Murray Hill has been an institution of the New York City art scene for decades. His old-school comic persona, natty-tie collection, and slicked-back hair are the stuff of legend. The Murray Hill persona began as a performance-art piece in 1996 with Hill running for mayor. But even after the campaign, the party would not die. Hill took his Vegas-inflected act to the burlesque scene and beyond, working with Dirty Martini and emceeing the Miss Lez pageant for much of the late aughts and early 2010s. Like fellow downtown legend Mx Justin Vivian Bond, Hill made his way into John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. But Hill has always been more of an in-person event. Old-school jokes and interjections of “Showbiz!” roll over audiences in a classic Borscht Belt style.
Partnering with longtime pal Bridget Everett, Hill is part of the ensemble of HBO’s Somebody Somewhere. The show stars Everett as Sam, a woman wading through the loss of her sister and finding community in an LGBTQ-friendly performing space in Manhattan, Kansas. Hill plays Fred Rococo, the emcee of Choir Practice, the weekly good-vibe hangout hiding in a dead mall. Hill opened up about performing 24/7, Liza Minnelli, and, of course, showbiz.
How did you find out about Somebody Somewhere?
Bridget and I are friends. When she first moved to New York, I was doing a weekly show at Mo Pitkin’s, and the second I met her … I’ll never forget, it was on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. My friend was like, “This is Bridget Everett. She sings. She just moved here.” And I said “You sing?! Hey, wanna do my show Saturday night?” And she did. She used to do my show every week, and she’d kill it. She used to wear, back in the old days, just a corset top and underwear. That was her look. It was pretty wild. We became quick friends and we’d be in each other’s shows. Eventually we moved to Joe’s Pub and worked there. She started going on Amy Schumer’s show, and the audiences were going nuts for her. She did a pilot for Amazon — I don’t know if you remember that, but it was like a voting thing.
I remember we were doing my Christmas show, and we were in the basement of Joe’s Pub, and she was told that the pilot didn’t get picked up. She was very emotional, and we were very bummed out. I’m her best hype man, so I was saying, “Something better’s gonna happen. We gotta hang in there, we gotta keep going.” Two years later, she got an HBO deal. She told me they were interviewing writers, and they pitched me to be in the show. I’m the only one that didn’t have to audition. I make this joke: “Thank God, because I wouldn’t have gotten the part.” So the Fred Rococo character is loosely based on how she saw me when she first moved to New York all those years ago.
Offer only feels right for Murray Hill.
What is it like to play a character that is somebody else’s idea of who you are, or maybe used to be?
They told me, “Murray, it’s you, but no showbiz. It’s like you, but tone it down like ten notches.” It’s supposed to be me, but a “normal” person without the vaudeville shtick. But it’s still kind of there, as you can see. One thing about being Murray is that I’ve only had the opportunity to be a show person. Through the series, you see me at a job, you see me interacting with [Sam’s] father. It’s more of an in-depth glimpse into a character than Murray has ever had access to before.
I know that the line between Murray Hill and your at-home persona has been different at different times. Is Fred Rococo adding another layer to that?
Somebody on the street called me Fred the other day, so I think the answer to that is “Yes.” But I think between Fred and myself and Murray, there’s a little pilot light that doesn’t go out, and I think that’s the thread. There’s a little sparkle to the eye. It’s how much heat is turned up, depending on what project or show or character I am.
I was raised by a therapist who specializes in dissociative identity disorder.
Is she taking new clients?
Yes, and she does remote. But one thing I was taught from a very young age was that there is no such thing as a stable identity. We’re all performing, all the time, different versions of ourselves for different people.
That is true. I grew up in a conservative houeshold, not understanding or even knowing what “gay” was back then. So I was already performing before I even knew I was gay or queer or whatever. I think that early performance-for-survival contributed to the Murray persona. The outgoing person that makes everybody laugh was who I was at school. But at home it was, “Oh God, what’s happening?”
Do you have a first memory of seeing a Vegas or Borscht Belt comic?
I used to sneak downstairs in my childhood house after hours as a kid and go down and watch Johnny Carson every single night. Shecky Greene, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Frank, Dean, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers — all these old-school Borscht Belt comics were the big stars that would come on the show and he would talk to. I was drawn to that overblown, larger-than-life personality. And most of those people were short, by the way. I’ve somehow manifested a very similar personality and height. There was that Catskills vibe that was in my consciousness growing up.
When I moved to New York, I first worked for a documentary filmmaker who was doing a film on swing music. It was my second week in New York, and he was like, “Go find Artie Shaw!” This was before the internet. So I just researched all this big-band stuff; I went so deep into the lounge and the baggy-pants comics and the vaudeville, because they all hung out back in the early days of swing. So fast-forward, I saw Don Rickles about 15 times before he passed. And Joan Rivers used to play the slot before me at Fez downtown. That was a long time ago. She is right from the Catskills.
Out here in Los Angeles, we just lost Marty Roberts of Marty and Elayne.
And it really got to me, because their Dresden set was one of the last lounge acts you could see.
I went to see them all the time. Every time I was in L.A., I went over there. The thing is, it’s a timeless entertainment genre. Marty and Elayne, no matter when you went in there the last 40 years, you always knew you were gonna get this warm, offbeat, old-school interactive show. That’s the thing with people like Don Rickles: No matter whether it’s 2020, you go in and you see Don Rickles and you’re like, Ahhhh. It’s a pure entertainment showbiz time. That’s a huge loss. I can’t even process it yet.
What do you get out of the live-performance experience, from either attending or performing, that you can’t get from a TV show or a TikTok?
When I’m onstage, and everything’s grooving, all the motors are running, it’s a rush that can’t be replicated. Even by drugs or pills, or antidepressants, or television. It’s that energy transference with me and the audience. All different kinds of people come to my show, but it’s also a place that I’ve created so that I can feel comfortable. So it’s kind of like this showbiz bubble of acceptance. It’s a little magic hour.
I love that the show highlights how the Midwest, yes, has homophobes. But it also has queer people. We’re everywhere.
Do you have any advice for a rural queer person who maybe hasn’t found their community yet?
The show mirrors my experience, Jeff [Hiller]’s experience, Bridget’s. No matter where you are in the country, you will find your people. Even if it’s just two of you meeting in the bathroom stall in seventh-period junior-high school. You will find your people, so you’ve gotta hang in there, and you’ve gotta stay alive. It will happen.
The message of the show is that you don’t have to go to a big city to find your people. When I was younger, you did have to go to the big city. There was no other option than to get the hell out. I think it’s different now — there’s more awareness, there’s more visibility, and kids find each other. It’s beautiful.
Is there anything, any image or vibe, that embodies what showbiz is to you? I think I remember Conan O’Brien saying that for him it’s being backstage with a showgirl and a camel. That’s showbiz.
To me, showbiz is a feeling. It’s not an object or a camel or even a showgirl, surprisingly. I saw Liza Minnelli at the Plaza a long long time ago. She’d already had like three hip surgeries, had already been through the mill a hundred times. I’m up in the rafters, and she’s barely moving. She’s singing, and whatever was beaming out of her soul and heart — whatever that is — that, to me, is showbiz. Showbiz is Liza Minnelli: someone who’s been through it, over and over again, but gets up on that stage, feels the footlights, and their inner truth just beams out. And you can feel it all the way to the rafters. That is showbiz.
I just want to give you some more space to say nice things about Bridget.
Showbiz. Bridget is a good friend, but I’m also a fan of hers. Every live show that she does, I sit up in the booth of Joe’s Pub, and I write down all the new improvs that she does. We’re both similar in that when we improv live during a show, we usually don’t remember them. Since we’ve toured together so much, I know her act. So anything that’s new, I type it up. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’m blown away by watching her perform. It’s still the most thrilling stage performance I’ve ever seen. Some nights, there’s 10, 15 pages of new jokes that she’ll do every single night. Bridget is a performer that makes you feel alive, much like Liza.
The internet has made it easier for LGBT+ people to find each other, but I think people have sometimes gotten way more into very fixed identities.
The whole reason I started performing as Murray Hill was because I didn’t see somebody like me out in media, out in showbiz. We’d seen drag queens, even 15 years ago, and now it’s completely mainstream. We’ve seen so much of transgender people being on TV in the last two years. There’s been this progress and visibility and language and identity politics, all this kind of stuff, but there’s still such an imbalance of representation. When I got this show, I saw it as this opportunity to be this character, without labels on it. Fred gets to be a part of the community, just like everybody else, and to me that’s groundbreaking. My personal politics is that I just want to be.
Last question: Do you have any suit-shopping advice?
Well, Bethy, you’re not going to believe this. I have a “special build,” as we like to say in the business. I’ve got a short and chubby Italian man’s body. I have to make custom suits. So I go to two places, because I have special measurements, if you know what I’m sayin’. The Tailory, they’re in New York. And the other place, they’re L.A.–based, that’s called Sharpe House. So I’ve got my West Coast and my East Coast suit-makers. They’ve got the special measurements for a guy like me.
You know how I know you’re showbiz? You get the plug in for your suit guys.
Well, it’s not easy to custom fit Murray Hill. And that can be a symbolic sentence for anything, not just suits!