An Interview With the "Hardest Working Middle-Aged Man In Show Biz"
Mr. Murray Hill bills himself as the hardest working middle-aged man in show biz--a Borscht Belt comedian from New York in a sharp-looking polyester suit. He's bringing his shtick to Baltimore this week for a show with Baltimore's own Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey. He talked to City Paper about the fine line between comedy and tragedy, why he likes to work with dancing girls, and being Mr. Show Biz. Then he threatened to sing "My Way."
City Paper: Is this your first time coming down to Baltimore?
Murray Hill: I don't even remember the first time I was in Baltimore. It was decades ago. I had cheekbones then. I played the Hippo one night, and then a couple of years ago I played the Ottobar once--just kind of a small thing, so this is more of a full-blown Murray Hill presence.
CP: How long have you been doing the Murray Hill act?
MH: At least 15 years, which is as far as I can remember. New York nightlife was still happening when I started. I started in this place called Cake. I don't remember the year. And then I played a lot of the underground clubs at Avenue A. Nobody went downtown back then--like, the rich people. Now it's sort of overtaken by gentrification, but back then--very cool, subversive kind of cool nightlife scene. Then I graduated to First Avenue, then Second Avenue, then a couple blocks further uptown, I parked at a place called Fez for a long time . . . kind of all the downtown acts really found a home at Fez for a long time. Then that closed and I went to Mo Pitkin's for a while and that was a great place. And then that closed and I've done Joe's Pub and the Zipper Theater. It's been a long history--I've survived pretty much every club closing in New York. Then for the past year I was in an off-Broadway show called This is Burlesque.
CP: You've been doing a lot with the neo-burlesque stuff.
MH: It's kind of a perfect fit for my shtick--a lot of girls and then Mr. Showbiz here. You know, Don Rickles--you familiar with him? He got his start burlesque clubs back in the day and he would come up and do comedy and audience work--10, 15 minutes--and then the girl would come out and do an act, and then he would come back out, so it's funny how it's come full circle.
I don't really consider what I do standup, it's more like a Vegas lounge setup--it's not about the punch lines, you're working with the audience, you're working with the waitresses, having fun with the acts. It's very improv, very interactive showbiz.
CP: You mentioned Don Rickles, the king of the insult comics, and you've been described as an insult comic. Is there a secret to doing that well, so it comes off as funny and not just being a jerk?
MH: It's a balancing act at all times. I'm always on the edge. Some people will say--about Joan Rivers, whom I see live a lot, or Don Rickles--that they're mean, or they're negative or insulting, but if you see the whole show and not just a snippet, both of those people, and I feel this way about myself, they come from a good place. I always make myself the center of the joke. There's a difference between being mean-spirited and crass and poking fun at somebody. If somebody shows up on a Friday night in Soho to my show wearing pleated khakis with white tennis shoes, I'm going to go for it. But I probably won't talk about how they guy doesn't have an arm. There's a difference there. Keep it light. You can take it too far, and it's a split-second decision. I think after so many years I've learned the discipline of when to stop. The last time I had somebody crying was when I told a bridesmaid she looked just like Blossom. That was a compliment, right? Blossom was a wonderful show. But this girl just freaked out and started crying.
CP: What do you do in a situation like that?
MH: Just keep moving.
CP: The New York Times did an article about you and said "just don't call him a drag king," but some other things I've read indicate that your view on that is a little more nuanced.
MH: I think people have to always categorize. I'm called everything in the book. It's not necessarily a rejection of labels that I have, but I feel it's limiting. To just say "OK, Murray's a drag king," well, that has a very specific reference. I always challenge people in the media: Do you have to put something in front of Tom Hanks or Chris Rock? If somebody's a little different, and different is in quotes, because somebody can be different in many ways, then there's this need to label them. Drag queen, drag king--these are terms that don't really resemble what I do. It's an element, sure. I come from a drag tradition, but to me it's about the comedy, the personality, the whole package. I'd just really like to stay away from having a label before my name. It should just be Murray Hill, Mr. Showbiz. It's a little bit of a judgment, and it keeps people from seeing the bigger picture.
CP: Is that something that was helpful when you started out, though, to have a sort of niche?
MH: Even when I started I used to do the full-on gay clubs, but I always did the straight clubs. You play to your home crowd, but I've always been in all the different scenes, and New York has changed. There's not the downtown scene. There's more straight people that have a little more money. My audience has changed the last five years. The last show I did--the New Year's Show that Trixie and Monkey were in--I had gay guys, I had gay women, I had senior citizens, I had straight people, I had tourists. It was great. And part of the reason I've been able to do that is I haven't put myself in a corner describing the act. It's something a 75-year-old woman from New Jersey can come and enjoy the show and at the same time a 20-year-old baby dyke can come in and have a great time, too, and they each get different jokes. To me that's the greatest thing.
CP: It seems like you patterned your act after the Vegas-era Rat Pack. What got you interested in that?
MH: It certainly references that. I love Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Those guys grew up in bars and lounges. They didn't do stand-up comedy or sit-down clubs. They had to compete with the crowds and the waitresses and all the people getting drunk and the excitement, and that's what I do. It's an act that's very interactive and in the moment. I have my set jokes and scenarios, but I know how to work a room when the waitress comes by and drops a drink, or when some guy's loaded. That's the old-school style of it. There were the main rooms in Vegas and there were the lounges, and the performers got their start and developed their chops in those lounges. After being in New York for 10 years, it's like, "Bring it on." Nothing's going to phase me now. Forget it. Baltimore? I'm going to eat it up.
CP: I guess there is a difference between your kind of show and going to, say, a comedy club, where people are there for an act, and they sit down and people come out and tell their jokes.
MH: And to me that's boring. You've got to have the band playing, the ladies, the whole entertainment experience.
CP: You're Murray Hill 24 hours a day, right?
MH: Well, I do sleep sometimes. When I sleep, God knows who I am. Who the hell knows? But it is a full-time lifestyle. I pull up into my office at about noon, I do all the business stuff, and then at night I take care of business.
CP: Were you always Murray Hill full time?
MH: It was a sort of natural progression. I came to New York as a photographer, and I used to photograph drag queens and stuff like that, and I kind of just eventually became the subject matter. When you grow up in the suburbs, show business is not really an option. You play sports. I went to college and I got really excited about life and everything--people look different than one another, and I just gravitated toward New York and just kind of naturally got into this. The first thing I did as Murray was run for mayor of New York. That was kind of the first project, and after that it was full-blown. Showbiz.
CP: What does your act have in common with the burlesque acts like Trixie and Monkey?
MH: I love entertainment and entertaining people. What I find is the best mix to do that for the audience and create a very positive very light-hearted atmosphere is to work with people like Trixie Little and Monkey--they have very big personalities, and their act pushes the edge a lot, too, but it doesn't push it too much, where people can't enjoy it. Nobody's threatened by the Monkey and Trixie, although you should be, because the guy's a monkey. But like me, they do it in a very funny, campy, humorous manner, that's what I'm attracted to and that's why I love working with them. When they're in my shows in New York they kill. And it's hard to kill in New York. Especially if you're from Baltimore--these kids are tough out here. The audience just went nuts for them--you've got the technical skill of what they do, the visual, and they're campy and they're funny. Now, you put us together at the Ottobar and it's going to be a throwdown. A showbiz throwdown.
CP: Are you going to do anything different here in Baltimore?
MH: I am. I'm going to do all new stuff for Baltimore, so nothing that they've seen me do. I might sing "My Way" for the kids. I might do it.
CP: Anything else you wanted to say?
MH: I'm looking forward to coming to Baltimore. I've been watching The Wire, which makes me a little nervous to come to Baltimore. And I just watched that movie Diner. Is that Diner still open? I'm hoping I get some tourist attractions in while I'm there--I want to see the corners from the Wire and I want to go to the diner.
You just tell the kids I'm going to bring them a downtown New York experience to Baltimore. Show. Biz..
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