Rick Alverson has trust issues. With comedy, with cinema, and, I am coming to find, with me.
Not that I’ve done anything to earn his trust, other than brave the morning rush hour to arrive a few minutes early to our interview at LA’s Cinefamily. Alverson greets me on the shaded patio behind the theater with a flaccid handshake, a gesture I’m pretty sure he’s practiced and perfected in the five or so years since he began promoting his feature films. His wrist goes limp as I tighten my grip, the way I was taught to convey strength, self-assuredness, and other things I rarely feel when meeting strangers.
Later, I’ll start to understand this handshake as part of a shield that Alverson wedges between himself and the world. It’s his small way of upsetting the artifice of introductions, of showing that he has no interest in engaging in what he refers to as “the charade of authenticity.” And it works.
Sitting next to Alverson is the star of his latest film, Entertainment. Gregg Turkington has been a force in showbiz for more than 20 years, but even some of his fans would be hard-pressed to recognize him on the street. That’s because he usually appears as his alter ego Neil Hamburger, a painfully unfunny comedian identifiable by his shabby tuxedo, wet combover, and tendency to cradle three cocktails under his arm like a football everywhere he goes.
The real-life Turkington is thoughtful and soft-spoken, almost the antithesis of the brash character he plays onstage. This seems like a good jumping-off point for our discussion about Entertainment, a film that features the character of Neil Hamburger in a way we’ve never seen him before: as a tormented creature, stuck inside the cycle of touring low-level casinos and dive bars in the Mojave Desert.
There are exactly two sides to the film’s central character, referred to in the script simply as “The Comedian.” One side — the one we’re familiar with — exists onstage, while the other exists in hotel bedrooms, dingy roadside bathrooms, and vast desert expanses. “I had never shown Neil Hamburger outside of a tuxedo, and that was frightening to me,” Turkington admits. “I’d done so many interviews as Neil Hamburger to promote shows and things, and so initially I felt like, ‘Well, that’s the off-stage Neil.’”
But Alverson didn’t want that Neil — the “cartoon” Neil, as Turkington bluntly puts it. He wanted a character who functioned more as a “negative space” through which he could explore the themes of desperation, sincerity, and what it means to be authentic in a world in which every social interaction is a kind of performance.
“That wasn’t really interesting to me, to just make a promotional vehicle for a persona,” the director explains. “It’s a disservice to what Gregg’s done for so long, and it’s also important because I have concerns outside any of the comedic themes that are in there. It was better that we explored the themes through a new character that riffs on that other character.” Alverson is adamant that the Comedian in his film is “its own thing entirely, [operating] without the prerequisite of Gregg’s stage persona in the real world.”
The character we do get in Entertainment is more like the shell of a character. When he isn’t telling jokes onstage, he is a study of emptiness, drifting across the desert with all the emotional depth of a tumbleweed. “There were a lot of scenes we’d shoot and then Rick would say, ‘That was great, but could you give me less?’” Turkington remembers.
Alverson’s goal was to create a character who sees the stage as his last, desperate hope for human connection, even if that connection comes in the form of loud boos and sustained, awkward silences. The director’s eyes light up when I mention how the Comedian seems to really express something about himself through the character he plays onstage.
“That’s the only expression,” he says emphatically. “And it’s an exhaustion. It’s an absolute, the end of expression.
“I almost think there’s a lust from the off-stage character in the movie to the onstage character,” he continues. “It’s a lust for the connection and the animation and the identity and the persona, you know?” He pauses, looking up at the canopy of trees that shades our little alcove. “But it’s a terror, too.”
The terror he’s talking about is existential: an erasure of the self as a means, ironically, of self-preservation. This is something that deeply interests both Alverson and Turkington, the latter of whom has actually witnessed comedians sacrifice their identity to the characters they play onstage.
In one of Entertainment’s most disheartening scenes, the Comedian and his opener (played by Jeffrey Jensen) are engaged in a conversation backstage. The opener recounts a story about bonding with his son, and his tone feels easy and intimate, as if he were talking over beers with an old friend at the bar. In the very next frame, the opener is onstage, repeating the same exact story to his audience. We’re to understand that the friendly banter is merely an affectation, something he plays up to get people to like him.
“That’s happened to me,” Turkington says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I asked Rick, ‘Can we include this?’ Because it’s demoralizing when you feel like you’re having a real conversation with somebody that you’re working with, and then they go out onstage and word-for-word it’s the conversation you just had. It bums me out.”
What really bums him out, I suggest, is the fact that Neil Hamburger is considered a “character” while so many other comedians get to indulge the idea that the version of them up onstage is somehow more honest, more real. He agrees.
“It’s just more obvious, if I put on a costume, that it’s a show. And these guys get to get away with pretending that what you see is what you get, when it’s really, really not true most of the time.”
A recent, almost unbelievably perfect example of this comes to his head. “Look at Bill Cosby. Here’s a guy who has the most sincere sort of stand-up,” Turkington observes. “But I dare say that’s more of a character than Neil Hamburger. Based on what we’re seeing in the news right now, that is a real mask that guy had on up there.”
Alverson seems happy to hear his star and co-writer talking like this, embracing the skepticism that’s at the core of so much of his own work. The filmmaker has been described in the past as a provocateur, but I suspect he’s something a bit more complicated. At the very least, he’s one of the most passionate cynics I’ve ever met, the kind of person who can describe his work as a “swan song to form” while keeping a serious face.
It’s fair to question whether Alverson even likes watching films — at least the kind that don’t make a mission out of interrogating every last shred of narrative technique. His eyes light up again when I mention how hard it is to empathize with Entertainment’s protagonist, who reveals a lot of his inner ugliness through his onstage performance.
It feels like this is the moment when I finally win Alverson over, and it strikes me as kind of hilarious. What other director would love to hear about how unlikable his characters are?
“There’s this event that happens with so many movies in popular American cinema,” he explains, “where all there is is empathy. Like, an engineered empathy for a protagonist who is very much like us. Now, I’m starting to wonder if that’s not just engineering bigotry. It’s like, when we walk out of our houses, we’re looking for an individual that’s like us to empathize with, as opposed to having an experience where you’re relating to something that’s opaque and difficult to contend with.”
Alverson’s last film, 2014’s The Comedy, was an exercise in this entirely. As soon as we started sympathizing too much with the film’s lead (played by Entertainment co-writer Tim Heidecker), he found a way to force us out of it. There are plenty of similarly engineered moments in Entertainment, and it’s pretty clear by now that an Alverson film will never be particularly easy to connect with. To his credit, the filmmaker never backs down from his philosophy of discomfort: “I think that’s super important for a critical, elastic experience — something that’s more than just a safe, narcotic type of event.”
This is the space Alverson has carved out for himself in Hollywood. He’s the conscience, reminding other filmmakers that it might be a bad idea to feed the public too much candy. And we’re not talking about high-budget special effects or other visual gimmickry; we’re talking about the very basics of narrative storytelling.
“There’s this obsession with narrative and content,” he continues, hardly stopping for a breath. “If you don’t like the character, then the movie has no worth. Who wants to hang out with Raskolnikov on their bed, ax-murdering their mother? So, Crime and Punishment is a piece of shit because the character is unlikable?”
Fantasies about rolling around in bed with Raskolnikov notwithstanding, Alverson has a point. I’m beginning to see that he understands himself as a sort of martyr. He’s the guy who has to make films like Entertainment, films that are almost intentionally unenjoyable but healthful and necessary, like swallowing a dose of bitter cold medicine. I’m not much of a gambler, but I’ll bet the house that Alverson won’t be lining up to see Star Wars next month.
Our conversation has taken a dark turn, so it’s fitting that we move on to a discussion of our worst nightmares. Turkington is ready with his. It’s from an episode of the This American Life television show he saw recently, in which a comedy teacher offers this advice to students: “If you want to be in comedy, it’s more important to be liked than to be funny.”
This, of course, represents everything the character of Neil Hamburger rebels against. Like Alverson, Turkington is disinterested in being the most popular guy in the room. To hear him talk, it’s almost as if he prefers the version of Hamburger we get in Entertainment: the sad-sack guy at the end of his mental rope, who’s reviled by everyone and isn’t immune to being physically assaulted in the parking lot after a show.
“How bad is it if I’ve got 300 people packing a club in Brooklyn that are applauding?” he asks. In terms of what he’s trying to communicate with the character, Hamburger might as well be telling jokes to a rock on Mars. “It’s just not the same as 12 people in the Mojave Desert in a bar with sour faces.” Like Alverson, he seems to need those sour faces. A bit of genuine derision is worth more to him than all the praise in the world.
I shake Alverson’s hand once again as I’m leaving, and this time it’s not particularly limp or firm. It’s just a handshake. I chalk this up as a tiny victory, because our conversation hasn’t left me feeling particularly good about myself otherwise.
On the drive home, I listen to pop radio, but I can’t seem to get into any of the songs. I pass by billboards for new films that aren’t Entertainment, and I can’t imagine sitting through a single one of them.
To love pop culture, as I do, is to let falseness wash over your body. This may only happen for a span of, say, a three-minute song or a 90-minute movie, but it’s easy to project the negative implications of repeated exposure. That’s why Alverson protects himself from it and why Turkington has built himself an anti-comedian who goes to war with the worst of it on a nightly basis. To these guys, entertainment is never just entertainment. It’s a nightmare in which the audience is just a passive recipient, bloated and dying and unable to wake up.
“That’s a horror,” I remember Alverson saying, as I self-consciously turn the radio off. “That’s the real horror.”