If you were to meet Australia-born, Arizona-raised musician Gregg Turkington, you'd find a somewhat shy, easygoing 47-year-old guy, the kind of person who seems more comfortable doing voiceover work for shows like Adventure Time than baiting a paying audience. But if you were to encounter his alter-ego in the indie cringe-comedy Entertainment — a sweaty, Borscht Belt-style stand-up with a penchant for phlegmy throat-clearing and telling rancid, rat-a-tat-tat one-liners like "Why did God create Domino's Pizza? To punish humanity for their complacency in letting the Holocaust happen" — you might be tempted to throw a drink at him. A patron, in fact, chucks an entire cocktail at him during one of the movie's several performance scenes. You get the sense that this is not the first time this has happened.
Identified simply as "The Comedian" in the end credits, this frazzled, drunken performer with the messily wetted-down comb-over and the disintegrating tuxedo bears a strong resemblance to Neil Hamburger, Turkington's cult anti-comic that's performed for crowds since the mid-Nineties. But as the man behind that nasal-voiced terror explains while sitting in a Westwood conference room, people should not think of this as a vehicle for his Tony Clifton-like creation. The Comedian and Neil Hamburger, he claims, are not one and the same. He understands why fans might be confused.
"It [started] with Rick saying, 'Let’s do a Neil Hamburger movie,'" he recalls, referring to Entertainment's director and co-writer Rick Alverson. Turkington had gotten offers before to design a feature around his stage character, "but everyone always saw it as something where we film a bunch of stand-up and then we go out on the road interacting with people as this character — kind of a Borat thing. I would tell them, 'That's not going to work, because I don't think that this guy is necessarily funny at all offstage. I think he's a broken shell of a man.' And that's what Rick thought, too."
This offbeat, this funny-sad movie follows the Comedian’s dreary tour of the American Southwest with a sort of deadpan sympathy. Fading into obscurity, he wanders through days filled with an endless string of dead-end gigs, unsatisfied crowds and soul-crushing boredom. It's a life-on-the-road character study in which the supposed "entertainment" is often woeful, and per the star, where the performer's "emotional state has become part of the show where it shouldn’t be." Though he’s referred to as "Neil" a couple times, Turkington, Alverson and their co-writer Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame) ultimately decided against having the film's spectacularly bitter protagonist be explicitly identified as Hamburger.
"We don't want the movie to come across as a promotional vehicle for a comedian, because then it diminishes what it is," Turkington says. "And it is different than the Neil character in a lot of ways. There's things that happen in the movie that I'm not necessarily sure I would want credited to him," alluding to some of the Comedian's crueler interactions with audience members. "It's better this way. As Rick says, he borrowed the [Hamburger] character to make this movie."
"When Rick [Alverson] and I were making this movie, the idea was essentially: Let's fuck shit up."
"The two of us have similar interests in discomfort," Alverson, 44, says in a separate phone interview. "Gregg uses it to comedic effect; I'm interested in how it animates a viewer to a dramatic effect. It seemed interesting to take almost this stereotype of an entertainer that he's perfected over 20 years and strip it of the expected comedic context — to have this guy essentially become a weird everyman that exhausts himself onstage and is neutralized to a shell offstage."
"When Rick and I were making this movie, the idea was essentially: Let's fuck shit up," Turkington claims, and cites his years living in the Bay Area and playing in avant-punk bands as being formative for the ideology behind Entertainment. "I initially got into the classic punk rock bands, and then I found Flipper — those guys didn't give a shit. They did what they were going to do, just these repetitious 15-minute songs based on this loud bass riff. The audience wanted fast punk songs to slam-dance to: 'What is this?! This isn't what we are here for!' Flipper didn’t sound like REO Speedwagon, but they had the ability to ruin these punks' nights as much REO Speedwagon could. I really, really tuned into that."
Of course, those familiar with Turkington's cracked canon cherish his talent for screwing with audiences. Whether as Hamburger or ostensibly playing himself alongside Heidecker on Adult Swim's meticulously awkward movie-review series On Cinema at the Cinema, he's focused on exploring the painfully uncomfortable moments and blank spaces in between the funny bits. But that's decidedly different than willfully torturing viewers, a charge both he and Alverson have faced in their careers. (Go back and read the reviews of the latter's 2012 cringefest The Comedy for proof.)
"I definitely like when some people don't like what I’m doing, but that's not the impetus behind it," Turkington says, practically baffled by the accusation. "It's not to make horrible things that no one likes, because that's pointless. We wanted to make a beautiful movie. If you just want to make a fuck-you movie, you just make something that's unwatchable. [In Entertainment], when things are thrown in that are fuck-yous, there's still some real care — and some real hope that this resonates with someone else.
"A movie like Two-Lane Blacktop that Rick and I both really love, this movie has barely any plot and just long, dead stretches," he continues. "But to me, it’s one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. I like that kind of humor where it’s not necessarily laugh-out-loud. It's a slow burn inside, where you're feeling kind of giddy, almost — because you think it’s so funny or interesting. It's not as simple as 'Yeah, let's throw a bunch of dirt in everyone's face — fuck the audience.' I care about the audience, I really do care about people getting a good experience.
"Most people won't like it," he concludes. "But they can go do something else."