On at least a surface level, it seems counter-intuitive to claim that celebrated stand-up Gregg Turkington is on the cutting edge of anything.
After all, his primary comedic creation – a sweaty, snivelling lout named Neil Hamburger – is deliberately retrograde. The joy of a Hamburger set stems from how distinctly out of fashion Turkington’s brand of comedy is – how awkward, difficult and discombobulated.
And yet it is precisely in that impracticality that Turkington’s comedy can be seen as truly revolutionary. Turkington has not only avoided following the crowd, he has spent the majority of his career determinedly walking in the other direction, starring in strange, blackly comic films and fashioning his own belch-heavy, brutal brand of stand-up.
For example, while other comics spend a good portion of their set trying to warm the audience up, Turkington works hard to keep things as cold as three-day-old leftovers. He freewheels, poking fun at his crowd and improvising great swathes of his set. “At this point, it’s all intuition gleaned from years on the stage,” he says of his formless style. “I do like to have my preferred music playing over the club PA prior to taking the stage. It puts me in the right frame of mind.”
Of course, relying on audience reaction as he does, Turkington is always at risk of encountering that member of the crowd unwilling to play along. But that, he stresses, is all part of the fun. “I just roll the dice. Sometimes I get someone who is sour and surly and needs a reminder that they are free to leave, other times it’s someone fresh-faced and enthusiastic who looks like they might be willing to play along with a gag.” Has he ever had someone take umbrage with being thrown into the spotlight, though? “Oh geez, it’s happened at least as often as I’ve had a bartender make me a drink with flat tonic water.”
Turkington, who is set to tour Australia this month, has strong ties to our fair land – not least of all because this was his first home. Though raised in Arizona, he was born in Darwin, and maintains a healthy relationship with the country thanks to his strong working relationship with a number of Australian bands, chief amongst them Frenzal Rhomb, a group he has opened for a number of times.
“Those guys and their managers Chris and Dianne actually hunted me down and brought me out to Australia to tour with them in 1999. They knew the records … At this point they are some of my oldest friends in the business and it is always a thrill to spend some time together.”
Aside from garnering a reputation as an anti-comedy hero, Turkington is also well-known for showing off his talents on screen. To date, he has starred in two films directed by Rick Alverson, an odd indie auteur with whom he shares the same off-centre sense of humour. The most recent, Entertainment, centres entirely around the off-stage life of Turkington’s Hamburger character, and in its own louty, amusingly unfunny way, it reaches great heights of lo-fi genius.
“I created the character and was on screen almost every second of the movie,” Turkington says. “The actual dialogue was ad-libbed based on long discussions [Alverson and] me had beforehand, and I had complete and total trust in Rick’s instincts.
“He never panders or compromises his vision. Which, if it was a shitty vision, would be a problem! But in fact it aligns with my own very perfectly. And he’s a very sweet guy with a complicated sense of humour.”
Neil Hamburger is joined by Dr El Suavo and Orbis Tertius for his gig at Manning Bar on Wednesday February 8.