Comedian Gregg Turkington sits at an airport bar in Van Nuys, orders a spiced whiskey sour — the joint's too-sweet specialty cocktail — and stares out the window at the tiny commuter jets he hates. "I'm terrified of flying, like seriously freaked out," he says. "But I fly more than anyone I know."
That irony suits Turkington's more recognizable alter ego Neil Hamburger, a cretin with a battered tuxedo and wet combover who specializes in ghastly jokes. Take this one: "Why did E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial love Reese's Pieces so much? Well, because they have the same flavor that cum does on his home planet." Turkington's played the character for twenty years in thousands of stand-up shows, on two dozen records, and in every interview he's ever done. Until this past January, that is, when Rick Alverson's Entertainment, a bleached and bone-dry road movie about a traveling comic circling the Mojave desert — Turkington's first-ever lead film role — premiered at Sundance, forcing the comic to finally take off the goofy glasses and explain himself.
"I liked preserving the mystery about him," Turkington says of Hamburger. Entertainment's onscreen comedian is Hamburger, though, like Clint Eastwood in the desert, he's nameless — as well as ruthless and potentially violent. When Turkington grabs the mic, he croaks Hamburger's jokes ("Why did Madonna feed her infant baby Alpo-brand dog food? Well, she had no choice, that's just what came out of her breasts"), but Alverson convinced his lead actor to get vulnerable in the offstage scenes. We see the comedian dry his hair, soften his voice, and expose the man behind the mockery. Admits Turkington, "He's a shattered shell of a person." (Turkington himself, it must be noted, isn't. He and his gorgeous wife, Simone, who cameos in the movie, recently had their first child.)
Turkington had turned down other Neil Hamburger film ideas, which he says were pitched to him as "a Borat movie where the character would be going into a restaurant like, 'Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!' " But the real life that Turkington imagined for his bitter comic wasn't, well, funny: "He's just defeated and depressed and glum and overworked with travel and financial problems and debt and car troubles, just the weight of the world crushing down." Alverson got it, and the two men plus Tim Heidecker pounded out a script that was more Seventies existentialist road movie — think Two-Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point — than Sacha Baron Cohen.
Entertainment is a painful, poetic watch. "I like relentless, repetitious humor," says Turkington, especially when the audience isn't sure when, or if, to laugh. "Our attitude was, 'Let's fuck shit up.' " In this film, his comedian — now simply named The Comedian — is ignored, punched, and patronized in shit bars with shifty drunks, with cameos from Michael Cera, Amy Seimetz, Tye Sheridan, and a great turn by John C. Reilly as a rich, clueless cousin who tries to offer career counseling. "It's a customer service thing," Reilly's character presses in the film. "If you wanna appeal to all four quadrants, like all different age groups, semen and all that is a little bit much."
Not that Hamburger, or Turkington for that matter, has ever cared about mass appeal. That's advice for "people who want to use comedy as a stepping-stone to a Wendy's commercial," he groans. He only cares about the 1 percent of people like him who find his act hilarious. On tour with Tenacious D, stadium audiences hated his thirty-minute routine. "I would just keep barreling ahead because I'm playing to the person who's loving this surrounded by a lynch mob screaming, 'Fuck you! Die!' "
A commuter plane thumps onto the tarmac. "I have fourteen different flights ahead of me in the next three months, and it made me panic," Turkington says. He's done sixteen tours through Australia, plus frequent stints in Canada, England, Ireland. "Not a lot of places where English isn't the primary language — this stuff barely translates to Americans." Recently, his larger flights have been playing Ant-Man, in which Turkington has a bit part as a Baskin-Robbins manager. Every time he walks down the airplane aisle to the bathroom, he wonders if someone will do a double-take of recognition. So far, not yet. His Marvel-movie red-carpet experience was surreal. A professional autograph-hound trapped him with a stack of photographs. "I start writing on them, like, 'Don't buy this, contact me directly for half-price,' " Turkington says. The hustler didn't notice.
Simone bought him a flight simulator course here in Van Nuys to calm his nerves. "I really nailed it, too," he says, but like his character in Entertainment, he's still found most often on the freeway, hitting up places other comedians avoid.
"New York, I can do those shows in my sleep because I know it's a hip crowd. You go to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, you've got to win them over," Turkington says. "It just feels more like you're working. I like having shows that are disasters." He likes pulling into small towns and meeting the kids who are dying for something interesting to happen. He just gets nervous when he pulls up to, say, a diner where the marquee reads: Fried-chicken specials and Thursday-night comedy. "Any time they don't specify who the comedian is, if you're me you have to worry." Is he worried about hecklers? "Heckled? I mean, I've been attacked!"
Turkington turns to watch one last flight take off. "This is probably the CEO of Pringles potato chips," he nods. After two decades of going down his own, strange road, people still offer to get him work doing commercials. On those long nights driving from one tiny town to another, isn't he tempted? "No, no, no, I don't want to do that," Turkington insists as he downs his terrible drink. "I don't want to get on that plane."