Even after 25 years, Texas comedy legends Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are still fishin’ for more ‘Tuna’ stories
"Tuna Does Vegas," Eisemann Center for Performing Arts., 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. July 14â€“19. Tuesdayâ€“Saturday at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. $27â€“$57. EisemannCenter.com.
Jaston Williams isn’t quite sure how Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre secured the rights to "Greater Tuna," the 25-year-old play he co-wrote with Joe Sears and Ed Howard about life in the third smallest town in Texas and that launched a comic mini-empire for them. He and Sears, who have performed their ever-expanding slate of redneck characters themselves, usually limit licensing in the Metroplex to avoid over-exposure, but this one slipped through.
"I got calls from people in Dallas and Fort Worth and Granbury in a rage because they had wanted to do it," he says. "But it always excites us to see other people do it — it makes you feel like a real playwright, which is a nice feeling." And anyway, he adds, "I don’t think Joe and I will ever do ‘Greater Tuna’ again. We’re having so much fun doing the new stuff."
Not to worry, though: The "new stuff" is sort of the "old stuff," too. Since "Greater Tuna," the team has produced three sequels — "A Tuna Christmas," "Red, White & Tuna" and the latest, last year’s "Tuna Does Vegas," which opens at the Eisemann Center in Richardson on Tuesday — all of which continue the lives of the flawed, funny characters that Texans in particular (and comedy aficionados in general) have embraced for a quarter century.
Amazingly, Williams and Sears are as enthusiastic about writing these characters now as they ever have been. Even "Vegas," which debuted last year in Galveston and played in the fall at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, is still being fine-tuned.
"You always think you’ve got it, but then you start gauging audience reactions. We’re doing rewrites on ‘Red, White & Tuna,’ which we’ll probably mount in the next year-and-a-half," Williams says.
"We continue to do rewrites as we go," adds Sears. "Sometimes that means deciding between a quick costume change or a good laugh. This is what you do when you’re taking a new piece to New York — and for us, we’re taking it to Las Vegas. We want it to be perfect. We want to hone this down and our fans are perfect barometers for that so when we finally get to Vegas it’s cemented."
Yes, loathe as they may be to admit it, Williams and Sears aren’t getting any younger.
"I can’t do the kind of work I used to do week after week," admits Sears. "We’re not in our 30s out to do eight shows of ‘Rent’ every week. We have to take care of ourselves. We never phone it in — we’re always aware of our audience."
Touring, however, takes its toll, and one of the motives behind "Tuna Does Vegas" was to develop a show that they could play permanently in Las Vegas, like Bette or Cher or Cirque du Soleil or any other of the very gay shows that proliferate in the desert.
They sort of tried that out years ago, when the Anatole opened the Tuna Little Theater where "Tuna" became a semi-permanent fixture. But it was never meant to last.
"They thought we would be there all the time, but we told them, the theater has only 300 seats — we need to go out and keep the corporation going," Sears says. "Still, Dallas has been good to us since the beginning. That summer we were at the Anatole, the cast could go swimming in the hotel pool any time we wanted. I wallowed like a big old hippo and kept cool all summer."
Both Williams and Sears find themselves settling down. Sears spent his July 4 holiday cooking for his 14-year-old granddaughter and her friends — a far cry from Independence Days past.
"When I was a kid my grandfather took me to the rodeo every Fourth of July," Sears recalls. "I was always more interested in the Sno-cones than the cowboys. As I got older, that definitely changed. And a cowboy with a Sno-cone!?" He sighs. "One will keep you cool and one will keep you hot."
Williams is ever more surprised by his domesticity. He has his partner moved with their 12-year-old son to a mid-century modern home sitting on 1.25 acres in Lockhart, Texas. They even have a housekeeper who, ironically, is named Lupe (the same as the never-seen maid to catty Vera Carp in the shows. "I am afraid she’ll see one of the shows and we’ll be in trouble," Williams says.)
"We call it the Dinah Shore house — it looks like we should come out of the kitchen with cocktails on a tray," he says.
"It’s like living with Donna Reed," Sears chimes in.
Still, Williams never imagined that would happen to him. "We might look in Revelation to see if it’s one of the sign of the Second Coming," he warns.
Age has not soothed Williams’ righteous fury, though. Even in casual conversation, he manages to sneak in scathing barbs against politicians he abhors.
"Rick Perry campaigns really well, I’ll give him that," he says. "He always locks up the idiot vote, and the idiot vote’s a chunk. I just got out of Lubbock. I know."
Some things you never get too old for.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 10, 2009.