The comedian at the center of the new film Entertainment takes the stage of a prison in a cheap, ill-fitting tuxedo and oversized glasses. He has an oily, stringy comb over that reveals more than it conceals. He’s clutching three water bottles under his arm and his grating, high-pitched squeal of a voice repeating the word “Wuuhhyyyy???” does not make his act any more endearing, let alone “entertaining”. Thankfully, his offensive, vulgar joke about the difference between Courtney Love and The American Flag (you wouldn’t urinate on the flag, he says) kills.
Those in the know of anti-comedy on the par of Tim and Eric will recognize this comedian as Neil Hamburger. But Rick Alverson’s new film Entertainment, opening today in theaters and on VOD, stands apart from the cult cred Hamburger brings with him. It’s not a documentary or a behind-the-scenes look and doesn’t require a prior knowledge of his act. It’s a character study on its own terms. And though Hamburger, never named in the film, is indirectly the subject, Alverson’s film pulls back the layers of this character to reveal the depressed, taciturn and lonely man few see off stage. The film is called Entertainment, but like Hamburger’s act, it challenges the notion of what that word means with an uncomfortable, bleak and even surreal portrait of failed ambition.
“We’re taught to read things for their content and dismiss and ignore the form of things. But there is an event that’s occurring that embraces the form of it,” Alverson said in a phone interview. “So the experience of watching our movie Entertainment can be a disruptive, depressing or activating in uncomfortable ways that might make you restless, and that is the design. I believe that’s constructive.”
The film follows the nameless “The Comedian” both on stage and off, enduring hecklers during his act and putting on a different act to endure the hapless advice of his cousin (John C. Reilly). Increasingly the film veers from the naturalistic quality of performing to more abstract ways of illustrating the character’s depression, employing Kubrickian wide shots and nightmarish set pieces that echo what the comedian speaks about on stage.
Gregg Turkington portrays Hamburger in real life but pulls off the dual performance in Entertainment of giving his long-running character a fictional twist and imagining a new off-stage life. In a phone interview, Turkington spoke about why the comedian in Entertainment is really more a variation on Neil Hamburger.
“It was strange after so many years of not presenting the off-stage Neil. Certain aspects of his life were always referred to but never actually portrayed,” Turkington said. “There’s a whole backstory on Neil Hamburger that’s been told on albums over 20 years, and it’s important not to have to stick to those details to take things in whatever direction we needed.”
Turkington, a proud vegetarian and plenty funny even out of character, says this is definitely a work of fiction, and that he’s far more well-adjusted than the character portrayed in Alverson’s film. But there are some biographical elements that made it into the movie’s on and off stage moments. One comedian in the film has a conversation with Turkington, only to then go on stage and tell the same story.
“That’s actually happened to me many times. It’s really annoying, because you feel like you’re having an interesting talk with a fellow human being and they’re just testing their material on you,” Turkington said.
Turkington also has had to deal with his share of abuse at the hands of hecklers, everything from people storming out to hurling drinks because they didn’t understand the nature of Hamburger’s character.
“Pretty much any bad thing that can happen as a result of doing these shows has happened to me because of doing so many of them in so many different environments,” Turkington said. “I’d hate to have to go out there and answer for some of the behavior the guy does in this movie.”
Alverson says he wanted to be “uncompromising” in his portrayal of the character, and though they borrow Neil Hamburger’s stage persona, “there’s something else entirely there.”
“I’m not interested in making promotional comedies for anyone’s character. I’m not even interested in comedy,” Alverson said.
In his last film The Comedy, in which Turkington also appeared, Alverson similarly deconstructed the persona of another comedian, Tim Heidecker, by turning his anti-comedy and behavior into an abrasive, depressive personality. But his work isn’t strictly limited to comedians.
“I’m interested in working obliquely with performers, whether they’re musicians or comedians in a dramatic context. But it’s very different than working with seasoned actors,” Alverson said. “[Turkington’s] interest in repetition and subversion of expectations to a comedic effect is similar to my interest in a dramatic world. I was watching a show of his and realized that we have similar likes and discontents, so it made sense to have a partnership.”
Entertainment remains a radical departure from the character that helped Turkington make his career, and while he’s not sure what’s next for Neil Hamburger, he admits it’s a relief to take off the glasses and tuxedo for the first time in two decades of performing.
“That was my rule for the last 20 years. I’m not talking about this stuff. You can figure it out for yourself,” Turkington said. “But it just seemed like it was time, the time for me to open the curtain or whatever they do in The Wizard of Oz and tell the truth, so here we are.”