Murray Hill Is the Hardest-Working Middle-Aged Man in Show Business

Murray Hill Is the Hardest-Working Middle-Aged Man in Show Business

Since the 1990s, Murray Hill — Mr. Showbiz himself — has been a fixture of New York’s club scene as a comic, host and all-around entertainer. But in more recent years, people who haven’t seen him perform live in the city or on tour have had many more chances to get acquainted with him. He recurred on Hulu in Amy Schumer’s dramedy Life & Beth. He guest-starred on Fox’s Welcome to Flatch. But he’s probably best known to discerning comedy fans for Somebody Somewhere, where he plays Dr. Fred Rococo, a university soil scientist who, when we first meet him, moonlights as the host of an underground cabaret called Choir Practice. In the show’s second season, which concluded on Sunday, Fred stuns his friends Sam (Bridget Everett) and Joel (Jeff Hiller) by revealing that he’s reconnected with an old flame, Susan (Jennifer Mudge).

Hill is also the host of Drag Me to Dinner, all episodes of which dropped today on Hulu. The show, in which pairs of drag queens throw dinner parties on set themes (e.g. “Whoring 20s”), is an unscripted competition show in only the most technical sense: Most contestants cheerfully announce that they’ve done nothing to prepare, perhaps because they’re not that excited about prizes including duct tape, a “Cher-cuterie board” and a golden grater (“because one team is great, but the other is grater”).

I recently spoke with Hill about nailing Somebody Somewhere’s emotional finale, shooting Drag Me to Dinner at breakneck speed and which queen’s cooking he would actually risk eating.

What’s your elevator pitch for Drag Me to Dinner?

The elevator pitch is Drag Me to Dinner is a completely wild, hilarious, thrilling, unscripted drag queen cooking show. And they compete for a prize that's invaluable — that’s worth absolutely nothing. I’m the host of the circus.

The drag queens have to cook, make cocktails, and then throw a dinner party, and then they have to entertain at it. At the end of each episode, there’s the party, so you see everything come together, and that’s when the judges come in and enjoy all that stuff.

And thank God, that I didn’t have to go to the parties, because I love drag queens. I’ve known them forever. I’m part of the community. But I don’t want to eat anything they’re cooking.

How close do you think the judges were to getting food-poisoned at any given moment?

We did have medics on set. Okay? There may have been a few times where somebody had to drink a lot of water to flush some things out. No one had to go to the hospital, so I think that’s a good sign.

How did this opportunity come to you?

I’ve got to tell you, I’m very excited about this, because I’ve hosted every type of live show that you can imagine, for over 20 years. The gatekeepers haven’t had a drag king or a trans masc guy host a show with drag queens before.

David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris had me do — I didn’t know this at the time — kind of trial gig. They had me host a drag brunch, a big event during the Wine & Food Festival. They saw that I could hold my own with the queens — and that's saying quite a bit — and that I had a great rapport with them, because we’re all friends and we’re all from the same community. And that I could keep the show moving, because working with drag queens, they’re a lot of work. They’re a lot of work.

The shallow part of that is, I also looked good with them. Next to the drag queens, I look like a little short Italian man. I was the shortest person on set by about five feet.

You might be the only one without heels on, and that includes David and Neil.

Yes. I need to get some lifts made for Season Two.

You’re no stranger to hosting, as you said — did you get notes about altering your persona for a wider audience?

What’s surprising about this show is, not only were we allowed to be who we were, we were encouraged to bring the energy that all of us have been crafting in the night clubs for a long time. They didn’t ask us to dull it down. There’s a few words that they asked us not to say — the B word, the C word, the F word, those kinds of things. There’s still Standards & Practices. But yeah, I didn’t have to tone anything down. I think something that I’ve learned performing in New York and all over the country, in different cities and small towns, is what line to go to. Personally, I always want to be accessible to everybody. And I feel like that’s how we build bridges. The queer community, the mainstream community, if I can speak to you and the home court, then there's a better chance we're all going to get along. 

Obviously some of your patter was prepared, but how much were you allowed to go off script during shooting?

Well, we shot this in two and a half weeks, an episode a day. I didn’t know what was happening. A lot of that is not scripted. The structure was set up, but I didn’t know what the queens were going to do, what they were going to wear, what they were going to say, what they had planned. I knew absolutely nothing.

The canned lines that I had to say to explain to them, “Oh, now we’re going on a break,” or “Ten minutes left,” or whatever, that was by the book. But the rest of it is pure, in-the-moment, spontaneous reaction to being like, “What is going on?” So I think the show feels very fresh, because it’s like I’m having the same reaction as the audience: “What? Come on.”

Are there party themes you’d like to see in the second season that didn’t come up in the first?

I would like to see an Italian theme party, definitely. A mixer would be fun with this crowd, like a singles party. Cookouts, barbecues, New Orleans night, Southern night, birthday parties, same-sex marriages. There could be themes for days. What I would like to see — this is just me, perhaps, being selfish — is just a carbohydrates theme.

Maybe a baked potato bar?

Yeah. Potato party. A tater-tot night. That’s what I want.

The Somebody Somewhere finale, which just aired last weekend, hinges on the wedding of your character, Fred Rococo, which is also the setting for a tribute to Sam’s father Ed, and to Mike Hagerty, who played him. What was it like shooting it?

It was incredibly emotional. Mike has been in so many important Chicago productions and real old-school character acting. He was already like a father to us showbiz-wise.

It was a real blow to have that tragedy happen. We wanted to honor him throughout the season. The first episode, where Sam is very emotional about him leaving, that was her really paying respect to him passing. And the wedding is the next level of the whole community coming together and paying respect to him, honoring him, and then looking ahead to what’s going to come next. What’s life going to be like without him? Fred has a little bit of a paternal vibe to him too. It was very emotional.

I wasn’t trained as an actor. I was doing comedy in the clubs. And the scenes that I had with Mike in Season One and around the wedding this season actually felt real to me. I’m not very pretentious about it or talk about it that much. But those moments, those emotions felt real, and a lot of that comes out in the season.

Did you know before Season Two how much of Fred’s love story was going to drive the plot?

No, because sadly, the writers were going to really develop my relationship with Ed. They had to rewrite everything, two or three weeks before we started. I don’t even know if there was a wedding in my future in Season Two before Mike died. 

It’s strange how the timing works out, because as you know, this isn’t a good time for queer people. I guess it’s not a good time for anybody who’s not a certain type of person. Everybody’s screwed. But the queer and the trans community is getting a lot of blowback right now. And it’s just so great to have Fred as a character that isn’t coming out of the gate saying, “I’m trans. I’m different. Accept me. Call me this. Do this. Do that.” The show shows Fred like they show Joel, like they show Sam, like they show anybody else.

My opinion is, it’s best when we can show that queer people and trans people have the same heart. We’re human. We’re all people. Who could watch Somebody Somewhere and not like Fred? And when you see Fred, you’re not like, “Oh, trans people are scary,” or “They’re ruining my children,” whatever the fear talk is. Part of the show that’s quietly radical is that it just shows Fred and Joel as people, as part of the community in a small town. And guess what. Everybody’s fine.

Fred’s just living his life. He’s just a soil scientist in a golf shirt.

Don’t talk to me about those pants they made me wear on set. Pleated khakis.

Based on how long these things take, I assume you were shooting both Somebody Somewhere and Drag Me to Dinner in a different environment, before the hysteria about drag and trans people had become so deafening. How has it been seeing it escalate, not just for you as a person living in this country, but also knowing you had these shows on the way?

Well, I’m very, very happy and privileged that HBO and Hulu support queer programming. And I read that there’s been a backslide in queer representation over the last year. And of course, that’s not a coincidence. It’s corporate. It’s money, capitalism, all that stuff.

The fact that Hulu is releasing the show is big. We’re not backing down. They’re not backing down. They’re a huge corporation, and Drag Me to Dinner is going to be their centerpiece all June. And they’re also going to show live Pride parades on TV. I’m going to be doing the Al Roker part for the one in New York. To me, it’s just a great way to say, “We’re here. We’re alive. We’re having fun. We’re good people. We’re loving people. And we just want equal rights. It’s not that deep. It’s not that difficult.”

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