A mysterious Christmas phantom is sabotaging the annual yard-decorating contest, and there is more drama offstage than on during the local theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. It must be Christmas in Tuna, Texas’ third-smallest town and home to a hilarious clan of quirky kooks who audiences know and love well beyond the Texas borders. On its first tour in three years, A Tuna Christmas makes a stop at the Eisemann Center during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, when we’re all ready for a break and a good laugh at someone else’s crazy family. Although for some of us, Tuna’s characters can hit kinda close to home (I swear my chain-smoking Aunt Betty was the inspiration for Didi Snavely).
This time out, A Tuna Christmas has an all-new look with a revamped, simplified set and spruced-up costumes. All of the characters created and performed by quick-change artists Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are on hand, including the toasts of the Tastee Kreme, Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd. It was this Tuna installment, the second of four in the Tuna series written with long-time collaborator and director Ed Howard, that earned Sears a 1995 Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play.
Joe Sears and Jaston Williams passed some time on the road talking to TheaterJones while driving from Galveston, where they performed at the Grand 1894 Opera House, to San Antonio, where A Tuna Christmas plays at the Majestic Theatre before heading to Dallas.
TJ: When you began with Greater Tuna, did you ever perceive it turning into more than one show and lasting more than 20 years?
Joe: No, we never expected it. It was a phenomenal hit in 1982, and I was content with that. Now, it’s grown into four plays and a number-one comedy team that’s stayed together longer than anyone else. During that time, we’ve become better writers, better actors, better thinkers, and we’ve gotten better as human beings. We’ve kept writing, and people are still flocking to see us.
Jaston: No, we had no idea. One would hope for that kind of success and longevity, but you don’t really know, so it was a surprise. The Christmas show will be around forever.
Why do you think the Tuna shows and characters have held up so well over the years?
Jaston: People see something in these characters that remind them of real life, themselves or their family members, and so with that familiarity, they feel like they know them. Bad satire can be very heavy handed and mean, but you don’t have to be mean to be satiric. You have to show the characters’ humanity, then that opens up to the comedy. You may not agree with everything they are saying, but the way they say it is absolutely authentic.
How well do the Tuna characters play outside of Texas, like up north?
Joe: They do really well because people relate to the characters as being universal. They’re endearing, and that’s what makes them work from the east coast to the west coast. Some of the characters go through changes, like Stanley, who has a catharsis all the way through and changes. Some characters get the three-dimensional treatment and some are a stereotype, but they all serve a purpose.
Jaston: One of the places Tuna does best is in Washington, DC.
Maybe that’s because DC has seen its share of Texas characters.
Jaston: I bet that’s absolutely right!
Which Tuna citizen is your favorite to play?
Joe: Aunt Pearl is my favorite. This is Aunt Pearl’s busiest time of year, you know, because everyone wants to come eat with her. She makes the best black-eyed peas and all the fixins. The HEB and Central Market in Austin carry Aunt Pearl’s Potato Salad. Aunt Pearl is also one of the cooking instructors at Central Market in Austin, and her classes are always sold out. R.R. Snavely (Didi’s husband) is also one of my favorites; he’s lots of fun to do.
Jaston: The key to making the characters work is that you have to like them all, even if they have traits that are unlikeable. You have to put yourself in their shoes, and some of them have very cheap shoes. I love Didi Snavely. She gets mail asking her to clean up her act, and she answers the mail as only Didi can answer it and tells them what for. Petey Fisk from the humane society is also one of my favorites. In A Tuna Christmas, he gets to tell the Christmas story, and it reminds me of being a kid in the West Texas desert with the big sky. People ask me to do Vera Carp a lot, and we do a lot of press with Vera and Aunt Pearl together. But you can’t stop Vera, she’ll say anything. Once you get that costume on, she says exactly what she thinks, and it’s caused trouble before.
What kind of trouble?
Jaston: Vera went to Texas Christian University because purple is such an easy color to accessorize, and she just won’t tolerate reporters with bad shoes. If interviewers are unprepared, she shows them no mercy.
Are any of the Tuna characters based on real people?
Joe: I had a real Aunt Pearl, so I used her name because I just love that name, and I use her mannerisms. And Jaston’s mother resembles Vera Carp a lot. Vera is my favorite character Jaston does. But no, they aren’t based on real people.
Now that there are four Tuna shows, which is your favorite one to perform?
Joe: Tuna Does Vegas [the newest] is the most fun one to perform. The first one [Greater Tuna] is my favorite. Red, White and Tuna is hard to perform. It takes more energy, and I don’t have as much fun.
Jaston: A Tuna Christmas is my favorite one.
It’s been three years since A Tuna Christmas toured. What’s new about the show?
Joe: We have all new sets and costumes and some new extra things. It’s the same dialogue and the same show, but with a new look. It looks like a pop-up Christmas card. The only thing missing is the Snow Queen dancing en pointes. After 20 years, [the show] deserves to be revamped and have a face lift.
Jaston: The new look is so beautiful, but a simple design. What we had before was complicated, and we discovered we could get the same effect with less. It’s just beautiful. And getting to come to the Eisemann Center, what a great place that is! We hear the new performing arts center in Dallas is beautiful, too. You know, there was a time when Texas didn’t have much in the way of the arts, but as a state, we’ve really taken our place. I’m really proud of us.
Do the Tuna scripts get updated to include perhaps mentions of Lindsay Lohan or Sarah Palin or current events?
Joe: No, we don’t add to or change the script unless a mistake is made, like someone’s cell phone goes off or someone is texting in the front row, then there is ad-libbing. When we have seen other people’s productions, the cast has sometimes tried to rewrite and update the script, and it always fails because they aren’t as funny as us. I was taught never to take away from or add to a script. We’ve had requests to sing “Happy Birthday” from the stage, but we don’t do that. Once a script is done and published and sent to New York, then it is done and that’s it.
Now that Greater Tuna is available for theater companies to perform, have you seen many of those productions?
Jaston: People are doing it in droves! I haven’t seen one in a long time. I would like to sneak in and see some of them. I have a ball watching others do Tuna, in fact, I laugh a little too loud. Watching someone else’s production really makes you feel like a writer.
Joe, what did being nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play in 1995 mean to you?
Joe: It meant that I became a part of a special family in New York City and part of a Broadway family for the rest of my life and into history. In the arts, the Tony nomination is considered much more meaningful. You can get more money out of an Oscar nomination, but the more coveted award in our industry is the Tony. To be nominated was incredible―I was up there with Stephen Sondheim and all the big ones! Lots of people go to Broadway, but not all are nominated, and that year I was the only American in my category and the only one nominated for comedy.
What are you working on now?
Joe: We are constantly working. By this fall, we will be finished with another two-man show that’s outside of Tuna. It’s topical, controversial and satirical. It definitely has our stamp on it, and that’s about all I can tell you about it right now. The Deep End is the working title.
When you’re not on the road, how do you usually celebrate the holidays?
Joe: I’m helping to raise my granddaughter in Austin, and one of the things I always do is fix up her stocking. That’s the first thing she does on Christmas―go through Grandpa’s stocking. I’ve had her with me since she was 12. She was raised back stage. She is 15 going on 21. She’s discovered boys, so I had to buy a new stick. She wants to highlight her hair. I told her she could when she turns 16.
Jaston: My favorite thing is putting up the tree with my son. We adopted a son from China who is now 13, and he loves Christmas. Putting up a tree with a kid is the most enjoyable thing there is. I like for the tree to tower over us, so as he gets bigger, the tree keeps getting bigger. We live in Lockhart, which isn’t far from where we will be in San Antonio, so we’ll actually be home on Christmas Eve. We’re having all the crew over for a big pajama party. With people away from home over the holiday like that, it’s important to have that for everyone.
Jaston, is it true that you have a housekeeper named Lupe?
Jaston: Yes! When we were hiring a housekeeper, this woman I was talking to about it said she wanted to come work for us and that her name was Lupe. I thought somebody was kidding with me, but they weren’t. I was so glad we had created that character long before so she couldn’t sue me!