If you’ve never seen cult comedian Neil Hamburger (real name Gregg Turkington) perform, here’s a sketch.
A portly man in a dirty tuxedo shuffles onto the stage awkwardly holding several gin & tonics. His thinning hair is plastered across his glistening forehead. He’s appallingly sweaty. Between hacking coughs he barks crude, bitter, celebrity-based jokes into the mic. “Why?” he asks in a guttural, drawn-out growl, “Why did Madonna feed her infant baby Alpo-brand dog food? Well, she had no choice; that’s what came out of her breasts.”
The audience might laugh, or they might equally throw things and heckle. In that scenario, Turkington is likely to exacerbate things by insulting them.
Despite performances like this, or more likely because of them, Turkington has become a cult figure. He’s released 12 comedy albums. Last year he collaborated on a feature film with director Rick Averson, Entertainment, which the Guardian called “a road trip to the centre of a harrowing abyss”.
Turkington isn’t shit for the sake of it. He’s a carefully constructed artifice of mediocrity, part of the wave of anti-comedy that also includes his friends and collaborators Tim & Eric. It’s a style of comedy that has more in common with performance art than most stand-up. It’s not for everyone.
“I did the Reading Festival in the UK a few years ago,” says Turkington. “I was on the bill with Limp Bizkit and Guns N’ Roses and all this crap. The second I came out people were throwing shoes and bottles. I gave up on jokes and started lashing out. Five minutes in the security took me off stage because it was getting too ugly. That’s pretty extreme when the security removes you.”
I’d planned to interview the character Neil Hamburger, but when we talk I get polite, eloquent Turkington. He doesn’t really do interviews in character anymore, he tells me. Hamburger has been thoroughly deconstructed over the years with more than a thousand live shows, television appearances, a dozen records and a feature film. Turkington wants to restrict him to the stage. He thrives off an audience.
“Confrontation with the audience isn’t supposed to be the main thing,” he says. “That’d be too one-dimensional. Insults are better, more effective, when they’re used carefully. An avalanche of that stuff will wear you out.”
That said, sometimes there’s an idiot in the audience who has to be shut up. Alternatively, a lethargic, passive audience will spur him on. “And sometimes I’ve just driven 500 miles to a show and had a couple of whiskeys thrown down my throat,” he says.
The character always plays well in Australia and has done so from the beginning. The audience gets it. In fact, his first live performance as Hamburger was opening for Frenzal Rhomb at the University of Sydney in 1999. “Those guys talked me into doing this in the first place,” he says. “It was just a recording project before that. But Frenzal Rhomb were fans and they asked me to open for them.”
So he cut his teeth performing to rooms full of Australian teenagers. “There was an under-18s show I did, that was the most hostile crowd of any of them. That was at the Palais in Melbourne. It was a lot of 13-year-old kids spitting. They wanted to get out their aggression and slam dance or whatever, and then this guy comes out in a tuxedo, dressed like an old man.”
But, like revered American comic Andy Kaufman, Turkington is all about making an audience uncomfortable.
“Comedy doesn’t have to be presented straight,” he says. “You can go out and confuse people and they can draw their own conclusions. That’s a big thing. A lot of comics work on being likeable and that’s their main focus. That’s not necessarily comedy.”
This makes perfect sense in the context of punk bands. “That’s what punk rock was about,” says Turkington. “Redefining the relationship between the performer and the audience. There was an air of surprise and mystery and shaking shit up. That’s what I’m after.”
Neil Hamburger performs at the Northcote Social Club on February 16.