Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mr. Bullock to you

The following article appears in an edited form in issue #371 of Fab Magazine.

In 1980 a fledgling stand-up comedian named Jim J. Bullock was cast in Ted Knight’s ABC sitcom Too Close for Comfort. His character, Monroe Ficus, was the perfect comic foil for Knight, and an instant hit. After a seven year run that made Monroe a household name, Bullock went on to Hollywood Squares, Queer Duck, a talk show with Tammy Faye Baker, the stage version of Hairspray, and an atrocious Canadian tween comedy called Boogie’s Diner. Bullock is coming to town to host a version of Match Game at Maggie Cassella’s comedy fest, We’re Funny That Way, on May 7th.

Paul: Hey, Jim. Is this your first trip to Toronto?

Jim: No, I actually lived there for a year in the mid 90s doing a series called Boogie’s Diner.

P: I remember that. Your proudest achievement?

J: Yes, Paul, it’s what I want to be remembered for.

P: How do you know Maggie Cassella?

J: I met her a year ago in Palm Springs, and she asked if I would come up and do this.

P: You’ll be hosting her Match Game, which I suppose will remind you of your days on Hollywood Squares.

J: I’d blow a monkey to be back on Hollywood Squares for real right now. That was my favorite job. Apart from Boogie’s Diner, of course.

P: Was it fun making Too Close for Comfort?

J: It was hard work. I moved out to L.A. in 1977, started doing stand-up, and then got Too Close. It was the biggest thing to happen to me.

P: Monroe was this giant character. You were like Urkel.

J: Yeah, that’s a compliment.

P: What keeps you busy these days?

J: A lot of theatre. Isn’t theatre the bone yard for old TV celebrities? “Let’s remount Pippin, and Jim J. can do the Irene Ryan role. (singing) Back in my younger days …” I love working in any capacity, and theatre has opened itself up to me. I got to do Hairspray on Broadway. I’m 55, and didn’t think Broadway would ever happen, and when it did, I thought Oh my God, how amazing. Just when I thought it was over for me, a whole other dream is revealed. But now I’m back in L.A. working on a non-scripted show. You just keep kicking and something will turn up.

P: You were one of the first out gay comedians.

J: Monroe was not supposed to be gay, but it’s sort of like how Oprah’s black. You just can’t fool the public, butch as I tried to be. I had some real struggles with it. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I was not comfortable. It was not a time to be out. So I don’t feel like a pioneer in that regard. It was just the way it happened. When Hollywood Squares came along, well, I’m a big cocksucker and we all know it, so this is who I am, accept me or don’t. But that wasn’t until the late 80s. People have come up to me over the years and thanked me for being out. I had a guy call me on a radio show. He said “Jim J., I’m 48 years old and I just came out to my dad, who is 80, and my dad said Why didn’t you tell me this years ago? I said that I was afraid of his reaction, and he said, ‘Yeah but you know I like that Monroe on Too Close for Comfort’.”

P: How do other gay celebrities treat you?

J: I was at the Emmys a few years ago and all the Queer Eye guys were flipping out over meeting me. I was so honoured.

P: You tested positive early on, like 85?

J: Oh, it’s probably petrified by now. You know, I have never been ill or even had to take any therapy drugs.

P: So how do you take care of yourself?

J: Vodka. But I mix it with cranberry juice, so that’s healthy. I’m blessed beyond measure to have the health I have. I’ve got a lot of Scarlet O’Hara in me, a lot of denial going on. You know that quality where you go “Fiddle dee dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow,” that kind of thing? It has worked both for me and against me. With AIDS, I just gave it no energy. When I first found out, I just put it out of my head for a year. I just couldn’t process it, until a year later, when I went to some AIDS benefit here in L.A., and I just snapped. But only for a short time. I didn’t tell anyone for several years. I was ashamed of it, but I never thought I was going to die of AIDS, and I still don’t think I’m going to die of AIDS. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to die during this phone call of AIDS. Oh, shit, is that a pimple? I remember when my partner John was dying, and I was in the hospital room with him, and yet I had a really strong feeling that I am not going to go this way. My liver will go out first.

P: Are you in a relationship now?

J: No, I haven’t been in a loving relationship since John. That’s 15 years ago. I have a cat. Sometimes, I think maybe I’m fine with a cat.

P: Before we go, I know Fab readers would not forgive me if I didn’t ask you about what it was like to work with Tammy Faye.

J: I adored Tammy. Not to say that there weren’t times when if I had a really sharp butter knife I would have cut her throat. Working with her was a challenge, but at the same time it was an incredible delight. She really was like Pandora’s Box, you never knew what was going to come out. She was one hundred per cent genuine. She practiced what she preached, which was love and acceptance. It doesn’t get better than that.

P: Great. See you in Toronto, Jim J.

J: Thanks, Paul. Bye.