Murray Hill Is ‘Somebody’ You Should Know

Miu von Furstenberg 21 Min Read
21 Min Read
Murray Hill
Photo via murrayhill/Instagram

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Actor and comedian Murray Hill has been making audiences laugh for decades as a part of New York City’s exciting nightlife scene and he is bringing the funny and lots of showbiz energy to the small screen, as the host of Hulu’s crazy Drag Me to Dinner and the hilariously touching series Somebody Somewhere on HBO. 

Dubbed “Downtown’s New ‘It’ Boy” by The New York Times, Murray has also been recognized by The Village Voice, who named him one of the “Best of New York” as well as Time Out, PAPER, and New York Magazine. He’s been inducted into PAPER’s Nightlife Hall of Fame; selected as OUT’s Top 100 influential performers twice; included in New York Magazine’s “Fifty Most Iconic Gender Benders of All Time” and PAPER’s “Top Ten ‘It’ Boys in NYC Nightlife History”; and named one of the Top 12 gender-bending performers in NYC by Time Out. He was recently awarded the Trailblazer Award by Queerty. In addition to the upcoming season three of Somebody Somewhere, Murray can also be seen on Amy Schumer’s Life & Beth, and guest-starred on Welcome to Flatch. He is also appearing in the upcoming Paul Feig-directed movie Grand Death Lotto starring John Cena and Awkwafina.

After serving as emcee for burlesque icon Dita Von Teese’s world tour and performing his solo comedy show at Just for Laughs, New York Comedy Festival, and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Murray is bringing his act to the upcoming Netflix is a Joke festival.

We had the chance to get to know more about this talented entertainer and we even put him in the hot seat for the Socialite Seven. Get ready to get your fill of showbiz!

How did you get your start in showbiz? 

Oh, my God.  We don't have that kind of time. It was very natural and kind of by accident. Long story short, when I was in college, I was a black and white photographer, and I was obsessed with it. I was in Boston in the early 90s and I started going to these nightclubs after hours and there were drag queens there. I used to say that I was a reporter for the Boston Phoenix and I would sneak into these clubs and take photographs.

I just got so into this entire world because as an Irish person and an Italian, obviously brought up Catholic, very strict, very repressed, very, you know, not so cool with the gay stuff. So, when I left my home and went to Boston and saw this whole new world of drag, it showed me two important things – chosen family, because it was such a strong community. I'd never seen anything like it. But also, everybody in that gay, small world was accepted, appreciated and adored. It was like this window into this whole different reality.

It happened late at night, you know, it was always at night, the daytime sucked. The sunshine was like, we don't accept you but the night is where all the misfits were, so I started documenting that. Anyway, long story short, I used that work of drag queens that I took photographs of to get to grad school in New York City in the school of visual arts and the first week I got to New York, I went to Wigstock and took photos there. And then I realized that everybody was doing that. You learn that about New York. It slaps you across the face so kind of a bunch of things were happening at the same time. I told you it's a long story! 

My friends from Boston had started a nightclub in New York and they wanted me to be a part of it. They wanted me to be a cigarette girl, so that was going on. And then at Wigstock, I had an epiphany. I was like, where are the lesbians? What's on the other side of the spectrum? Like where are Drag Kings? It was an epiphany, but it was also like kind of frightening in a way to see that there was so much invisibility.  I was like, oh my God, look at this great celebration of drag queens and gay men. Where the fuck is everybody else? What's going on here? 

So, I found a listing for a Drag King pageant at the Hershey Bar in the 90s in the meatpacking district. Way back then, it was like sketchy and dark. Long story short, I photographed a drag king pageant, still as a young little schmuck. All these things were happening at once, and I noticed that particular event that I went to, it didn't have the same camp and humor and kind of almost like lightheartedness. It was heavier and had lots of masc representation. It was about passing so it was a very different kind of energy.

I saw something that wasn't there, bringing a camp thing into that space. This was all converging and then when my friend asked me to do this nightclub, I was like, no, I'm not doing it like that. He ended up getting me a man's suit and I put it on and I did this. I started at this club called Flamingo East at the Nines on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street. I didn't even have a name for the first couple of weeks. That's how I got started in nightlife – and that was a straight club. I know it's too long of an answer. I went from that to a drag king night and then I started developing an act and then 25 years or maybe 30 now later…it's a long story, Christine, but it's an interesting one.

Murray’s comedy and persona is very old school. Who were your comedy inspirations? 

Well, you know, I think I had a lot of unconscious guides because when I was a kid, I obsessively watched – at night again – Johnny Carson and back then, all those big personalities were on there. I was just so drawn to them. Like Don Rickles, Dean Martin, Shecky Greene, Henny Youngman, like, you know, all these, like just bursting with personality. And I think that got lodged into my unconscious. And then, you know, I love shows like Three's Company. You know, ridiculous things, The Love Boat.

When I got to New York, I worked for a filmmaker and he did a movie about swing.  And I was the research person. I just really got involved in reading about like Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra and Dean Martin. I was inspired by all of that old school stuff – and the biggest thing about the old school that I love, and I still do this today, you feel like you're hanging out with them. It doesn't feel like, oh, I'm doing a punchline joke. I's like the Catskills and Vegas lounge comedians, they're used to working at a bar where it's crazy and you're in the moment. For whatever goddamn reason it's soaked in and that's what I do. I'm still doing it.

I was introduced to you around 10 years ago when you were the emcee for Dita Von Teese's tour. How did you get connected with her?

Everything's a story with me, Christine.  I was doing a burlesque show with the Pontani sisters. in Soho in a very tiny little venue. It was upstairs and it was very popular. People were going all the time. So, it turned out Dita's managers were there to scout burlesque dancers and they saw me and you know, they're out there. They had that L.A. energy, you know? They came afterwards and they were like, “Oh, you're going to hear from us.” And so, three months later, they had had some trouble finding an emcee that frankly wasn't offensive. A lot of male emcees can be sexist, especially in the burlesque world or even in the comedy world and it wasn't working for them. I was like the perfect fit because I did reference the old school like Dita does but I also entertain the audience and I'm supportive and accepting and lifting women up instead of denigrating them.

So, first, they had me on a trial and Dita was up in her dressing room. This was in Seattle and she heard laughter and she was like, okay, this is it. I want this guy all the time. So, we worked together for 10 years and it just worked – the burlesque emcee and the baggy pants comic from Vaudeville, it was just the perfect combo and she was like the glamorous showgirl. She was very about, the artifice and the beauty and she didn't talk. and then I was the one that was, you know, loose in the moment talking to the audience and connecting that stuff. That was a great and long gig.

Switching gears, I love you on Somebody Somewhere. Was the character you play on the show written specifically for you?

Yes, now, you know, the tale on that is that Bridget (Everett) always says I was the only one on the show that didn't have to audition and I always say, thank God, because if I did, I wouldn't have gotten the part.  The show is loosely based on Bridget's life and the writers wrote Fred based on me.  But, you know, in a show set on a Kansas farm, it's me, but incredibly toned down.  So, yeah, it is based on me.

The characters are all people you would want to hang out with and you all play out so well off each other. Is there improvisation on the set? 

Absolutely. And, you know, not everybody knows this, but me, Jeff (Hiller), Bridget and Mary Catherine (Garrison), who plays her sister, we all knew each other before this. Bridget and I have been friends, I think for like 20 years. We've come up through nightlife cabaret so there was a sense of like a kid in the candy store, which I think translates to the screen, whereas all of us were just so happy that we finally were able to break through a glass ceiling and get on TV because we have tried for decades.

So, you know, that kind of joy and gratitude I think shows and, you know, we're all friends and like, there's a lot of times where the director never says cut, so we just keep going. If you see a particular scene where we're all laughing or it seems very real, sometimes it probably is. It's not on the script. They just let us go for a little while. 

Another show that I found because of you was Drag Me to Dinner. What was that filming experience like? It seemed very chaotic.

Chaotic is a light term.  It was like working at a zoo when the gate got left open. There were 40 drag queens on that show and I ended up being the straight man somehow. It was totally chaotic. It was a blast. We shot the whole thing in two weeks and I enjoyed doing that because, Somebody Somewhere is very scripted – even though we can improv – and on Drag Me to Dinner…I've been a host. It’s what I do the most, so to be able to host and with my peers because I knew most of them, it was just like a magical two weeks. 

You’re going to be at the Netflix is a Joke Festival next month. What can audiences expect when they see you there?

Well, I'm working with this crazy, amazing, big band, Jordan Katz, who I met doing a gig in New York and he lives in LA.  I think we're only going to have eight people in the band because the stage is small. It's going to be an old school, Vegas showbiz show.  I’ve got a big opening number and intro. I do a monologue. I sing a couple of songs. Everybody feels good and there’s a big power ballad at the end. Showbiz.  I'll bring it to Atlanta.

You should, definitely.

I love Atlanta.  I just shot a movie there last summer. It's coming out this summer, it’s called Jackpot with Paul Feig.

What was that experience like working with Paul?  

I'm a huge fan of his. We met at an after party for one of his films. He's known for being amazing, but he also dresses so well. He’s always put together. And so, when we met, I had my suit on, so we bonded about the suits. Anyway, I gave him my card.  Six months later, he asked me to go to dinner. I was like, holy shit and then, two years later, he asked me to be in this movie.  And working with him on set was, I think, one of the best showbiz experiences I've ever had because he used to be a performer and a comedian. 

So, not only was he a director and giving notes on the performance, but there's nothing aggro about him. He's truly a warm, supportive, creative person.  He told me, “I want you to do the best performance you can do. How can I help you?” And it was just like – because sometimes you don't get any notes or anything and you're just operating in a vacuum. He’s just the best in the biz.

How is your creative process? How do you write your material?

Well, for example, like the Dita show, I would always start the tour with notes.  And then because we did like five shows a week, by the end of tour, I would have a stack of cards, which are somewhere over here. I still have a stack of cards.

I'm kind of like a vaudeville performer where I've worked everything out on stage.  And then I would know what worked. I would know it didn't work. And then I would tweak it each night, use different inflections and at the end, I had a solid opening that would work, even if the audience was terrible.

And then for my Christmas show and my show that I'm doing now, it's some of those bits.  And then I have it in a script. Last night I was writing jokes and stuff and then I'm going to try them at the festival. So, you know, first I'm out in the world and then I go in and do this so it's kind of backwards.

Now, you've done a lot, is there anything on your bucket list that you haven't done yet that you still want to do? 

You know, I always wanted to do this, and now it's kind of a dying breed, but I'll still do it. I mentioned Johnny Carson earlier, I want to have a late-night show, even if it's on YouTube or whatever, I want to do that kind of show. I think it would be perfect…some positive, fun energy. Meet some of my buddies. You know, showbiz!

Murray Hill Answers the Socialite Seven

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

That can be answered in so many different ways…but I'll say Bridget Everett.

What is your biggest pet peeve? 

Secondhand smoke.

If you wrote your autobiography, what would the title be?

Well, I am writing one.  I got a book deal with Simon Schuster. I think I’ve got to change the title, but it would be called Showbiz: The Story of Murray Hill. 

What superpower or talent would you like to wake up with tomorrow?

I would love to have the superpower of being able to sleep eight hours a day. I really want it!

What are three things you can't live without? 

I cannot live without iced coffee.  I can't live without my little nephews. I’ve got three of them. They're so cute…and I can't live without my girlfriend.

What are you most grateful for?

I'm most grateful for, uh, surviving my childhood and finding a chosen family.

What is the best piece of advice you've been given?

Well, it's advice I gave myself. I've said this before and I'll say it here.  If you don't see yourself represented, go out and represent yourself.

See Murray at the Netflix is a Joke festival on May 9. Watch him on Drag Me to Dinner and Life and Beth on Hulu and Somebody Somewhere on Max. Follow Murray on Instagram and on his website


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