Talking Improv, Marriage, Cats, and Musicals with Jeff Hiller

Photo: Donna Ward/Getty Images

You know Jeff Hiller, or you recognize his face. His disapproving, glowering mug can be seen in every customer service position in every auteur sitcom of the past 15 years. Hiller has played a disapproving flight attendant on 30 Rock, a nude ghost in Ghost Town, and more waiters than you can shake a stick at. Hiller just replaced Drew Droege in his play, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, which focuses on one man’s struggle with assimilation politics at a gay wedding in Palm Springs. His cat has a good Instagram.

Tell me everything about your cat.

I have been waiting for so long for someone to ask me about this. Her name is Beverly. She is the light of my life, and she has very weird yellow eyes that look very good against her black, black fur.

They do pop.

My husband is a visual artist, so he’s always placing her on an orange background. We have this one orange chair and he’s just obsessed with it.

Why Beverly?

Actually the shelter named her Beverly, and it was a very good marketing decision. Because when you see a tiny little black kitten and she’s got this old lady name, you’re like “I’m in.” My husband’s last name is Goldberg, and mine is Hiller, so she’s Beverly Goldberg-Hiller. She sounds like such an Upper East Side woman. I want to slap a pearl necklace on her.

You just mentioned your husband, and you’re currently starring in a show that interrogates the notion of marriage, and gay marriage.

I like that – interrogates it. Yeah, underneath one of those lamps in a cop show. I really like the questions that it raises, but I also wanted the tax write-off, so…

Do you feel like you can do marriage in a non-assimilate-y way?

It’s funny, I remember when it became legal nationwide – not just on a per state basis, when DOMA was knocked down – there was this weird moment when I had to think “Oh, this is something that I have to do now?” I got a little stressed about it. I do think there’s something non-assimilate-y when you say you’re married and then you reveal that it’s…to a man! It feels like the ultimate buck of the system. Maybe that’s just because I grew up in Texas.

I would consider you our generation’s Frank Nelson, the “eh-yesssssss” guy from Jack Benny.

I’ll take it.

Playing snippy customer service people.

I do that a lot. I do it a lot.

How do you feel about it?

Well, I mean, mama wants to work. I think that a lot of times, to tell a story, you need somebody who isn’t a completely fleshed-out character stuck in. I’m fine with it as long as the joke is never just about the fact that at the end of the day, he likes to have sex with a man – isn’t that disgusting? As long as the laugh isn’t about that, I’m fine. And a lot of the time – maybe this is just my naivete and that’s what the producers are doing – but a lot of the characters I think of as not necessarily gay characters. They could be asexual characters, or a character who is straight but appearing to not buy into the patriarchy. I’m fighting the patriarchy by being not necessarily the most masculine person in the world.

I think that a through line of the characters, even more than assumed sexuality, is people who are sublimating aggression.

That’s really true. Oh my God, that’s so true. When I’m teaching improv, you always can tell the people who aren’t allowed to get mad in their everyday life, because in every scene they immediately start yelling at their scene partner.

I do that! I’m working on not doing that. It’s not great to start with yelling.

I had to work on it so hard! For three years, every scene I did on my first Harold team was me screaming at someone. To the point where now all my friends from my first Harold team are always pimping me into a Jeff Hiller Rant, trademark. So I think that playing all these snippy characters is healthy for me, because I am such a people-pleaser that I don’t get to let that out in my everyday life.

You were at UCB very early. You were one of the first visibly queer people at UCB. Was that fun? Difficult? Did you feel tokenized?

Did I feel tokenized? Not really. I felt Other, for sure. Well, first of all, the concept of tokenization was not even in my mind in 2001 when I started taking classes at UCB. That was like step 6 and I was on step -1. But I definitely did feel “not one of the boys,” as they say, so I gravitated towards a lot of the female improvisers. When I started coaching improv, I noticed that I was constantly coaching all-women groups.

I wouldn’t say this is how it is now, but there was a time at UCB when you had to conform to this specific type of play, specific type of style. The comedic voice of the theater wasn’t necessarily female, wasn’t queer for sure, wasn’t from a different ethnic background. There weren’t a lot of people who weren’t young, straight, white men in their 20s. The theater has done a lot of work to change that, and things have changed quite a bit. But I think there was a time where I felt like I couldn’t do a scene about what it’s like to geek out on Wicked. I had to just do another scene about a video game that is just going to turn meta because I had no idea what they were talking about. Everyone’s experience is unique, but I have felt a great shift in the theater’s view of what is funny.

Do you prefer acting or improv?

I love acting. I love doing this play. I love being on a set. I love all of that. But I really need improv. I will work hard to get to an improv stage, because it’s something I really love doing. It’s something that feeds me.

How does it feed you?

I’m not one of those people who likes working out, but you do meet those weird people who are like “I love the gym. My one concession to myself is I get a really expensive gym membership.” You know, those weirdos? That’s what it feels like to me. You go, your brain is firing on all cylinders. It’s the immediate thing of “Is this funny? Is this funny?” and you immediately hear from the audience whether or not it’s funny. It’s not just you writing and wondering whether something is right or wrong. It’s you playing tennis with your scene partner and finding these exciting places that you’d never get to on your own, because your scene partner has a very different brain than you. I find that thrilling.

Right now you’re starring in a show where you’re replacing the author. What that like?

It’s a little bit intimidating, because it’s not just an author. It’s not one guy who did one thing. Drew Droege is, in the alternative comedy world, a pillar. It’s intimidating because I am a comedy nerd and I geek out on his work. That said though, this actual show isn’t difficult to access because it’s so smartly written. I get it, on a gut level, exactly what’s happening throughout the entire show. It’s not like I have to sit down with a dramaturg like it’s Shakespeare or something. [Droege]’s real, he’s of the moment.

And you have done Shakespeare, so you’re allowed to make that comparison.

But I had to sit down with someone before I did it.

What is that process like?

Someone had to sit with me and explain it truly like I was a child. It was super intimidating to me, especially since I was doing it in New York City, where people are all snooty and smart. But you always get this dramaturg who’s super excited and passionate. They suck you in and go “Wow. This Shakespeare guy was smart!”

He was smart, but he wasn’t snooty.

No, in fact he’s really raunchy, just bawdy.

There’s that one section of Hamlet where every word is a pussy joke.

Totally, totally. And “fishmonger” is a straight-up pussy joke too. There’s all these parts about taking a crap. In the end, Shakespeare is Drew Droege and Drew Droege is Shakespeare. There’s your headline.

I’m looking at my notes and the next question just says Plaaayyyying Hoooouuuuuse.

Isn’t it such a good show? And so terrible that it’s not going to be around. I love that show, I was super honored to be on it. I love those women. They’re super smart, they’re super funny, they’re also super kind. I love their kids. They both have really menschy husbands. They’re good people, and I love that they were able to take their friendship and make it relatable and hilarious.

They also have really cute Christmas cards. Lennon’s was really great this year. She was holding her son and her cat, and even the cat was smiling. I was so moved by the fact that the cat was smiling. I saw it and was like “How is even your Christmas card great art?”

You’ve worked on a lot of shows with women who are the star and showrunner. There’s Playing House, 30 Rock, Nightcap.

Broad City, Difficult People. And they all totally and completely trace back to some friendship that I started at the UCB. One hundred percent of them. My career now is basically waiting for the next person to get their own TV show so I can come be a guest star. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I will ride coattails, baby.

If you got a TV show, who would you want to bring in as a guest star? Who would you shine that light on?

I would put Pam Murphy in a big role and just let the character that she is in life be a character on TV, because it needs to be seen. I’m writing a part right now for this woman I’m a superfan of. It’s almost bizarre how much I’m a fan of her. She’s a Broadway dancer, he name is Deidre Goodwin. I have a great friend named Jenn Harris, I would get her on in a second. Wow, I’m only saying women. Should I say a man?

If you want.

I’m not going to apologize. I like funny women.

We’ve talked about Broadway dancers, we’ve talked about Wicked. What is it about singing and dancing that’s so fun?

There’s that old cliche about musicals – when the emotion is too great to speak, you sing. And when it’s even greater, then you start to dance. It’s true. We watch entertainment for escapism, and what better way to escape than to see someone singing songs? It’s so magical. Don’t you just die every time you watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?

It’s amazing. And to see what Kat [Burns, choreographer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] is doing with the routines.

Completely! And how each season there’s a different opening. Kat has made an entire career out of dancing in comedy. That is insane and amazing. She can make things funnier by taking the dancing seriously. She makes the dancing into really good dancing. That’s what makes it so much more interesting, so much more dynamic. It’s not people phoning it in. It’s real; it sucks me in.

As for the music, it’s just so beautiful. Whenever I hear people start singing, I get a little weepy because it’s so beautiful. I don’t really have an explanation as to why. It’s just too beautiful for words. It makes the world seem better.

Photo by Russ Rowland.

Talking Improv, Marriage, Cats, and Musicals with Jeff […]