New York icon Murray Hill, “The Hardest Working Middle-Aged Man in Show Business” talks Don Rickles, Dita, cheeseburgers, Texas, Swedish Fish, biographies and showbiz.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
I love how you describe yourself as simply an entertainer, as opposed to a stand-up comedian, burlesque show host, etc., as these are not really accurate descriptions. I read a 2009 interview in which you said, “I’m not up there with some great message, or going to talk about how messed up our country is, or work out my demons for an hour, I’m an entertainer, you see.” Can you tell our readers a little more about the development of your style as a performer and how it’s changed over the years (or if it hasn’t changed a bit?)
Entertainer is an old-school term these days, but it’s what I do. Simply put, I entertain. I’ve always made a conscious decision to play to as many different audiences as possible and to knock down that fourth wall…even if there isn’t one. With blood, sweat, and tears (sometimes all at once) I earned the best showbiz education available…pounding the boards of New York City in every dump, dive, and high class joint imaginable. What’s changed over the years, I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt, and a belly hanging over my belt. I’m like my Grandpa’s La-Z-Boy recliner…I’m beat up, worn in, but totally comfortable.
Obviously the burgeoning neo-burlesque scene in New York is a great avenue for your style, and I’ve read that in some ways you compare your style to that of Don Rickles, who got started in burlesque clubs. Rickles eventually earned the reputation of being an insult comedian, but I’m curious to hear your take on where the line is drawn between making a joke and alienating your audience with too many insults. How do you know when to draw the line, especially when so much of your material comes from off the cuff?
Working the burlesque scene has been a Reese’s peanut cup from day one. It just works. The showgirls, the booze, the energy. I’ll take a lounge, theater, nightclub over a comedy club any night of the week. Don Rickles is the Master. To truly understand his act, you need to see or listen to it from beginning to end. Unlike the crass insult comics, or really most stand-ups today, he had a heart and he was all class. He never came from a mean place. It’s a subtle difference but it’s palpable as an audience member. Comedy clubs are often cold places, Rickles is all warmth. Ironically, he’s called Mr. Warmth…in reality, that’s the vibe of his shows. I love this quote from him: “If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny.”
The line is thin between alienating people and making them in on the joke is hair thin. Based on your earlier question…after years and years of doing this, I’ve learned how to play that line and not go too far. In the early days, I wasn’t as disciplined as I am now and sometimes schtick went too far or negative. One of my biggest priorities is making sure any room I play is warm. That’s showbiz.
You just got done hosting a string of sold out shows featuring Dita von Teese. Care to share a few of your favorite highlights from the tour?
So many highlights, that could be its own interview and reality show! Working with Dita is like being in the major leagues. It’s all pro, all the time. She’s elevated burlesque through the roof and into the mainstream. My Texas debut was in Dallas and that show was a personal highlight. The energy was high-voltage so I gave it back full blast and then some. To have a sold-out house flip out like a stadium rock ‘n roll concert for burlesque, well, that’s showbiz. That’s warmth. Nothing I love more than bringing all kinds of people together and presenting them with a jaw-dropping show. The Texas audiences blew me out of the water.
I must say, it was about 110 degrees that day. At the after party, a very busty and sexy woman came up to me and said, “I know it’s a federal crime, but I want to kidnap you. I know it’s hot baby, but I got a pool. I’ll even clean it.” I’ve been in showbiz a long time, that’s one of the best line’s I’ve heard. A little later in the night, a fox screamed out “Marty! You my boo! You crazy, you funny, you my boo Marty! You crraaazzyy.” That had me laughing too!
You were a photographer when you first came to New York, and much of your subject matter was related to drag queens. How did you make the transition from photographer to performer, and what made you decide to go that route?
That’s a long story. I’ll tell ya, I saw a discrepancy in representation out there, so I became the subject matter I didn’t see. I like to say, if you don’t feel represented out there, then go out there and represent yourself. Photography is a powerful medium but it’s silent in a way. I wanted to have a voice (even though it can be high-pitched at times) and take up some space. I wanted to even the playing field so to speak. So eventually I put the camera down and jumped on the other side of the camera. Through performances, I’ve traveled the world, met so many people and made some history in the process. That beats hanging a picture on a wall any day. Although, I wouldn’t mind my double-chin being photoshopped.
You have been incredibly busy as of late, and I’m astounded at the number of notable appearances and cameos that you’ve made on television programs and music videos. Which of your recent appearances was the most exciting for you and why?
They don’t call me the “hardest working middle-aged man in show business” for nothing! I love being in a Gossip video and then being on Real Housewives of New York. Keeping it real, and keeping it showbiz. It was a great honor to have a cameo in HBO’s “Bored to Death.” Jonathan Ames, one of my showbiz pals from the East Village created the show after years of hitting the boards in NYC and has hit the big time. A real inspiration, and he never lost his unique voice.
As a notorious meatatarian, I share with you a strong affinity for cheeseburgers. Tell me about Murray’s dream burger. I want to know everything- the bun, the meat (rare, medium, well?), toppings and assorted condiments, as well as your preferred side dish and beverage, if you wish to include that (though they obviously take a backseat to the burger.)
Incredible how many double entendres I read in this question. I love a good cheeseburger, and my preferred side dish is the legendary Dirty Martini. Cheeseburger and fries, straight up, that’s my favorite. I’ve had to cut down on my cheeseburger consumption to just remain 20 pounds overweight. It’s tough in the biz, I tell ya. Right now, the recent best burger I’ve had is at the joint in Brooklyn called 5 Leaves. Also, I’m addicted to Swedish Fish candy. Ladies out there, it’s a real weakness for me. I’ll do anything for a bag of Swedish Fish.
What’s next for Murray Hill?
Waking up before noon tomorrow! Rimshot. Small, attainable goals are the key to life. Next up is shooting a TV show in London this fall on Channel 4 called Dirty Digest. I can’t wait! I’ve spent a lot time over there filming pilots, and one of the planes got picked to fly. And, because this recent southern tour was a blow-out, I think Dita and her VonTourage have some more shows cooking! It’d be great to share the showbiz all over! Of course, make sure to check on http://mistershowbiz.com !
Anything you’d like to add?
You know I’m a showbiz biography addict? I’ve got a big library of showbiz books here at the headquarters. When I get a chance, I’m going post The Murray Hill Book Club on my website. I’m a student of showbiz, so to speak. I’m reading Keith Richards and Roseanne’s new book right now. Some favorites are books on Jimmy Scott, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Benny Hill….and I read everything on the old Catskills and comedians that worked the resorts, or the “hills” as they used to say. Sitting on my desk, waiting to be cracked open is Tina Fey, Kay Thompson and Dancing at Ciro’s. Readers out there: send me your favorite showbiz books to listmurrayhill[at]gmail.com!
Check out more of Murray on his website See him perform at the upcoming New York Burlesque Festival