Murray Hill is busy. When we speak in March, he’s got three different TV shows streaming on three different networks, he’s writing a memoir, and he’s working on a pitch for his own Murray-led detective show. Even his recent well-deserved Miami vacation turned chaotic when the mayor enacted a curfew following two shootings in one weekend. “As much as it’s nuts, I didn’t realize it was spring break,” he explains from the safety of his home in New York City. “Why are there cops on horses and children with coolers and White Claws?” It’s no wonder then that the self-proclaimed “hardest working middle-aged man in show business” claims 2 p.m. is “the morning.” He needs his rest!
If Hill is having a mainstream moment now, though, it’s only because he spent years grinding, hosting drag bingo nights and performing his act in clubs in a pre-gentrified East Village. In N.Y.C., he’s something of a local celebrity, having emceed all manner of pageants and fundraisers (including BUST events). Real Housewives fans may also recognize him from his cameo in Countess Luann’s “Feelin’ Jovani” music video, or as the opening act from her 2019 cabaret tour.
It’s difficult to draw a clear line between Murray Hill the character and Murray Hill the person, but the gist is this: The character is a mustachioed wisecracker in a jaunty three-piece suit who could have traveled in a time machine directly from 1973. The person is that, too, just on a smaller scale. “After 25 years of therapy, I can say I’ve reached a place in my life where there is some separation between onstage and offstage life,” Hill explains. “When I’m home, I’m kinda, sorta relaxed. I’m not as full-blown as when the suit is on.”
Murray Hill the character has always been 50, but now Hill the person is, too—and he’s seen it all. “It’s such a long-winded, crazy story,” he says, before launching into the Cliffs Notes version of his evolution into Murray Hill, aka Mr. Showbiz. “I grew up in a tumultuous, Irish and Italian Catholic household,” he recalls of his New England childhood. “I never felt safe or accepted.” He threw himself into extracurricular activities to escape the turmoil at home, playing sports and joining any school groups he could—but not the drama club. “I was never consciously interested in performing as a kid,” he says. Even so, he still found his way into a costume or two. “Instead of writing a book report, I’d show up to school dressed as the character. Coincidently, it was always male characters. I started young.” Things began to improve in the early 1990s when Hill moved to Boston for art school, where he was exposed to the photography of Diane Arbus. “I came from a very conservative background,” Hill explains. “Closeted, had no idea what gay, queer, or trans meant. I didn’t know anything.” Arbus’ work, however, ignited something in him. “To me, it was seeing other kinds of people,” he recalls. “And having her take photos of these people that were in the margins, but she gave them the same importance as the mainstream. She was looking at them, but she was also giving them equal light.” A few years later, he moved to Manhattan after transferring to N.Y.C.’s School of Visual Arts. “I went to Wigstock, like, the second or third day that I was in town,” he says, referring to the legendary East Village drag festival. It was there that Hill had another light-bulb moment. “Everyone’s taking pictures of drag queens. There’s gay men everywhere,” he recalls. “Where are the women? Where are the lesbians? And I thought to myself, ‘Is there something on the other side of this spectrum that we just don’t see?’”
There was, and Hill eventually found it in a drag king show in the (again pre-gentrified) Meatpacking District. While he was impressed, he still thought there was something missing. “It was, like, serious,” he recalls. “It was about passing, being masc. The people that were on stage, they didn’t perform. They just would walk up and down and ‘present,’ so to speak.”
The missing link was comedy, and Hill wanted to change that. He started performing in N.Y.C. wearing a blazer and painting on chest hair. “I looked more like a lounge lizard back then,” he jokes. His stage moniker, Murray Hill, M came later, and was inspired by exactly what you think it was: the Manhattan neighborhood of the same name, where he was living at the time.
Dressed in a natty suit, Murray Hill looked like a drag king, but the heart of his act was comedy in the vein of old-school Borscht Belt stand-ups like Joey Adams, with a bit of the big-ego energy—and old-school sexist attitude—of a star like Jackie Gleason. The jokes were as important as the outfit, and, in Hill’s mind, one didn’t exist without the other. He started headlining his own shows and hosting parties, and finally, the grind paid off. By the mid-aughts, he was landing gigs at Joe’s Pub and touring with the likes of Dita Von Teese and Le Tigre. As Hill would say—“Showbiz!”
While Hill became a star in certain circles, drag kings remained on the margins, which remains true today. You won’t find drag kings on RuPaul’s Drag Race or its many spinoffs, and you probably won’t see them at your local all-you-can-drink drag brunch. “It’s still so imbalanced, it’s insane,” says Hill. “If you step back and look at society and pop culture, it just regenerates or regurgitates the sexism. It’s, like, triple-layered.”
Hill now identifies as transgender, but he’s adamant that he prefers the word “comedian” over any other label. “From very early on, I chose not to identify by my sexuality, orientation, or other IDs,” he explains. “First, I don’t fit in any category. To choose one, for me, feels reductive. More importantly, I want to be treated like everyone else.
You never read something like, ‘Pete Davidson, a white heterosexual male comedian, plays Madison Square Garden.’
If you’ve seen Hill perform, you may have heard him address this subject with one of his signature jokes. “I’m reading your mind, sir,” he’ll say to a slightly confused club patron. “You’re thinking, ‘Is it a man or a woman?’ Sir, the answer is no.”
Career-wise, Hill’s not interested in replicating anything that’s already out there, but he does want to see more inclusion for performers who fall outside of the now relatively mainstream box. “I’ve made a slight, tiny, little crack in the glass ceiling with these last two shows,” he says, “so it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.” These “last shows” include HBO’s Somebody Somewhere, created by and starring Bridget Everett. The semiautobiographical series follows a 40-something Kansas woman (Everett) as she copes with the death of her sister. Hill plays Sam’s pal Dr. Fred Rococo, an emcee who also happens to be a soil scientist. HBO has already renewed the series for a second season.
Hill and Everett “go way back.” After meeting through friends, Hill invited Everett to perform with him, and the rest is history. “We’re buddies,” Hill explains. They also lived together with their Somebody Somewhere costar Jeff Hiller while filming season one, which shot in the suburbs outside of Chicago. “Those two would totally have girls’ night and watch every single fucking HGTV show ever invented, and I would literally lose my mind,” Hill recalls. “I’m like, ‘Well, if we’re gonna watch this, then we have to watch basketball.’”
Life & Beth, meanwhile, premiered on Hulu in March and stars Everett’s friend Amy Schumer as the titular character. The dramedy is far more subdued and impressionistic than most of Schumer’s previous work, and that sensibility also extends to Hill’s character, who is named Murray but is a smarmy middle manager who gets excited about sales charts. “Amy had seen me at Joe’s through Bridget’s recommendation,” he explains. “And then she was like, ‘I want to work with you at some point.’” Showbiz!
And finally, there’s Welcome to Flatch, a Fox sitcom helmed by former Sex and the City writer Jenny Bicks. The documentary-style show follows the quirky residents of the fictional Midwestern town of Flatch. Hill is one such resident—a local magic shop owner who peddles vapes on the side—and executive producer Paul Feig wrote the role specifically with him in mind. “He’s always dapper,” Hill says of the Bridesmaids director, who he first met at a Hollywood afterparty. “We just hit it off over our suits. It was like a dandy connection.” (You know what word comes next.)
While all three of these roles incorporate elements of the Murray Hill that fans know and love from his cabaret performances, they’re all different from each other—and they’re not the same Murray experience you’d see in a downtown theater, either. “My base level for Murray on stage is like, I start at about a 10,” he explains. “With TV, you can’t really start at a 10 unless you’re getting run over by a bus. I had to really tone it down, dial it back.”
At this point, Hill tells a story about a voiceover part he recently didn’t get. “It was to play a deadpan starfish,” he says. “And guess what? I couldn’t do it. I actually could not do it. [The casting director] was like, ‘Wait, you sound happy again.’ My talking like a dead corpse sounded like I just won the lottery.”
Hill does seem incapable of being in a bad mood, but that preternatural optimism is hard won. Just as he was gearing up for his year of TV domination, he lost almost everything in a fire at his apartment building in Brooklyn. As it happens, the fire occurred on Thanksgiving, which was also Hill’s 50th birthday—he refers to the incident as “universe shit.” Still, there were some small mercies. No one, including Hill, was hurt in the blaze, and his fans raised more than $180,000 to help him relocate.
So if a four-alarm fire can’t keep him down, then it’s hard to imagine him getting too upset over losing out on that talking starfish role—and who would want a dialed-down Murray when you could have the full package in all his schtick-y glory? Plus, he’s got plenty of other projects to keep him busy. He’s planning to tell all in a memoir tentatively titled My Life as a Man: The Story of a Girl, Who Thought She Was a Boy, Who Became a Middle-Aged Man to Survive, and he’s working on a pitch for his own show called Sonny Sugarman Detective Agency—starring himself, of course. “It’s like a cross between Magnum P.I., Colombo, and Benny Hill,” he says. But perhaps the most exciting news in Hill’s life is a new romance. “I have a special lady friend,” he admits. “I’m literally middle-aged, and it took me 30 years of trial and error to meet the woman of my dreams.”
One thing he’s not sure about is whether he’ll regularly return to the stage. “I’m going to always do the live stuff, but I’m really trying to do some more projects,” Hill explains, referring back to his earlier comments about the glass ceiling. “Now I have an ice pick and a mallet, and I got a couple of hits and there’s a little crack, so now I gotta get through.” Say it with me this time: Showbiz!
Photos by Lauren Silberman, photographed at TV Eye at N.Y.C.
This article originally appeared in BUST’s Summer 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!