From San Antonio to HBO: Comedian Jeff Hiller reflects on comedy career

The comic is back in Texas for Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival.

By Sean SaldanaApril 16, 2024 2:14 pm,

When people think of comedy, they often first think of New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. These are cities that have improv scenes, big creative communities, and a lot of opportunities to get noticed. 

Well, what about Austin? There’s a growing comedy community in the capital city, which hosts the annual Moontower Comedy Festival

Jeff Hiller is a comedian who’s been in the industry for more than two decades and worked on shows like “30 Rock,” “Community” and, most recently, the critically acclaimed HBO series “Somebody Somewhere.”

He’s also a San Antonio native who recently made a trip back to his home state for the Moontower Fest. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How would you describe your comedy when you’re on stage? Not when you are performing on the screen.

Jeff Hiller: I think I would be considered an alt comic. I lean more into storytelling and just mining stuff from my life. Don’t say anything around me that you don’t want on stage, because I will take it.

So what was it like growing up in San Antonio? How did that inform your career as it stands now?

Well, I spent my entire childhood here, so yeah, it must have informed me somewhat, right? I think that one of my jokes in my standup is San Antonio – it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to grow up gay there in the ’80s.

I mean, can you give me a little sense about, I don’t know, just what was it like there in the ’80s? If you close your eyes and put yourself back, what’s it feel like?

Don’t make me close my eyes and put myself back. What is this, therapy?

You know, I am sort of flippant about it, but it was difficult to be different. I’m sure it would probably be difficult to be different anywhere. But, you know, I was growing up in a place that worships football on Friday nights. And I was like, “what about choir concerts?” And they were like, well, “that’s not right.”

Well, when did you know that you wanted to pursue making people laugh?

Well, it took me a long time. It was much easier to come out as gay than as a comedian. Everybody knew I was gay. Nobody knew I wanted to be a comedian.

The thing I did was, I was a social worker for a few years, in Denver, Colorado, and I started doing improv on the side. I was like the coworker that you’re like, “oh, God, he’s going to ask me to come to his improv show.” And, you know, the first taste was free and then I really went in all depth and was just a real hardcore improviser. And then eventually started doing stand up, too. 

What was it about improvisation that lit up your brain? 

Well, it is, I mean, people like to make fun of improv. Rightly so.

But it is an art form, and it’s something that is fast and exciting and fun. And it’s this thing that you can’t do by yourself. You have to have somebody else with you. And you don’t even need an audience. But you do need another partner to come up with something that you could never come up with on your own, but you and your partner could come up with something fascinating and interesting. 

I love that communal aspect of it, and I love the quickness of it and the fastness of it, and the fact that you can play a cockroach or a rock and do something that you would never be cast in on television, let’s say. There’s a freedom there that you don’t necessarily get with acting, and I love that. I love improv for that. 

That’s much different from stand up, though – I mean, I guess the inherently collaborative nature of improv, along with the fact that with stand up, presumably, you’re performing a routine that you have practiced a lot of these beats and jokes. I mean, is that an accurate characterization? Can you tell me a little bit about how you approach them, because of their differences?

Yeah. You do have to write stand up, which is why I started it much later than I did.

Sounds like a lot more work.

Oh, my God, it’s a pain. And, you know, improv shapes it, too. Like a lot of times I’ll improvise something on stage and then keep that for future performances.

But my standup is almost like therapy. I don’t mean to say that if you come, I’m just going to whine at you for an hour. But it’s a wonderful way to process the world. And so it’s, I don’t know, I mean, if I’m going to get really deep, I’m going to tell you it’s good for my mental health, but also, you know, fart jokes.

Fart jokes are also good for your mental health from time to time.

That is very true. I subscribe to that theory. 

Rachel Parker

Comedian Jeff Hiller performs on stage at the State Theatre in Austin during the Moontower Comedy Festival.

What’s it like coming back to Texas to perform? 

It was great. It was like I was getting married to myself because afterwards, when I went out after the show, it was like, you know, people from my college and one of my old babysitters and my choir teacher.

It almost sounds like a Tom Sawyer funeral.

It was a Tom Sawyer funeral. And, let me tell you, mine’s going to be great, and there’s going to be a lot of people there. 

Is there anything that you find yourself wanting to talk about more when you come home? Or maybe the opposite – subjects you perhaps want to avoid?

Well, that is the thing. When I do this show in front of an audience of people who I don’t know, it’s much easier because some of these stories that I’m telling in this particular show, people who are in those stories are in the audience. And I find that very stressful stuff.

But, you know, nobody yelled. So, I guess it all ended up great in the end.

What’s on your plate now? Tell me about the projects that you’re working on.

Well, I’m going to continue to tour this show, and I shot season three of “Somebody Somewhere,” which will be coming out sometime in the near future. Lots of irons in the fire. We’ll see. 

Like you said, you came down here for the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin. Do you perceive any changes in the comedy scene writ large in Austin?

I mean, yeah, I think so. I feel like there’s improv theaters here. There’s a lot more standup clubs than I remember. Even growing up in the ’80s, when there was the stand up boom, I feel like there were sort of one or two clubs, and now there’s nights at different venues and also dedicated standup clubs.

And I think that people are also not afraid to try different types of comedians and different types of comedy, and I think none more so than Austin. You know, Austin is the city in Texas that’s willing to try it all. And I appreciate them for that.

That’s what they like to think.

Keep it weird. 

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