Actor Leslie Jordan said “Exposed,” the one-man show he presents May 31 at the Waco Hippodrome, isn’t stand-up comedy as much as the Southern storytelling with which he grew up.
“My daddy — whenever he wanted to teach us a lesson, he’d tell us a story,” Jordan recalled in a recent phone interview, speaking with an endearing Southern accent that three decades in Hollywood haven’t stripped away. “It’s an Old South tradition.”
Jordan’s storytelling isn’t so much a lesson as a journey through a remarkable life, one largely covered in his earlier 2010 show “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet” and framed roughly, geographically at least, by east Tennessee and west Hollywood.
Contained between is an acting career rich in roles, including Beverly Leslie of television’s “Will and Grace,” Brother Boy of “Sordid Lives” and, most recently, Sid Delacroix in the Fox Network comedy “The Cool Kids.” He has appeared in more than 70 television series, three dozen films and a half-dozen stage shows, though several of those are, well, story-telling.
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the diminutive Jordan — just under five feet tall — headed west on a bus to California in 1982 to find a career in acting. The University of Tennessee had taught him not to say “the-ay-ter,” but he didn’t realize he’d find more than employment when he arrived.
“I knew I was as gay as a goose,” he said. “Then I ended up in West Hollywood, where the queers hang from the trees. I was home. I had landed.”
Within a short time of his arrival, Jordan, 64, learned a harder lesson as AIDS was raging through his newfound community with little apparent concern from the nation as a whole.
“We learned we had to take care of each other,” he said.
Although busy as a television and film actor, his solo shows evolved from an actor’s natural desire to keep working when roles aren’t available.
“I figured out quick I had to write my own ticket,” he said. “I realized I could tell stories and make money from it.”
Gradually, he moved from gay bars and clubs to larger venues with largely straight audiences. Jordan got them laughing with such shows as “Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life Thus Far” and “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet.”
“As Rosie O’Donnell told me, ‘Funny is funny,’ ” he said, though he noted he adapts his material for his audiences. “I had to clean it up a little. It’s still a little blue and not for children.”
His Waco performance May 31 at the Hippodrome is part of a Texas swing that takes him to Richardson, Arlington and San Antonio. It brings him to the city where collaborator and friend Del Shores attended Baylor University.
Their paths crossed in Los Angeles where an improv teacher urged him to see Shores’ play “Cheatin’.”
“I went to see that show five times. I have never laughed so hard,” Jordan recalled. He later auditioned for a part in a Shores play and the two, both growing up gay in a Southern Baptist culture, soon became close friends, with Jordan serving as godfather to Shores’ daughters.
Jordan remembers how surprised he was when Shores told him he was separating from his wife Kelly and coming out as a gay. “I told him that he was my only straight friend in the world and asked why he didn’t tell him earlier,” he said. “He told me he hadn’t been ready to come out and that there were three ways of spreading news: telegraph, telephone and tell Leslie Jordan.”
Jordan would go on to become a recurring character in Shores’ “Sordid Lives” television and film work, also appearing in his “Southern Baptist Sissies.”
The actor is coming off his latest television series, Fox Network’s “The Cool Kids,” which features him, Martin Mull and David Alan Grier as retirement home residents whose regular routines are thrown off when a new resident, Vicki Lawrence, enters the picture.
Co-starring with such comic talents was a delight — “This series is our gold watch,” he said — even though the series wasn’t picked up for a second season and there wasn’t as much ad libbing as one might expect. “Film’s a director’s medium. Stage an actor’s medium. But television’s a writers’ medium and we have twelve writers on our show,” he said.
For “Exposed,” there’s only one, however, and he won’t mind if Jordan rambles in the stories he’s telling on stage. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” he said.