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The Kvetcher in the Wry

Jackie Hoffman returns to Joe's Pub, and The Kvetching Continues. logo
Jackie Hoffman in her Hairspray dressing room
"I'm not your typical Broadway performer," cracks Obie Award winner Jackie Hoffman during a TheaterMania interview and photo shoot backstage in her dressing room between performances of Hairspray -- and you only have to watch her caress that toilet plunger to know how right she is. "Don't get me started on the backstage bathroom problems," she says before launching into one toilet story after another, the least of which concerns "slow flushing."

That Obie -- Best Actress for her trademark playing-of-several-roles in her good friend Amy Sedaris's hilarious The Book of Liz -- was neither Hoffman's first nor her last honor. The first was a Joseph Jefferson Award, Chicago's version of the Tony, which she won during her eight-year stint in the Windy City's famed Second City improv group. (That's where she and Sedaris first met.) Most recently, she picked up a 2003 Theatre World Award for her multiple roles in Hairspray. For those who've been out of the loop since July 2002, she plays three denizens of 1960s Baltimore in the smash hit: Penny Pingleton's aptly named mom Prudy, plus the high school gym teacher and a prison matron.

"Hairspray could well be my Broadway debut AND my swan song," says Hoffman, only half kidding. "It figures that the show that got me to Broadway would be based on a John Waters movie," the Queens native elaborates in her usual caustic, self-deprecating style. She'll be putting that style front and center in her new solo show, The Kvetching Continues, which may be seen at Joe's Pub on four consecutive Mondays starting tonight (January 19).

When Hoffman first came back from Chicago in '98, she started doing solo and/or variety shows of her own material at various venues around town, beginning with her acclaimed One Woman Shoe at Don't Tell Mama. "I was," she recalls, "that rarest of creatures: a Don't Tell Mama virgin." She's also created such holiday spectaculars as her recent Kosher Kristmas show, her Chanukkah Special (to benefit the Drama Dept.), and last season's Valentine's Day Massacre. "The only one I haven't done yet is a Passover Laughover," she remarks.

What's the genesis of Hoffman's comic genius? "My late father was damn funny and my mother's not only supportive, but she always says, 'If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have any material.' My mom's mantra is 'Don't give up the paycheck!' But comedy for me was also the only way not to get abused in high school." Just a tad over 5 feet tall and currently trim in her pink and brown striped form fitting wool dress and trendy beige Uggs -- "they're $100 knock-offs," she reports proudly -- Hoffman admits to having been a "short, fat kid with a rubber face. So comedy was always my strength, although I do remember singing to Sinatra's You Make Me Feel So Young when I was five. Which is pretty funny if you think about it.

For the most part, Jackie enjoys
her home away from home at the Neil Simon Theatre...
"I spent one summer at USDAN, a performing arts camp on Long Island, and went to NYU when the whole four years only cost $25,000. Alec Baldwin was a classmate of mine; that says it all." But then came Second City, for which troupe she wrote and performed while also acting in Chicago shows. "I did all the Julie Halston roles in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," she says. "Julie's a good friend and a great inspiration." Speaking of inspiration: Hoffman's list of comic heroes includes Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, and Woody Allen.

Another good friend is Chelsea neighbor John (Lypsinka) Epperson: "It was John who got me into the gay world [a major fan base for Hoffman]. God bless. They should live and be well." Epperson brought her to the attention of Kevin Maloney, artistic director of the Tweed Company and the mastermind of those fabulous drag show versions of such famous properties as The Women, Stage Door, and Caged. Through Tweed, she's worked not only with Epperson but with Julie Halston and Charles Busch as well; Maloney's also responsible for getting Hoffman started on her holiday specials.

Hoffman is surprised to find herself in Hairspray. "Usually, they don't let me audition for ANYTHING," she kvetches. And who are "they?" "Everybody!" comes the instant retort. "I didn't even go out for Fiddler; they'd probably say I'm too Jewish. But Marc Shaiman knew me from various Tweed shows and The Book of Liz, and he said, 'Why not get Jackie?' So Bernie Telsey [the casting director] called me at home on a Sunday for the reading the next day. Now, I'm pretty good at cold readings -- it's all that Second City time -- and it was originally only, like, two words per part. But I remember [director] Jack O'Brien saying, 'Well, you hit the ground running!'"

She was also up for a part in Jackie Mason's ill-fated Laughing Room Only. "Oh yeah, I had to choose between Hairspray and Closing Room Only," she snipes, then adds cryptically: "My mind is my worst enemy. By the time Hairspray was actually coming to be, Bernie also offered me something Off-Broadway. So there was this other choice, Broadway paycheck or Off-Broadway paycheck, and I chose Broadway because that's the kind of actor I am. It's all about the craft with me!"

She's never been higher profile than she is now, thanks to Hairspray on stage and Kissing Jessica Stein on screen. Nor is Hoffman a stranger to TV, having made several appearances on Amy Sedaris's Strangers with Candy. "I'd love to do a network TV series," she says, "but the next-door neighbor à la Rhoda Morgenstern or Millie Helper doesn't exist anymore." She was recently featured on HBO's cult fave Curb Your Enthusiasm, albeit as a sight gag: She played the girlfriend of a blind pianist, who claimed to be a model.

...even though, apparently, there's some sort of
problem with the sink.
And now it's time to plug the show at Joe's Pub. Although Hoffman has been quoted as saying "I hate solo shows" and has further confessed that "I closed Eighty Eights," she continues to write shows for herself, including her own song lyrics and parodies -- a carry-over from her Second City days, when "I learned to write on my feet." In October, she did If You Call This Living at the Pub. As for the new show, "It deconstructs my Hairspray experience; it's a backstage kvetch-all and post-Broadway blutter maching [Yiddish for 'making fun of']. I use the show any way I can for my own selfish ends, and I take on everyone.

"There's stuff about the hierarchy of celebrities visiting backstage, like when I pushed Tony Roberts aside to get to Siegfried and Roy -- particularly significant because I pushed aside a Jew to get to two Germans! There's stuff about the backstage toilets and stuff for my gay fans, especially a song I wrote called 'Gay Baby.' And there's a song about fame called 'Three Minutes on Broadway.' I don't want to give away too much, but Harvey [Fierstein] once called me the Gabby Hayes of the American Theater. You figure that one out.

"You know," Hoffman tells me, "I spent a week in Italy this summer with my boyfriend. He's a non-Jewish musician who understands me and gets out of the way. Life is so good, I have to be careful not to lose my unique take on the world. In all my shows, I basically kvetch and bitch and moan, but the worst thing I can say about my vacation is that I had to wait an hour and a half in the Rome airport. I mean, I'm in a Broadway show and I've got a cute boyfriend -- so this must be when they find the fucking tumors!"

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