It was sometime in 2005, I believe, when Neil Hamburger shuffled onto Jimmy Kimmel Live! in his trademark tux and grease-slick combover and within seconds vaporized the crowd’s goodwill. “George Bush,” he began in his nasally squawk, “is the worst president this country has ever had.” The audience erupted in applause. “Which is weird,” he continued, “because his son is the best president this country has ever had”—at which point the room was summarily deafened by boos. To alienate millions of late-night TV viewers with your opening bit: can you imagine more astonishing gall? Neil Hamburger’s standup routine, which he’s been performing in clubs and on national television for nearly twenty years, is often called “anti-comedy.” But let’s be clear: this Bush joke is very, very funny. And Neil Hamburger is plainly hilarious.
“Neil Hamburger” is a stage name, obviously, and a great deal of the schtick is the character. The shoddy tux and bad hair are part of it; so is the cartoonish voice, the throat-clearing cough and the trio of gin and tonics tucked sloshing in his arm. Part of what’s off-putting about his routine is the clash of seemingly incongruous styles: the setups are deliberately old-fashioned, and the delivery almost vaudevillian, but the punchlines veer sharply, even shockingly, into tastelessness and vulgarity. Seeing Neil Hamburger perform can be rather… intense. Sometimes, yes, the jokes are funny to some degree because they aren’t. Other times they’re funny because they’re so imaginatively crude and outlandish that you almost can’t believe what you’re hearing. It’s like watching a standup act and its own deconstruction simultaneously.
That may be what inspired Rick Alverson to make a movie about him. Comedy has scarcely been deconstructed as methodically as it was in Alverson’s previous feature, tellingly called, indeed, The Comedy. That film starred Tim Heidecker as a despondent trust-fund provocateur, eyes permanently glazed over as he potters around agitating anyone who will listen. It was a film of ferocity: anything remotely earnest withered before its scathingly ironical glare. Not without good cause, of course. Popular culture is infested by the infantile and inane, and it can sometimes seem difficult, if not impossible, to engage with anything seriously or meaningfully—the shroud of idiocy that surrounds it all is too thick to pierce. In response, it seemed to me, The Comedy spat back bile. It couldn’t apprehend a way of dealing with the world except in a state of righteous fury.
The Comedy was a difficult film, to be sure. It was abrasive, grating—but also rewarding. And I think given the state of things that spasm of indignance was important. Because it starred Heidecker alongside Eric Wareheim, his familiar collaborator, people were quick to identify The Comedy as part of a trend that Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! helped popularize: a kind of post-Dadaist comedy of alienation that includes everything from Too Many Cooks to The Onion’s Buzzfeed-skewering spinoff Clickhole. It also includes Neil Hamburger. Perhaps unsurprising, then, that Hamburger is the hero of Alverson’s latest film, Entertainment. I say “hero,” not star, because in the film he remains a fiction—the stage persona, in the film as in real life, of touring comic, musician and occasional actor Gregg Turkington, who here plays what I can only assume is a very thinly veiled version of himself as he makes his way along a meager standup circuit in the south of California.
One of Entertainment’s first projects is to introduce Turkington’s act and then to swiftly break it down. We see him performing his routine—precisely the same one he performs for real—before a vast sea of orange jumpsuits, the attentive inmates of a prison. Anyone walking into the film unfamiliar with Hamburger’s act will get the picture soon enough: his first joke extols the virtues of urinating on Courtney Love, while another explains why rapists avoid eating at T.G.I. Fridays (“It’s hard to go out and rape when you have a stomach ache,” naturally). Alverson also shows us Turkington getting into and out of character, spraying down his hair and adjusting his tuxedo backstage. It’s our first glimpse of what will emerge as a key theme: that comedy, indeed all entertainment, is the product of a tremendous amount of work. And no matter what we see on stage there’s always more that goes unseen.
Well, the convicts, for their part, seem very much amused. And, not insignificantly, they’ll afford Hamburger virtually the only laughs heard throughout his dozen-venue tour. As an increasingly disconsolate Turkington marches dutifully from one divey comedy club to another, barrelling through his act as variously indifferent and hostile audiences endure the show in often baffled silence, you begin to wonder how any man, however devoted to his vocation, could suffer through the torment night after night without complaint. How heavily does the contempt of an audience weigh? Who could possibly bear it, and more importantly, why would they want to? (Of course, having seen him perform before large and very enthusiastic crowds on a number of occasions, I recognize that this aspect of the film is at least partly untrue: doubtless Hamburger has faced down an apathetic house or two in his travels, but the man does have his fans.)
Alverson is quick to emphasize a division between Gregg Turkington the soft-spoken, hollowed-out standup professional and Neil Hamburger the obnoxious, acerbic man who takes the stage. As he drifts across the Mojave Desert with dead eyes and no direction, Turkington seems a figure of deep, even moving pathos, and it’s easy to feel for him. If he were a novelist or a playwright, say, he’d be the classic Tortured Artist, suffering indignities as a byproduct of his genius. But as it stands he’s a comedian of breathtaking crassness. Indeed, what may be his purist creative expression arrives toward the film’s end, in the middle of his most dreadful gig: picking up an errant sports trophy lining one of the dive bar’s walls, Hamburger points it at his scattered and unresponsive crowd and begins making machine-gun noises into the microphone with his mouth, which soon devolves into a five-minute parody of virtuoso flatulence. It’s a grand gesture of pained resignation—glorious fuck-you to the inanity of everything.
Entertainment doesn’t quite so far as to suggest that Neil Hamburger is some kind of embodied alter ego—we’re a far cry from the clean delineations of something like Birdman—but he is perhaps an outlet for Turkington’s grievances, if not quite a manifestation of them. (I’m sure Alverson is well aware of the history of the clown and the tradition of privately tragic figures playing them: in his conception Neil Hamburger is practically Pagliacci.) Like The Comedy, the film suggests a possible (if grim) response to a popular culture besieged by stupidity, all others having been exhausted (and thus reduced to cliche) or commandeered (by a commercialism poised to co-opt any form of resistance). But where The Comedy seemed aggrieved, even bilious, Entertainment strikes me as more weary, as if finally resigned.
Alverson’s methods here aren’t so different from the ones he made use of before, but his style has been refined and streamlined, pared down considerably. As a result less happens in Entertainment; it may therefore qualify as more repetitive. The major distinction has to do with sympathy. The Comedy was confrontational by design, and its hero, more or less just a cipher of purposeless cruelty, was more like a force to be exerted on others than a full fledged character with whom we could plausibly emphatize. Turkington, on the other hand, is a person—a real person, too, but more importantly a person in the context of the movie’s fiction. The movie boasts things like emotional richness and psychological shading. You believe in this guy. And you feel for him.