By Dov Kornits

“There was a blackout here in LA,” Gregg Turkington explains on the line from The City of Angels. “I’m sitting in pitch blackness and running this zoom audio meeting with a small battery and some wires and scotch tape…

“If I do video interviews, I end up being a little more, I don’t know, reserved is maybe the nice way to put it. I just find it’s a different vibe and I don’t talk as freely, so I’ve just stopped doing ‘em.”

One thing you certainly don’t want Gregg Turkington to be is reserved. A comedian best known for both his uncanny ability to improvise and the unusual rhythms of his very distinct brand of humour, the idiosyncratic personality of the man also known as Neil Hamburger is very much in evidence during our chat about his new film Fremont. But when you talk to Gregg Turkington, you can’t just talk about one thing: this is a true renaissance man. After making his start in the world of entertainment as the editor of a punk fanzine, and then a musician, Turkington eventually found his greatest success in the comedy field. With the ingenious creation of Neil Hamburger – a shambolic mess of a comedian whose timing is constantly off, and whose jokes land in the most bizarre of ways – Turkington crafted something profoundly memorable and individualistic. He toured the world with the character, but always had a special connection with Australia, the country where he was actually born.

“I was born in Darwin,” explains Turkington, who has also worked as a journalist and as the tour manager for cult heroes Mr. Bungle and Link Wray. “My parents were from Los Angeles. They got married and went on a round-the-world honeymoon. They took a ship to Australia and they liked it, so they just stayed put for a few years, and I was born. And then, when the lack of electricity and running water and the invasion of frogs and snakes and spiders into their tiny little concrete flat got to be too much for my mom, they fled. But I did end up marrying a gal from Melbourne in 2001. I go back there every year without fail for a month or so. At one stage, we were living there for about five years too. I’m back pretty often. I love it there. I’ve been back to Darwin a couple of times too, and it definitely feels remote. It’s a very unique place. I really like it. I want to get back there and take my kid to see it.”

As well as standup comedy, Turkington has also appeared in a number of films (including the likes of Marvel’s Ant-Man, and a cameo in Tenacious D In The Pick of Destiny) and TV shows, and also co-wrote and starred in 2015’s Entertainment, in which the Neil Hamburger character is placed in both the middle of The Mojave Desert and a domestic crisis. An underrated gem, it’s the perfect distillation of Gregg Turkington’s uncomfortable comedic style, which was also showcased in the comedy series On Cinema At The Cinema, in which he deftly essays a lame but apparently expert film critic who appears to know very little about film, while also displaying truly questionable taste levels. Though originally distributed by Adult Swim, the show has now reverted back to Turkington and co-creator Tim Heidecker, of Tim & Eric fame. “The guy that ran Adult Swim retired, and they got rid of all of their web and streaming content,” Turkington explains, “so we went out on our own with it in our own subscription model, with the HEI network. We produce two seasons a year plus an Oscars special, plus miscellaneous programming during the year. It’s worked out really well. We’ve got lots of subscribers that pay the bills and that are passionate about it, and it’s great because now we can make the whole thing on our schedule and we can provide extraneous content and the whole thing. It’s worked out great for us.”

Gregg Turkington as Neil Hamburger

Thankfully, Gregg Turkington has also found the time to appear in Babak Jalali’s comedy drama Fremont, playing the scene-stealing Dr. Anthony, a very unusual therapist. Turkington provides superb back-up to first-time actress Anaita Wali Zada, who plays an Afghan refugee struggling to fit into American society, and gives a truly compelling performance.

So, what would Gregg, from On Cinema At The Cinema make of Fremont? Have you done an episode about that?

“No, you’ve got to not cross your streams, as they say. I’m assuming it would be another five bag of popcorn rating.”

And an Oscar nomination for a supporting role.

“Yeah, definitely.”

How did you get the role in Fremont?

“I got an email from George Rush, who was a producer on my film Entertainment. He sent me the script, which he loved. I’m not always looking for acting work, but if something is really special that I think I can contribute to, I’ll do it. At first, I thought I’d be out of my league with this, but the more I read it, and the more I thought about it, I realised it was a really special piece of work. I had a long conversation with the director, Babak Jalali, and I gave him my reservations about whether or not I was qualified to do this. He was a big fan of Neil Hamburger and On Cinema, and that is precisely why he did ask George to reach out to me. He knew what I did, and he thought it would work for this character. So, with that confidence, it made it easier for me to say yes. And it’s nice to have a challenge too, because it wasn’t like the usual sort of thing I do. So that’s exciting. You definitely get some adrenaline going when you’re out of your normal element.”

Gregg Turkington in Fremont

Were you allowed to improvise and bring yourself into the role?

“I counted 25 pages of dialogue, and memorising huge amounts of dialogue is not really my forte. I usually work best when I get into the mindset of the character and then improvise the dialogue. That’s how I work. It’s not for everyone, but that works for me. That’s why Babak wanted me and he wanted me to make this stuff my own. But when we started shooting, it was obvious right away that because Anaita was new to the English language and new to acting, that me just improvising and going off in different directions would throw her off. She needed to be grounded because she had studied the script and learned the script. I had to change gears on the spot, and it was mostly sticking to the script. If I did improvise, it would almost have to be in the middle of the scenes as long as it started the same way as Anaita read it so that she had the cue, and it ended the same way. But in the middle, I could play with it a little bit.”

How did this experience compare to your past more improvised work, particularly on Entertainment, which you wrote and starred in?

“It was very different. Entertainment was very improvised. I knew the character so well. The director Rick Alverson and I were on the same page, and I felt very relaxed, and comfortable to try things that I thought would work in those scenes. Then we’d shoot ‘em a couple of different ways so Rick had something to choose from. The screenplay for Entertainment had very little dialogue for me. And with On Cinema At The Cinema, even though a season has ten episodes, the script for the entire season is two pages maximum. There’s no dialogue in those scripts at all for anybody.

“This was definitely working a new way. But on the other hand, from having good conversations with Babak and really understanding what he was trying to do and what he wanted from me, it actually made it a lot easier than I thought. I got it and that’s it. You just want to be comfortable. For me, a problem would be if the whole time I’m thinking about getting the dialogue exactly right, if you do a TV show or something, and they don’t want you to even make a contraction out of two words. I can’t really work that way. I don’t really know how I was able to memorise some of this stuff, but you do things scene by scene, so you just have to memorise that scene and that’s how it works. I was also very inspired by Anaita because this was her first acting role. She’s new to English and she memorised all this stuff. So, it’s sort of like, ‘Well, geez, if she’s memorised all this, I sure as hell better have as well’.”

Anaita Wali Zada and Gregg Turkington in Fremont

Does it bring a different type of performance out of you? Fremont has a very unique tone…were you surprised by the final result?

“I was a little surprised at how much funnier it was than I expected. I knew that comedy was an element to it, and I knew there were very funny lines in the script, but when I was acting in it, I felt it was best to approach it as a drama. I had the confidence in the script and in the direction and in what I was doing to know that any comedy would come out in the end, but I wasn’t ever trying for laughs in any particular scene. I was trying to basically be the character, who wasn’t trying for laughs. Even with comedy, I’m more into making the character real and peculiar, rather than chasing up obvious laughs. Laughs will come out just as you meet some character on the bus and have a conversation with them and you’re not laughing, but then you walk away sometimes and say, ‘Whoa, that was odd!’ That’s when you’re laughing. I like that feeling in real life, and I like it for this character and for some others too that I’ve played.”

You’ve been around the block, Gregg, and you’ve done so many different things. Where do you see the arts right now in terms of the world? The online experience was ideally meant to democratise everything, but it’s a bit more than that, isn’t it?

“A lot of it’s demoralising, but there have been a lot of times in the history of the arts that have been demoralising as well. And while I don’t like people’s terrible YouTube content, on the other hand, it is nice that they’ve cut out the middleman and they’re keeping all the money for themselves even though they’re not necessarily making great content. It’s a mixed bag. I do wish the arts were left to people that were committed to the arts and not people that were narcissists that just wanted to be in front of a camera or just had that kind of an agenda. But that’s never been the case. Totally. The percentages go up and down at different times, and hopefully the world that we’re living in leads some people to strike out against certain elements of it by making great art.”

Gregg Turkington in Fremont

In terms of becoming a performer, that was a real shift for you. You were doing the music thing and you continued to do that, but did you always want to perform? Did you always want to act and be funny for an audience?

“I was always very, very moved by and obsessed by art, by movies and music…especially music…as well as humour. But I never saw myself as doing it because I didn’t really feel like I had that tool set, and it just wasn’t my dream. It really began with writing. I had a punk rock fanzine, and I was involved in the second wave in the early eighties. The idea was that we could all express ourselves there. We don’t have to be experts at making music or at writing or whatever. I started out doing a fanzine, and I probably would’ve been satisfied just being a writer. But then I hung around bands and stuff, and eventually somebody’s like, ‘Hey, you should be in my band’. And I’m like, ‘I don’t think so’. But I did it, and then suddenly realised, ‘God, I don’t have the stage fright and the nerves that I would’ve assumed I would. I actually feel pretty comfortable performing’. Then I got asked to sing for a band, which felt absurd, but when I started doing it, I realised that I did have a drive towards this that I didn’t know existed. And it’s funny how it can lead you into different directions, because I started doing standup comedy because I was telling a lot of jokes in between songs and people were like, ‘You should just do comedy’. So I started doing that, and then you do standup and then people start approaching you to act. And I’m like, ‘I’ve never taken an acting class. What are you talking about?’ But they’re like, ‘No, you’re acting on stage in your act. I think you can do this!’ It’s nice when people have confidence in you, or when they see something in you that maybe you didn’t know you had. Then you give it a try, and if it works, you pursue it some more.”

That whole DIY ethos, and that fanzine, has taken you to this…

“It’s always worth doing things and taking chances and not worrying about perfection. That was one nice thing about punk rock. People would release a record they recorded in their bedroom and not worry about it. Whereas before that, you’d get these people that would spend $10,000 on a demo and then they’d say, ‘This isn’t good enough. I need to go into a real studio’. And they’d screw around with this stuff for years and nothing ever happened. I’ve always liked the idea of coming up with an idea and then carrying it through because then it exists. Otherwise, it’s nothing. It’s just something floating around in your head that will die. The more aggressive attitude towards making art has served me very well.”

Fremont is in cinemas now.