaborations, including Adult Swim favourites On Cinemaand Decker. “We’ve always got a bunch of weird, half-baked projects up our sleeves,” he says on their creative relationship.
They’re producing things that they enjoy and that comes across in the final product — even if that is a little bizarre from time to time. “I don’t know if you saw The Yellow River Boys record?” he asks. “The record is called Urinal St. Station. That’s something that we wrote lyrics while cooped up in a car driving back from San Francisco one day.
“It’s basically a whole album of songs coming from the point of view of a shitty, southern rock band who is really interested in drinking their own urine and drinking other people’s urine and whose who life revolves around pissing in people’s faces and slurping up urine out of a dog bowl.”
He understands that some people won’t understand Entertainment, but it won over John C Reilly, Cera and more, both who star in the film. “I tried to watch the new Star Wars movie, and I couldn’t make head or tail out of it,” he laughs. “I really couldn’t understand what the fuck as going on, and that’s fine. They might not understand Entertainment… I fully expect we’ll get some nasty reviews on IMDB, people that say, ‘What the fuck did I just watch? This is a nightmare.’”
Regardless of how it’s received by the IMDB critics, Turkington knows there’s an audience out that that needs more of these types of films, and Entertainment was an important part in the life of Neil Hamburger. “The strange things is, when the character was first conceived back in 1993 he was actually more similar to the way the character is in the movie than the way the character has been in recent years, so it’s kind of like the whole thing has gone full circle.”