Leslie Jordan on Being a 'Show Pony'
In a world of muscle-bound young hunks, Leslie Jordan -- diminutive as he is, at 4'11" -- proves that talent can come packaged in something other than the cookie-cutter figure of the six-foot-plus buff stud.
"I think its gotta be a lovability," Jordan told EDGE, when asked what the most important inner quality might be for a performer. "I have been through this so many times over the years. When they started casting gay people [for television], they wanted Niles from 'Frasier.' I mean, he wasn't even gay on the show! But they wanted urbane and witty, and I remember I was reading for that gay part on 'Sex and the City' -- that a straight man ended up getting, Willie Garson, who is a friend of mine -- and they kept saying, 'Can you do it again, and do it like this, and do it like that?' I lost my temper in front of Darren Star. I said, 'What about lovability? You know? I am one lovable cocksucker! Is that not a selling point at all?'"
"Justin Timberlake brought back sexy," the actor-writer dynamo added. "I want to bring back silly! What happened to silly? Carol Burnett was silly; that was a silly, silly, silly show. We don't have to have a message, and we're not saving the world. We're just entertaining!"
Jordan brings his recent one-man show Show Pony to Boston's Club Cafe on July 29 and 30. For more information, visit the Club Cafe website.
Entertainment, of course, is a tough business. To be successful at 'just' entertaining means being graced with formidable natural gifts and an unstoppable work ethic. For Jordan, travel, performance and creativity form a ceaseless cycle. But the work has brought rewards, not the least of which was the Emmy that Jordan won in 2006 for his recurring role as Beverly Leslie on "Will & Grace."
Jordan, who hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee, is as adept at drama as comedy; he had a role in the Oscar-winning film "The Help," as well as numerous roles on dramatic television. But for his gay fans, it's as Leslie, as well as Brother Boy in Del Shore's comedy "Sordid Lives," for which he's probably best known. Recently, he's also garnered favorable notice for his turn in Shores' play "Southern Baptist Sissies," the movie version which has been filmed as a stage production.
Stage or screen, Jordan is accomplished. As a playwright and stage performer, Jordan has brought his one particular brand of serious silliness to audiences around the country, with the play "Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel" and one-man shows "My Trip Down the Pink Carpet" and "Stories I Can't Tell Mama."
Jordan's "Show Pony," premiered a year ago in Provincetown and Ogunquit.
About 'Show Pony'
For those wondering just what the title of the piece suggests, here's our answer: It's how Jordan felt once he'd reached what's popularly supposed to be the apex of an actor's recognition.
"What 'Show Pony' is actually going to be about is how, after I won that Emmy in 2006, I thought, 'Well, I'm just set,'" Jordan revealed. "That's the mistake people in the entertainment industry make: You win an Oscar, you win an Emmy and you think you're just set for life! But it doesn't happen that way."
"You think it's gonna lead to something," Jordan added. "It led to absolutely nothing. The only thing I can say that Emmy did for me was that I rarely have to audition. My manager will say, 'Listen, he won an Emmy. If you want him, make an offer. But other than that...I mean, at one point I remember calling my manager and saying, 'I can't eat this Emmy! The money's not coming in!'"
Among other things, "Show Pony" tackles the theme of what it means to struggle for artistic well-roundedness in a line of work that frequently rewards a single note.
"Hollywood is... I don't know... I think it started about thirty years ago," Jordan reflected. "I had this really evil casting director tell me, when we tried to set up some meetings for me to have my own show, he said, 'Leslie's gonna have a long, storied career as the funny guy who comes in with the zingers. He's congenial, but he can't carry a show.' So that's why as early as 1992 I started writing one-person shows, to try to prove to Hollywood that I can stand on stage for an hour and a half and hold people's attention. I've been doing that now for thirty years, and Hollywood still hasn't come calling."
Of course, if Hollywood did come calling with an offer for a series of his own, Jordan would be loathe to give up the multi-faceted and peripatetic career he's established for himself.
"I told my manager, and it really shocked him, I said, 'Billy, for thirty years I have been an actor for hire. I've done every sitcom. Now you have spoiled me by allowing me all this leeway of going all around the country, writing my own stuff. I'm my own boss; if a joke doesn't work, I rewrite it, and I am so used to that.'"
"I've been recurring on 'Raising Hope,' and I'm just miserable," Jordan went on to confide. "I'm funny, and I do my usual shtick, but I don't get the kind of rush that I get walking on stage. So if I did do a variety show or something on television, I would want to be the executive producer, I would want to write it."
Biggest Stumbling Block?
But, Jordan added, the prospect seemed unlikely: "I won an Emmy for being the supporting character, and Hollywood will not allow me [to break away from that]."
"Greg Garcia, who wrote 'My Name is Earl' and 'Raising Hope,' wrote a series for me called 'Super Clyde,' about a kid and his butler who were trying to be super heroes," said Jordan. "At the last minute, somebody at [the network] was a dissenter and wanted me to come in and audition -- for a part that was written for me! I should have taken my Emmy in there and said, 'Here's your fuckin' audition!'"
"I hate to say this," Jordan continued, "but I'm pretty sure it was the gay man in the room. For some reason, my biggest stumbling blocks over the years have been gay men! There was a time when we all supported one another, but I have to tell ya -- and I can say this because I am gay -- you put a gay man in a position of power and it's not pretty. I don't know what that's about."
"To make a long story short, I didn't get the part," Jordan concluded. "They hired Stephen Fry, and they said it was so bad it wasn't even watchable. It never made it on the air."
Another opportunity for a Jordan-centered sitcom similarly failed to pan out. "A couple of years ago, [a certain cable channel] wanted to get into the comedy business. They hired Kelsey Grammar, and he produced and directed a sitcom for me and Cybill Shepard. It never made it on the air," Jordan said. "If Kelsey Grammar can't get me on [a cable channel], what's the fuckin' point? I know I'm 58 years old and I'm old news, and I go in to pitch to teenagers...I went in to HBO to pitch a few week ago, and I'm telling you, they were in their 20s. They didn't even know who I was. They just kinda sat there and stared at me. And they had the attention span of a gnat. Don't get me started!"
Still, Hollywood's mercurial nature notwithstanding, it seems as though Jordan is doing pretty well for himself.
"Oh, I'm doing excellent on my own," the entertainer declared. "Here's the problem: I have a marketing firm out of Palm Springs that books me, and I'm up to about 45 venues a year.
"I'm not really tired; it's not that. Traveling is not fun any more, as you can imagine. It teaches you a whole lot of patience. I'll stand behind somebody who's screaming at the lady at the counter and I just want to say, 'Honey, they have a pill for that these days.'"
An Evil Twin?
EDGE suggests that maybe Jordan, being a professional funny man, has an edge over other frustrated travelers when things go wrong. After all, his gift is to take life's lemons and make comic gold.
"I'll tell you my other trick [when I'm facing a tough situation]. I say to them, "Have you seen 'Will and Grace?'" And they go, "What?" And I'll say, "I'm just wondering if you've ever seen 'Will & Grace.'" They'll say, "What has that got to do with anything?" "Well, I was on that show, and I've never, ever used this to get help, but..." And all of a sudden they'll look at me and go, "Oh my goodness! I love you! Sure, I can help you!"
After an amusing side-trip into a tall tale about a ticketing error at an airline (resolved once the representative realized that she was talking to the man who had emceed several company functions), Jordan gave EDGE a glimpse of what sort of TV series he would find appealing.
"I want to do a little show called 'Company's Comin'!' When I was a kid and my mom would yell "Company's comin'!," all hell would break loose. That meant clean your room, stand up straight...it's just a wonderful Southern expression. It would be a talk show kind of like Stephen Colbert is a talk show, you know what I mean? It's very wink, wink, this is not a real talk show. I'm not gonna be me, I'm gonna be my evil twin brother Presley Jordan, who's very gregarious and not quite as gay as me."
This trip to Boston marks the second time Jordan comes to New England this summer. Last month he was in Provincetown where he worked out material for another upcoming show. Performing alone on stage may be demanding, but it also can be lucrative.
"I'll tell ya a long story," Jordan said -- a phrase that must serve him well when he's on stage, so natural did he make it sound as a way of introducing his next anecdote. "Years ago, Lily Tomlin and I were doing this ill-fated HBO pilot that never made it on the air, called 'Twelve Miles of Bad Road.' Lily said to me, "Are you making money out on the road?" I said, "Well, it's $1,600 to ship my set." She said, "Your set? Oh honey, what do you need a set for? I travel with Lavalier mike and a turtleneck!" Well, I'll leave the turtleneck to the lesbian, I don't want a turtleneck. I'll get me a Lavalier mike.
"And she's exactly right," Jordan interjected, as though interrupting his own thoughts on the microphone made famous as the brand worn on stage by Madonna. "I have these one-person shows that have about 55 light cues, and music, and you don't need all that, especially in a cabaret situation. People want to hear stories, they want interaction with the audience, they want to hear what I've been up to lately. Not too long ago I did a venue I had never done before, and I thought to myself, 'They would love to hear a story about 'Will & Grace.' They would love to hear a story about 'Sordid Lives.' And so I put together a set list.
Full of Gin and Regret
"Now, my management has said to me, "You gotta move on. The 'Will & Grace' stories are okay, but they want to know current stuff. Talk about being on RuPaul. Talk about 'The Help' -- that won an Academy Award! Talk about what you've been up to lately. Make it more current!" That's what 'Show Pony' is about."
As for "Stories I Can't Tell Mama"...
"Every year I would hit the road and my marketing firm would say, 'What's the name of this show?' I'd say, 'It's an evening with Leslie Jordan. I don't know! It's whatever is on my mind. We haven't had a complaint yet.' 'Well, we need to name it.' 'Okay, call it 'Full of Gin and Regret.'"
"And then the next time I head out on the road: 'What's this show about?' 'It's about me! It's just me!' 'Well, we need a name.' 'Argh! Look, it's an evening with me.' 'Okay, we'll call it "From Whence I Came," and you can slant toward Southern [material].'"
"'Stories I Can't Tell Mama' means it's in a cabaret and it's probably gonna be a little dirty," Jordan summarized. "That's basically what it means. So it's kind of up to me. There are no set stories to 'Stories I Can't Tell Mama.' It's just anything I can think of. It's too hard to keep people's attention when drinks are flowing, and I'm not a stand-up. I don't tell jokes, You've got to listen, and when people are drunk... Well, they sent me out to New Orleans. New Orleans... on the fourth day of Southern Decadence! No, wait, it wasn't Southern Decadence, it was the Halloween Carnival. And they sent me out on stage at the House of Blues, and the people who ran The House of Blues said, 'My god, you've outsold rock stars!' I said, 'Honey, in the gay community I am a rock star.'"
"I walked out on stage and I had never seen people that fucked up. I thought, 'How on earth am I gonna keep their attention for 45 minutes?' And that's when I very first started talking dirty."
By this point, our chat was, itself, starting to sound like a preview of "Show Pony."
"You're getting a big preview!" Jordan exclaimed with a laugh, going on to add, "A good time will be had by all, I promise!"
Leslie Jordan appears at Club Cafe, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA on July 29 and 30, 2014 at 8pm. For ticket information
Leslie Jordan appears at the Crown and Anchor on July 29 and 30, 2013 at 8pm. For ticket information visit the Crown and Anchor website.
He appears at Main Street, Ogunquit ME on August 1, 2 and 3. For more information visit the Main Street website.