Jeff Hiller knows why people come to see his one-man show, Middle Aged Ingenue. “People like you more when you’re on TV,” the San Antonio native told the audience at New York City’s Public Theater the first time he performed it in August 2023, referring to his two seasons as the unexpected leading man opposite Bridget Everett on HBO’s Somebody Somewhere. “It’s literally the only reason you’re here tonight, so thank you.”

When the show makes its Texas debut on April 13 at Austin’s State Theater as part of the Moontower Comedy Festival, Hiller—whose newfound fame also stems from a stint playing a serial killer on American Horror Story—may not say it quite the same.

“I’ve tried to pull that back a little bit because my husband said, ‘I think that’s kind of insulting,’ ” he says during a video chat with Texas Monthly. “And I’m like, ‘BUT IT’S TRUE!’ ”

Even on a laptop screen, the six-foot-five Hiller is a big presence: an always-on comedian of oversized expressions in both face and voice, his (Hiller is open to any and all pronouns) conversation regularly punctuated with emphatic beats, mock-whispered asides, and effervescent laughs. Today, he’s in a Minneapolis hotel room—which he hurriedly attempts to tidy as the camera light comes on—preparing for that night’s performance. We quickly realize it’s also Good Friday, which, given that a major portion of the show traces his journey from closeted aspiring pastor and Texas Lutheran University theology major to actor, seems fitting, inappropriate, or both. “Isn’t that weird?” Hiller says. “I did really badly at scheduling my show about church!”

To be fair, “church” is not the buzzword Hiller uses in his thumbnail description of the show: “a night of stand-up about life, love, and three stories about assholes. Not rude people. Literal anatomical human buttholes. Three of them.” One of the three is from his time as a social worker in Denver, working with homeless youth and in HIV prevention (no spoilers for the other two).

But church is what made Hiller he who is, and church is also very much at the heart of his character, Joel, on Somebody Somewhere. Executive produced by former Texans Mark and Jay Duplass, it’s a comedy, albeit one that is also bittersweet and dark, created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen as a vehicle for Everett, a New York singer, actress, and comedian who is originally from Manhattan, Kansas. It’s a show full of people you don’t often see on TV: so-called “real Americans” in so-called “flyover country” who farm and go to church and watch college football and buy “live laugh love”–type throw pillows and raise children and experience loss and love, in both biological and found families. And some of those Americans who go to church or dress head-to-toe in Kansas State Wildcats swag are people of color. Or gay. Or trans. Just like Hiller and the show’s third star, drag performer Murray Hill.

“Some people have said, like, ‘Oh, this fantasy. This fantasy of openly gay people in middle America,’ ” Hiller says. “And the weird thing is, it’s not a fantasy.”

The son of mechanical engineer Raymond and housewife turned CPA Mary, Hiller grew up in San Antonio (“outside of 410, inside 1604”) and went to Churchill High, where he was in the choir (which meant he went to one football game a year, when they sang the National Anthem), but not the theater-kid clique. “They were cooler kids,” he says. “I’m much better at theater than at choir. But choir was a safe space.”

So was San Antonio’s Shepherd King Lutheran Church, where even the kids who bullied him at school had to be nice. He was there for something—worship, choir, youth group—six days a week, and would have gone on Fridays too if there was an event to join.

He went to Texas Lutheran (“which everyone says is the Harvard of Seguin, Texas”) intending to become a pastor, while still getting a classic liberal arts education. In Middle Aged Ingenue, he tells how he first came out, during a semester abroad, to a total stranger in Cape Town. Nobody, including his own parents, has ever been surprised. “Oh, that’s niiiiiiiiice!,” Hiller recalls/imitates in Middle Aged Ingenue, with the sort of squealing voice people use to talk to puppies. “Thank you for telling me.”

But at that time, being himself also meant he couldn’t be a pastor (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Hiller’s denomination, began allowing gay clergy in 2009). He graduated from TLU in 1998 with a degree in theater, and eventually made his way to New York, after a short time in Denver. He dreamed of working full time as an actor, but was afraid that no one else would see it. “I felt like people would look at me and be like, you?”

He wound up doing comedy and improv at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, and immediately saw other students and performers landing commercials and small movie parts. Then he saw one of his teachers, Paul Scheer, get a TV show (Human Giant). One of his improv teammates, Bobby Moynihan, got on Saturday Night Live. By then Hiller was himself a teacher, and soon his students, including Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and The Good Place’s D’arcy Carden, were getting their own shows or major parts.

“And I was still teaching,” he says. “It became very much a come-to-Jesus moment. Like, uh-oh, this might not happen. But I just kept plugging away. Like an idiot,” he adds with a laugh.

Prior to Somebody Somewhere, Hiller ran the gauntlet from unknown to obscure to “hey, it’s that guy!” He racked up commercials and sitcom supporting parts (including on Broad City, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and two different spots on 30 Rock), starred in one Off-Broadway/Public Theater hit that was not at all a Broadway hit (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which walked so Hamilton could run). But he was also tiring of only ever playing parts like “snippy gay waiter” or “bitchy customer service representative.”

And then he finally landed the role of, well . . . “gay best friend.”

But Joel is so much more than that. The show’s second season was billed as a “totally platonic love story,” as the relationship between his character and Everett’s Sam became the heart of the show. The character jumped off the page and right into Hiller’s heart when it was first suggested he audition for the role (he was acquainted with Everett and Murray Hill in New York, and they are all performers at the Public).

“I loved him,” Hiller says. “I loved him. I really was like, ‘Oh, they wrote this for me!’ ” They did not, in fact. “But he’s so much like me. I know exactly how to play him. It felt very meant to be.”

The similarities went beyond both Joel (who has no last name) and Hiller being churchy gay men from red states. Even some of the details in Joel’s backstory overlapped with Hiller’s life: having a stress rash in high school; driving a Buick LeSabre; not only having a vision board, but having a Vitamix blender on his vision board. The fact that Joel loves to take and count his “steps” was something the writers did add to the character based on Hiller, who is also a late-in-life runner, now that he no longer associates physical activity with the Lord of the Flies–like atmosphere of high school gym class.

And of course, they are both former seminary students who both love church (though Hiller, whose husband, Neil Goldberg, is Jewish, is no longer a regular). Not only are there tons of other people like that, Hiller points out, but not every church is a place of intolerance and fundamentalism.

“I know so many openly gay men and women who are still part of mainline Protestant churches,” Hiller says. “That’s where their community is. Where they find friends and connections. And a lot of times church is also the base of social justice for these places. Food banks, rent assistance, even [helping] asylum-seekers. And so I think that the church often gets a bad rap.” He then switches to a conspiratorial mock-whisper. “Now, there are some really bad churches too, don’t get me wrong,” he finishes with a giggle.

People talk about Somebody Somewhere as a low-key, almost short-story-like TV show; “a show made up almost entirely of small, unassuming moments,” as Vulture’s Jen Chaney put it. Which it is. As Hiller observes, it’s a TV show about “humans who are bound by the rules of our planet,” as opposed to dealing with dragons or zombies. But it is also not without its over-the-top drama and broader-than-broad comedy: diarrhea, cheap-motel affairs, physical and emotional fights, weddings, deaths. It’s a show about not giving up on yourself and your life, even if you’re over forty (“significantly,” Hiller mock-mutters), which resonates for its actors as much as their characters.

That Somebody Somewhere also brought him to American Horror Story: NYC was kismet. Ryan Murphy’s production company reached out to him after Somebody Somewhere’s first season aired and asked if he’d be willing to take a Zoom with the creator, who is also behind such shows as 9-1-1: Lone Star, Feud, and Glee.

“Which is hiiiiiilllllarious,” Hiller says, drawing out the word, as if he was going to say no. “I would have played one of the the dead bodies!”

Hiller’s character is horrifying and creepy but also just a little sympathetic, in a season that was both a Grand Guignol evocation of New York culture and gay culture in the 1980s, when the actual horror was the tragedy of AIDS. And because AHS has far more viewers than Somebody Somewhere, he gets recognized as the terrifying Mr. Whitely far more than as lovable Joel.

“It’s funny because for so long, I really felt like my gayness was a detriment,” Hiller says. “I always felt like I could probably be on a sitcom if I weren’t so obviously gay. So it’s nice that my two biggest projects are celebrating that I’m gay. Well, not necessarily ‘celebrating’ on American Horror Story,” he walks back with another laugh. “But it’s an important part of his character!”

In Middle Aged Ingenue, Hiller jokes about the little gift he bought himself from having more rewarding and consistent work—health insurance, which of course is not a joke. And neither was the vision board: Hiller’s got himself that Vitamix, just like Joel did.

With “not that much commitment”—no kids, he points out, but a husband, a cat, and a dog, he wants to work as much as he can while the work is there to be gotten, including writing and producing his own stuff.

“I’m not very easily castable,” he says. “So I’m aware of that and I’m trying to create my own work.” Middle Aged Ingenue, which he’s performing intermittently, is his third one-man show. He’s about finished a memoir (which will likely bear the same title) and he’s writing and developing pilots.

Even when he reached the peak of his time with UCB, performing in their flagship show, Hiller couldn’t help but think “I have more to give,” he says. “I have more to give than this. And I’m glad I get to give it. I’d like to give more of it.”