Jackie oy!

In The Kvetching Continues, Jackie Hoffman proves that comedy ain't always pretty.

It's so much fun to be a Jewess," sings the warmly cranky Jackie Hoffman from the stage at Joe's Pub, where her comedy-music show The Kvetching Continues has been playing to sold-out crowds. The pint-size, Obie-winning performer may be one of America's funniest women, but until recently her fame was confined to an adoring cult of downtown hipsters and musical-theater fans—which she joshingly refers to as "my fag cluster."

Lately, however, Hoffman has been nosing into public view. For the past two years, she has been stealing scenes in a trio of cameos in the Broadway musical Hairspray; she snagged a memorable role in the film Kissing Jessica Stein; and she will play a chronic masturbator in the next John Waters flick. In a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, she portrayed a homely woman who passes herself off as a model to her blind boyfriend—although she almost didn't get the part. "Larry David looked at me and said, 'She's not ugly enough!' " she recalls. "That's the nicest thing any man's ever said to me."

The dingy glitz of showbiz is not lost on Hoffman. She begins her show in a sequined minidress and opalescent turban, with a fluffy white pooch clutched in her arms. "Ah, Broadway," she sighs with mock grandeur, hitting both syllables of the second word evenly, like Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls. But Hoffman is no glamour-puss. The child of an Orthodox Jewish family in Queens, she spends most of her 80-minute set complaining about her career, her Hairspray gig—"I'm a child-hater in a family musical!"—and her favorite target: herself.

Hoffman is an old-fashioned entertainer, albeit with a distinctly modern edge; her act is a throwback to the golden age of New York's cabaret scene, when performers overflowed with larger-than-life personality. She has a classic comedian's face, elastic and distinctive, the kind that might once have made her a household name—but in the age of the Hilton sisters, it is holding her back. "In the '60s, I'd probably be the neighbor on a sitcom, but the days of Millie Helper and Gladys Kravitz are long gone," she observes stoically. "Now Lisa Kudrow is 'the ugly one.' " The film and TV industry, she says onstage, sees her as "one step above burn victim—like some kind of medieval etching of a usurer."

But Hoffman's unique look sets her apart from the pack, and she's learned to take in stride the descriptions of herself that she reads in reviews—such as John Lahr's remark that she has the body of Bette Midler and the face of Ed Wynn. "You know what? I have a delicious goy boyfriend who loves to fuck me," she says. "Until that blows up, that's really all that matters."

Jackie Hoffman performs Mondays at Joe's Pub.