INTERVIEW: Neil Hamburger

Published in The Music (NSW) on, Feb 2017


Receiving death threats from Britney Spears fans is all in a day’s work for Neil Hamburger, as the man behind the character, Gregg Turkington, tells Daniel Cribb.

“I’ve been shooting a couple of seasons worth of Decker: Unclassified,” Australian-born, LA-based comedian/actor Gregg Turkington begins.

The Adult Swim show follows cult favourite Tim Heidecker as a special agent, and while it might look fairly rough to someone not familiar with the pair’s work, it takes a lot to make that style of TV look natural. “The thing is, you can have something that’s just shitty, or you can carefully construct something to appear shitty… we want to have this very specific type of shittiness to it; it’s not as random as it might seem to people.”

Having two new series of Decker in the bag as well as another Heidecker/Adult Swim project, On Cinema, ready to go, “it’s the perfect time to take a trip” back to Australia for some headline gigs, returning to his beloved alter-ego Neil Hamburger, who was the subject of feature film Entertainment in 2015. “With [Neil Hamburger], I definitely like a mix of impromptu things happening and then the set of jokes I have to draw from. I mean, Jesus Christ, there’s 20 years of Neil Hamburger jokes to draw from at this point.”

The character of Neil Hamburger as it’s known today can be somewhat attributed to Aussie punk legends Frenzal Rhomb and their management, who first convinced Turkington to do stand-up with him. Given that Neil Hamburger records have been released on music label Drag City the past 20 years and that Turkington got his start as a musician — playing in bands and running a label — it’s not surprising his upcoming dates sees a return to live music venues instead of traditional comedy spaces. “I’ve always been more of a music guy than a comedy guy,” he tells. “The comedy clubs I always find pretty alienating; the buffalo chicken wings, and the nachos and the two drink minimum — the whole way that it works, it’s nothing I can relate to. The fact is, the people that go to those clubs, they don’t really like me either,” he laughs.

Luckily for Turkington, he’s noticed a shift in the scene since first starting out, with more comics taking to music venues and more punters keen to experience comedy in that environment. “I think there’s so much bad music and people are so fucking tired of these garbage bands that right now people who wanted to go to the music club to see music are kind of happier going to see comedy because music has let them down.”

Musical comedy, on the other hand, is a different story, with Turkington saying it is often going unappreciated. “I love music and comedy being mixed and I think sometimes people dismiss it more quickly than they should as novelty – they think it’s just a joke,” he tells. “But you know, comedians after often pretty serious about what they’re doing.

“The last album we did was half songs and half comedy… I thought it was pretty interesting, but I don’t know, I think I’ve talked to three people ever that have heard the album, so that makes it less interesting to do more of them.”

A few years ago Turkington was developing an idea for a concept album that would see his unique style of comedy take aim at the garbage music that’s on offer, but had the wind taken out of his sails. “There was this weird period of time where I was at war with all these Britney Spears fans on Twitter and they were just threatening death and getting really angry, and I was kind of baiting them and it was all this back and forth stuff.

“It went on for a few weeks and it was really fun and I had this idea to do this album that sort of used a bunch of different people coming in and doing the voices of people screaming at me and me doing the Neil Hamburger thing, responding to them, and working it all together into this strange concept album but the weird thing was at that time, you couldn’t have access to tweets that were past a couple of weeks old.

“I got in touch with [Twitter] and was like, ‘I need to get a transcript of these battles,’ and they said, ‘Sorry, we can’t release that stuff to you.’ If I’ve got a bee in my bonnet I’d be into making another album.”