You’ll be forgiven for not realizing one of this decade’s most enveloping, complex, haunting, and haunted performances exists almost exclusively on a bite-sized Adult Swim series. Stepping inside the labyrinthine world of On Cinema, however, reveals Gregg Turkington’s work as… Gregg Turkington, a film-obsessive psychotic whose passions veer almost exclusively towards the least-useful American studio movies of the last 30-or-so years. There is no sense of what is happening with him outside a movie-theater seat, save the occasional, overwhelmingly dire peek into what’s done to fuel his passions. Otherwise, On Cinema‘s resident film expert is wont to grant each week’s big releases five bags of popcorn (their highest rating) and dwell on “Popcorn Classics,” about which he has little to say except a factoid concerning its cast member and the runtime. If the On Cinema universe already sounds exhausting, good news: there are ten complete seasons, a currently running eleventh, a five-hour mock trial, a spin-off action series, and now Mister America, the feature-film expansion from Turkington (performer, not character), Tim Heidecker (again), and director Eric Notarnicola.
Gregg is one of modern fiction’s great enigmas: for being so fully realized in the hermetic context of his movie-review show is he so impossible to conceptualize as existing in the outside world. It was thus an immense opportunity to speak with the actual Turkington, who only pulls back the curtain on his creations (the major figure being comedian Neil Hamburger) when press calls for it (as with that aforementioned character’s “movie debut,” Entertainment, from 2015), but is nevertheless immensely open on the subject. If not a bit more niche than most interviews I’ve conducted, I do believe that, for On Cinema fans, the following is a proper dissection of the world’s #1-ranked movie expert.
The Film Stage: As one who’s been surrounded by–and, of course, occasionally embodied–myopic cinephilia, I wonder if your creation of the Gregg character was inspired by specific people or encounters.
Gregg Turkington: Well… yes. But it’s, like a lot of things, more a composite of lots of different folks. I collect records and have quite a collection of those. Unfortunately, that involves going to record-swaps and dealing with some of these record people who have that exact same mentality–just for a different thing. I can’t even go anymore because it’s just too disturbing. But a lot of times I’ll go to those things and come back, and I’m just raving to my wife: “I can’t go to those things anymore. I can’t stand the smells of these people.” You know? There’s no women there–just these sad, sad people with real issues [Laughs] and real problems. I don’t know, they’re kind of more interested in the artifacts and objects than the art itself. It’s kind of missing the whole point there.
And I’ve known people throughout my life who have this really extreme confidence–more confidence than people I know who are actually really good at what they do. But these people do nothing at all. It’s really a strange thing, when you listen to somebody with that much confidence. I mean, just more confidence than anybody I know in the world, and yet somebody that absolutely can do nothing. When we conceived of these characters, it was definitely not sitting there, conceiving of these fully realized characters. This was more something that evolved. We started this thing out as kind of a joke podcast, something to do in-between takes while we were shooting The Comedy, and it certainly wasn’t a question of sitting there and graphing-out what was going to happen to these guys over time and what was going to happen with the project in general.
I like that you say this, because the older episodes and podcast sort of show a different character. His initial cockiness is not necessarily in the later seasons, or if so, it’s this weird, sublimated, internalized thing, where he’s a hard shell of a human being.
Maybe I sound like Gregg talking about Jaws 2 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind…
No, no. No, no.
…but, say, he’ll reference finding a lead actress attractive, and Gregg as he exists now, it’s impossible to imagine him ever saying that.
Right. Right. It’s also true that, really, anybody in the public eye and doing something for years, you see that kind of evolution happen. When you’re creating these characters, you don’t want to eliminate the possibility that some things change, especially dependent on any success–or lack of success–they might be having. I mean, you take anybody that has been doing things for years, go to one interview they did, then go ten years later and say, “My God, they changed 100%.” I think when you create fictitious characters, you’re kind of crazy if you don’t allow that to happen as well, because that’s a real thing.
These guys definitely had some… I don’t know if “success” is exactly the word, but initially there was no chance that these guys were going to have a, say, TV action series like Decker in production. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of things that have happened in their lives that are exciting and would probably lead to some additional arrogance or personality changes. Also, you know what the other thing is? I’m not sitting there watching all these episodes, either, trying to look for those consistencies that somebody might when they’re putting together new Star Wars movies and creating a new character Bible. Everything is intuition and hoping that we might get it right.
It’s amazing to see Gregg on the stand in The Trial. It’s this fish-out-of-water environment, emphasizing how small the On Cinema world is: that one set in ten-minute spurts.
Putting him out in the world to interact with real people, I was amazed at how you modulated your performance: he’s aware of this being a serious thing concerning real people, so there is a different tone he’s striking. Could you talk about altering your performance for the environments–from show to trial to, now, movie?
One thing that’s interesting is that, with The Trial, and with this movie even moreso: these are the first times these characters are being presented without any sort of editorial control over how they’re being presented. With The Trial, it was just raw footage. In the On Cinema world, we presumably have some control over those episodes–our characters do. Now, in this movie, you see even more of it. You talk about the fish-out-of-water with Gregg in the courtroom. In this movie, you’re seeing this character out in the real world and it is a little shocking. Because all that stuff has been implied or described on the show. Same with Tim: you’re actually seeing these guys, and presented by somebody that possibly is not too keen on them. [Laughs] You know?
So definitely with The Trial, one thing is that we know these characters and get in that mindset, and hopefully we’re ready to go with presenting it as it would be because we know the characters. But shooting that trial in that actual courtroom–that was a real Los Angeles County courtroom–the fact that those cameras were set up like it would be for Court TV and there weren’t a bunch of people standing around, that it really felt like a courtroom… I think that changed everyone’s performance for the better. It did not feel like a movie set. It really felt like a day in court.
I guess I find On Cinema most fascinating as a study of human behavior, and I’m obsessed with the Gregg character because it’s so hard to imagine his mental landscape. It’s like the record-swap people: a den of misery. Have you thought about his off-show life? Like, what he does on a Monday afternoon.
No, no, we think about it. We talk about it. I think of him as somebody with some sort of escapist tendencies, and perhaps at some point these fantastical worlds you see in these fantasy movies, at some point the guy probably wished that he could be part of those worlds. It’s just kind of gotten more and more removed from that, so now the fantasy world is having more movies to watch and videotapes to collect. I think the day-to-day life, we do discuss it and we do like to put hints at it: Tim talking about the black mold, things like that, sort of come out. I think we’re trying not to do the wink-wink at the audience with this stuff, even at the expense of the laugh.
It’s kind of almost more approached from drama than comedy; then the comedy comes through in all the details. Those kinds of details, to me, are the funniest things, rather than any actual jokes. So we’re definitely aware of those details, but I also think that unveiling it slowly is part of what makes the whole thing so interesting. If you were to have done this, like, episode one, “Let’s go into Gregg’s home and look at all this and talk to his friends,” then it’s all been revealed. This has been a very slow reveal, and really, though this movie just concentrates on Tim’s run for DA, you’re getting a lot of new information about both of these guys. There are a lot of hunches that you may have confirmed on a much bigger level than you may have had in ten seasons of On Cinema.
The sight of him going through the cardboard box of VHS tapes.
Right! There you go, exactly. That’s part of the daily life. And then you’re wondering, “Who is this person that called in this tip?” Because you realize that there may be a whole network of Gregg-type guys. [Laughs] You know what I mean? I’m looking at the phone, like, really seriously, like I’ve got some real information, and that’s what it turns out to be, is a couple of cardboard boxes by a trash can, but somebody called in that tip.
The fact that he chose to be interviewed in the park where they shot Oh, God!
I don’t know if this had to do with editing, because obviously I went on a lot longer about this stuff than we would’ve had time for, but when I’m describing the scene that’s taking place there, it’s not even Oh, God!–it’s, like, Oh, God! Book II, which is even a crummier thing to be focusing on.
I like that you bring up the black mold, because one of the last things I’ll think about on my deathbed is the image of Gregg on his couch with Ayaka, showing off a VHS tape.
I mean, who even took that photo?
Yeah! You’re right: that is a nightmare. There’s also that still photo of us out in the park or something, I think. Those photos really crack me up as well–they’re really sinister.
Finally his Ant-Man shirt isn’t blurred out.
That’s the thing: when you’re taking a photo like that, we are trying to think of specific details that will make the whole thing more depressing. Or when, for instance, Tim has one of his anti-vaccination flyers in his hand: that flyer was designed to look like it was made by a crackpot. There are bad fonts being used and misspellings. You’re not even going to see all that, but having it be that realistic and depressing sets a good tone. All those little details work for us way more than, “Let’s get another joke in here for everyone to laugh at,” or, “Let’s make sure that nobody watching mistakenly believes this is really us.”
Possibly the answer to this is obvious, but as someone who thinks most contemporary film is irredeemably bad, just a dire time for popular movies–which is, of course, all On Cinema ever covers–I have to wonder if you see the show’s attitudes towards these horrible-looking products–giving them five bags of popcorn, calling something “a new comedy classic” or whatever–contemptful?
Contemptful? Definitely. It feels to me like this whole industry is geared towards these big babies, you know? Kind of like, if you’re ever in an airport at 6 in the morning and you see all these guys–successful, older executives; business travelers–and what do they have for breakfast? A giant chocolate-chip cookie with M&M’s in it. It just really kind of stinks. You should have options for children and for people looking for escapism, but so much of this stuff, it really feels like it’s geared towards literal big babies.
When it’s just this non-stop parade of that stuff… even types of movies that were previously for adults, those have kind of been lobotomized as well. I don’t watch any of these movies–we don’t need to to do that show–but it’s certainly [Laughs] mean-spirited speculation as to how awful they are. You could present that by saying, flat-out, “These are awful movies,” or you could kind of do it this other way by saying, “These are fantastic movies,” but with the same idiotic tone that the movies themselves are made.
I think a lot about when you review, like, a new King Kong movie and say, “This is a classic. It’s King Kong. He’s back.”
[Laughs] Right. It’s unacceptable, but also, some of these film bloggers and things do kind of talk like that and do kind of give a pass to these things. It is, I wouldn’t say “legitimate,” but a sort of common review. “He’s back. What more do you want? This is one of these movies–it’s great! You’ll love it!” And why are you reviewing things if that’s your critical eye? Maybe give somebody else this job. [Laughs] You know?
And I don’t know for sure, but I feel like there could be some blowback from film critics reviewing Mister America. These guys have been in our crosshairs for a while, a lot of these people, and this is their chance to strike back. I’ve already seen some really, truly mean-spirited reviews that just go beyond, “Well, I didn’t find this funny,” and you kind of wonder, “Hmm… did we ruffle some feathers with this guy?” Because I think the last thing a film critic would want to do is watch On Cinema and see themselves in somebody like Gregg from the show.
Mister America is now in theaters.