Jackie Hoffman

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Acerbic Activist

Actress And Comedienne Jackie Hoffman Kvetches to A&U’s Dann Dulin About Fundraisers, Irresponsibility, And Prejudice. Listen Up!

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes / www.etccreativeinc.com

I was in pain and in tears. This is how I left Jackie Hoffman’s riotous standup performance several years ago. I was aching from laughter. No comic has ever injured me like that.

Meeting her in person is no different. Jackie has just completed a matinee performance of the knock-out musical The Addams Family, where she’s starring as Grandmama (the show closed the last day of 2011), and is informally dressed in a simple aquamarine skirt and dark rosy-pink tank top. We’re in her tiny dressing room on a high floor of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and directly outside her window is an invasive billboard size banner of Morticia Addams advertising the production.

After introductions, Jackie swiftly rips off a one-liner with her usual deadpan delivery, “Well, at least I got on the AIDS magazine before AARP.” She pauses for effect. “As soon as I turned fifty they kept sending me shit.” This month’s cover girl briskly flips through a copy of A&U. “I thought A&U stood for ‘Anonymous and Unknown’ since I’m going to be in the magazine.”

The self-proclaimed “Self-Deprecating Diva” immediately shifts to a caring mode. “Are you okay without back support?” she asks, referring to the recamier I sit on opposite her.

What first comes to mind, I ask, when she hears the words “HIV/AIDS”? With a sparkle of surprise in her eyes, Jackie replies, “Boy this is incredibly uncharacteristic of me…but hope.” Then she adds the kicker, “Unless you’re poor.” Seated in a yoga position, Jackie causally fools around with her pink-painted toenails. “It’s not unlike many other ailments out there. I have a friend who’s been living with HIV, god, for twenty-five years now. He’s
a visual artist who’s been featured in Artforum,” she says. “One of his first art projects that got major attention featured his childhood pictures with his face blacked out. The exhibition was titled, “Missing,” and it explored what life would be like without him there. It was very chilling. His name is Steed Taylor [A&U, April 2011] and he’s based a block away from me in Chelsea.” She strikes a somber face. “Boy, if Steed goes [dies], it’s going to be over for me!”

Jackie briefly looks at the sign that dangles from the doorknob, “Beware Of Sleeping Granny. Do Not Disturb.” (There’s also a sticker posted to the door that reads, “You say I’m a witch like it’s a bad thing.”) “For all the people I know who are HIV-positive, fortunately, I haven’t lost many friends, but one guy I know, who I adored, went out and had irresponsible sex the night of a breakup: ‘I’ll show him. I’ll kill myself.’ He got it that way! He could trace when he got HIV to that fateful night.” She shakes her head in disbelief.

To deal with the heartache of those she’s lost, Jackie has tirelessly volunteered her time to the cause. But now that the epidemic is sliding into its fourth decade, she’s fuming. “I once spoke to Tom Viola [executive director of Broadway Cares], who’s responsible for raising a billion dollars…,” she halts in mid-sentence, raises one eyebrow and in a very low tone dons a British accent and finishes, “off-the-backs-of-actors. I asked, ‘Why am I doing these events—working eight shows a week [on Broadway] is rough enough—when people with knowledge are irresponsibly fucking each other without condoms?’ And I got really really angry. He replied, ‘That’s a very good point. I agree. I’ll see you at the benefit at 2 pm….’” Jackie tosses her head to one side, shrugs, and then chuckles.

Agitated, she declares, “But I get infuriated. It kills me.” She closes her eyes, thinking. Her mood shifts slightly. “These irresponsible people need to be ‘Scared Straight’; well, I don’t mean ‘straight.’ They need to know that this is not…,” she changes course, “…my tax dollars are going to enough unnecessary crap and it’s appalling. This disease is still a serious thing. There’s still a lot of suffering involved and you can’t take a thousand dollars worth a pills [a month] and go on your merry way,” she says, exasperated. “Getting infected still happens. It still exists and it’s still very prevalent.” She takes a beat. “That, and drug addicts having babies piss me off. You don’t want [to get me started on] politics…”

For that, you’ll have to see her in concert. I wonder, does Jackie get tested? “Boy, not for a long time,” she reveals pensively. I ask if she has a lot of sex. Jackie lets out a searing, “Haaaa…!” followed by a ripple of giggles. “Well, once menopause hit, that died down. But look who I’m married to. Look how fuckin’ beautiful that is…,” she exclaims, pointing to a handsomely framed 5×7 colored portrait of an attractive man that rests on a table adjacent to her makeup area. “He’s my husband, Steve,” she proudly announces in a soft sing-songy voice. “Goooorgeous!”

Jackie returns to the question I posed. “Gee, the last time I got tested was when I lived in Chicago which would have been in the early nineties,” she supplies. In that time period AIDS was considered a death sentence, as the cocktails were still several years down the road yet. Since the scare was still in the air, Jackie kept a list of who she had sex with.

“My list read like a gay man’s list. I was very proud!” she remarks stately. “There was a guy from a deli, a guy from the supermarket—no names ya know—an improv teacher, someone’s husband. I heard that I should name everybody…,” Jackie stops, smirks, and remarks as an aside, “oh, my mother’s gonna love this article.”

“So I had the list, though I don’t know what good it would have done if I had to contact anyone. I didn’t know most of their last names,” she divulges quite honestly. “And then I thought, Ah, I better go through with this test, which I did. I remember my friend at Second City said, ‘Leap of faith. You took it, now it’s over, you just have to wait.’ Then I remember the doctor’s message got obscured on the machine. And all’s I heard”—she uses a garbled voice—“blag, blag, blag…something about ‘joy.’ What did he say??! Joy? Well, I guess it’s negative then. So I had a clean slate and then I started schtupping [just] one person at a time. Of course that comes with age. Who has the strength to run around anymore?! You have a libido and then it dies, which is so fucking cruel.”

She cracks a smile on that expressive rubber face of hers. Just then a piercing siren impedes our interview for a few seconds. She picks up where we left off. “The thing is, I looked old when I was five,” she explains genuinely. “So it’s not like I was a beauty who is aging. People would always tell me, ‘You’re going to grow into that face.’ So, ya know…I’m peaking.”

Jackie definitely is on top of her game appearing on The Great White Way.

“When an actor goes into New York theater, as opposed to being a farmer in Missouri, your free time is sucked up by this damn disease,” she complains tongue in cheek. “You do benefit after benefit.” Jackie’s debut on Broadway was opposite Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. (She won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of multiple roles.) Before Broadway, Jackie performed in many Off-Broadway shows including The Sisters Rosensweig and The Book of Liz, for which she won the Obie Award for Best Actress.

Ms. Hoffman’s talented puss has also graced both the small and big screen that includes John Waters’ A Dirty Shame, Garden State, Legally Blonde 2, and the touching film, Kissing Jessica Stein, where Jackie plays very pregnant. On television she’s appeared in 30 Rock, Strangers with Candy, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jackie is an unrepented scene-stealer and, fortunate for us, since the beginning of the year, she’s been piling up more guest spots on such shows as Melissa & Joey and Raising Hope. (In January she reprised her lauded one-woman show, Jackie Five-Oh in Los Angeles, performing it at the Gay and Lesbian Center, which benefited the organization.)

“I got into theater late. I was in my forties,” notes Jackie, rearranging the brown striped throw pillow behind her that she’s leaning on. “I wasn’t a part of that generation where you would come into the callboard and find like eight [performers] or the entire chorus are either out sick or dead. I can’t even imagine….what it must have been…what it must have been…like,” she repeats solemnly. “When I worked with Harvey Fierstein [A&U, June 1996], he’s a hardcore activist, I remember he would never call out sick—never, never, never! And when someone would call out sick he would frown on them. He had a great attitude about it. I remember him saying to me, ‘What good does it do to get sick?’ People would call in [sick, saying,] ‘Myyy throooat…’; ‘I have a shin-splint…,’” she moans in a whiny voice. “And I realized that Harvey had seen people who were”—she bristles with a boisterous thunder—“really fuckin’ sick!”

Jackie turns to me with urgency, as if she has a vital message to pass on to others. “Just as important as fundraising is the need for education. But there seems to be two separate worlds. There’s a world for rich white people and there’s a world for Africa. And where do we merge? Do we care? I’m a selfish person,” she admits, “and I care.

“I’ve been forced to care. I live for a gay audience and so I need to keep them alive.” She crosses one arm and twirls strands of her serious brown hair then adds, “What would my life be without gay people?” says the former member of the Second City troupe. Her tone is sullen and sentimental. Without a beat, she changes the subject. “I have this incredibly cruel line that’s on my CD.” She morphs into an announcer’s voice taking no breaths between words selling her product: “JackieHoffmanLiveatJoe’sPubisavailableat….” She pauses, then repeats the line from her album: “I don’t do benefits for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS anymore because all my friends are thriving on the new medications, so all those afflicted are really starving Africans and they don’t come to my shows.”

At times it’s difficult to separate the “Stage Jackie” from the “Private Jackie.” Is she being serious? Is she being funny? As with most comedians, beneath the laughter is a layer of truth. She says she is an old soul and her comedy is old school—certainly reminiscent of Joan Rivers and Woody Allen, and her timing is as precise as Lucille Ball. But make no mistake, Jackie is unique.

Though she jokes about not volunteering for Broadway Cares, she does indeed—and she volunteers for many other charities as well. One organization is the Treatment Action Group (TAG). They’re now an independent AIDS research and policy think tank that fights for better treatment. They work to ensure that all people with HIV receive lifesaving treatment, care, and information. After recalling several TAG events, Jackie muses, “Some of those benefits were really craaaazzzy. Something bizarre would always happen. One year I was lucky and had a hysterectomy and wasn’t able to do it. No, they haven’t come calling. But don’t say anything.”

Jackie is a laugh a riot though sometimes it’s difficult to follow her in conversation. She’ll start on a topic, sidestep to another, and along the way shoot off into fragmented snippets. This style of talking certainly lends itself to her skilled award-winning standup. For her sense of humor she thanks her “Madison Avenue” father. She keeps a framed black-and-white photograph of him propped up against her makeup mirror. In the photo, her late father is in business attire—white shirt and tie—seated behind his desk with a pipe extended from his mouth. He has a Broderick Crawford quality about him. “He was so funny,” Jackie asserts, “I adored him.”

After the interview, Jackie is hospitable and quickly shows me around backstage before the evening performance begins. As she leaves the dressing room she touches the mezuzah that’s fastened on the doorway. Descending the many staircases to exit, we pass fellow cast members, whom she introduces to me. As we near the backstage door, I casually ask Jackie who she considers heroes in the epidemic.

“I have to say that bastard Tom Viola,” she plainly states. “And every one in the theatre are my heroes, and every actor, every chorus person who busts their ass. We have a dancer here [in The Addams Family], Reed Kelly, who’s relentless.” She mimics him in a shrill irritating voice sounding like Stewie Griffin from Family Guy, “‘Would you just sign this playbill, Jackie?’” Her offhanded reply to him, “Get the fuck out!”

He did….after she graciously signed it.

JACKIE’S JOURNEYS

Where is you favorite place to disappear to?
On the couch, with the idiot box. Not very exciting, huh? I love sunlight and I love walking and that’s why I like New York. I have sacrificed an entire film and television career by not living in Los Angeles, because I loathe driving.

What’s your favorite movie of all time?
All About Eve.

What do you believe happens after we die?
[She pauses.] I think we go to sleep and we’re in like a REM kind of dream state. My father, who I adore ([ackie points to his photograph on her makeup table], and who was a Madison Avenue man, went in for a test and his heart stopped. He’s one of the few who can say what the other side was like. He told me, ‘I went into the most beautiful sleep and then I heard people screaming at me pounding on my chest.’ When he did die it made me feel so much better. It was like Oh, okay, he went into a beautiful sleep.

Share something that you fear.
Evvvverything! [She shouts.]

Did you model “Grandma” (The Addams Family) from your own grandparents?
She was just a general conglomeration of old lady. She kind of has a vocal quality of Granny on the The Beverly Hillbillies, some of the characters I performed at Second City, and a little Sophia from The Golden Girls.

How do you feel about ageing?
Not great. With the way the world is now and how incredibly stupid young people are! I’m glad I’m closer to death. Look what’s happened to the culture and to the theatre, to the general decay and the dumbing of the world. If I were younger, I wouldn’t want to live long and see how yet stupider everything’s going to get.

Name your favorite TV sitcom while you were growing up.
Oh, boy….[she ponders then rattles off] The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke Show [Jackie punctuates with enthusiasm], Get Smart—and I really liked Bewitched.

Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Let’s see. That’s such a great question. I would love to have met Bea Arthur, but she’s dead. Who’s alive? I finally got to read for Woody Allen. His head was down the whole audition. [She thinks a few seconds.] I would love to have met that whole Borscht Belt world, Jack Benny, you know, the past. I’m such an old soul and my comedy is so old school.

JACKIE’S “FAMILY”
Jackie provides a quick response to those who’ve intersected her life.

Amy Sedaris: More popular than me.

Nick Adams: He touched my ass.

Dan Akroyd: Sweet.

Jennifer Westfeldt: Generous.

Bebe Neuwirth: Fabulous.

Reese Witherspoon: Too many children.

Tina Fey: Jealous.

Larry David: Prick.

Nathan Lane: Funny . . . funny.

Harvey Fierstein: Hardcore.

John Waters: Champion.

Cheyenne Jackson: Centerfold.

David Sedaris: HE LOVES ME!

Zach Braff: Jewish.

Damon Wayans: Smoldering.

Alec Baldwin: Douche.

Jackie’s one word to describe herself: Everything!

Watch Jackie on-line at www.DANNandKELLY.com in “NY Promo” and “Show Clip Reel.”

Hair and makeup by Kyra Dorman for Artists by Timothy Priano.

For more information about Stephen Churchill Downes, log on to www.scd11.com.

Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.

March 2012