Alumnus Jaston Williams began sowing his theater roots at Texas Tech in 1969. Today,
he and his partner Joe Sears make millions laugh with their comedic plays.
You recognize something about his face. Something’s familiar in the smile and the
eyes that might remind you of a friend’s brother in reform school or maybe the lady
who took your order at the diner.
Then you realize. Jaston Williams is that brother – and the waitress.
Even if you haven’t seen the ‘Tuna’ plays, chances are if you grew up in Texas and
Oklahoma, you have met or are related to the characters Williams has brought to life.
With razor-sharp wit, finely honed powers of observation and a native’s understanding
of rural Southwestern social dynamics, he and his partner, Joe Sears, have made millions
laugh at the quirky residents of the fictional West Texas town of Tuna.
Through his career, the shows have played on and off Broadway, at the Kennedy Center,
the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and all across
America. Williams has received Washington D.C.’s Helen Hayes Award nominations for
“A Tuna Christmas” and “Red, White and Tuna,” as well as the San Francisco Bay Area
Critics Award for “Greater Tuna.”
While in Lubbock for the premier of his new show, “Blame It on Valentine, Texas,”
Williams came back to his alma mater to share his take on the essence of comedy with
a group of aspiring actors. The event was presented by the Department of Theatre and
“To me, great comedy is not funny to the person it’s happening to,” he said to an
eager group of student and community actors. “That we can stand out from it and watch
it is what makes it a lot of fun.”
After launching into a side-splitting, true-life story about his family trying to
take the car away from his blind, deaf and elderly mother – a harrowing task that
involved the help of not only family, but religious and civic leaders in his hometown
of Crosbyton – the students understood his point as they held their bellies and guffawed.
Clearly, the pain of the moment was funny in retrospect.
“You see,” he said. “At the time, it wasn’t funny … at ALL.”
The Power of Ricky & Lucy
(L-R) Jaston Williams and Joe Sears are Tastee Kreme waitresses Helen Bedd and Inita
Goodwin in the fourth Tuna show, "Tuna Does Vegas."
Mix one part lonely farm-kid with an active imagination and watchful eyes. Then add
the power of ‘50s-era television comics. Throw in your typical West Texas neighbors
and family whose characters seem bigger than life.
In a nutshell, Williams said, that’s the start of the recipe for his career.
“I was very observant,” Williams said, describing his childhood. “When we lived in
Van Horn, we lived out on a farm. We were about 25 miles out of town. I had friends
I hung with when I was in town or at church, but generally, I had to entertain myself.
So I did. I created my own little world, not knowing I was working toward a career
in show business by doing so.”
Even though only two television stations existed, Williams said he thought the power
of the then-new medium taught him much about delivery and the mechanics of making
people laugh. And so he began practicing with his family and friends. Growing up and
in high school, that comic ability became a way to survive the rigors of the wonder
“What I discovered as a kid out here was if you were little, they don’t give you any
brownie points for that,” he said. “Other kids will just slap the snot out of you.
They don’t care. You’re easy prey. Some places, they’ll go ‘leave the little guy alone.’
Not here. They’ll say ‘Whack him, whack him. Hit him.’
“But if you’re funny, they’ll give you a break. I was friends with the football players
and a lot of the cowboys because I could make them laugh. If you could make them laugh,
you had a fighting chance. Once in a while, there was one of them whose development
was so arrested that there was just no way you were going to get away with it. But,
for the most part...”
Theatre at Texas Tech
Once Williams graduated, he knew show business was the only thing he wanted to pursue.
When he arrived in 1969 at Texas Tech, he said the strong theatre and dance program
served as an incubator and a laboratory for him to expand his abilities. Though he
didn’t graduate, he said the experience spurred him into his professional career.
“G.W. Bailey was around. Jay and Pam Brown were around and Richard Privitt,” Williams
said. “It was a dangerous and volatile mix. They were doing some pretty amazing and
daring theater back then. When I was there they had National Theatre Conference and
they did Lysistrata, which was Aristophanes’ play about a sex strike. And it was amazing.
You had a whole army of soldiers whose lances would fall on cue. They did ‘The Boys
in the Band’ in 1970 and sold it out. It was before anyone got the rights to it.
Jaston Williams plays "Maurice," owner of the Vegas Hula Chateau Hotel's beauty salon,
in "Tuna Does Vegas."
“It was a good time to be here. I loved performing. I never wanted to do anything
else. I didn’t have any other marketable skills. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I
ended up in Houston for a year. Then I got a job at the old First Repertory Company,
which was a professional repertory theater in San Antonio. I earned $125 a month.
That’s where I met Joe Sears doing Shakespeare. And that’s how we got Tuna and the
last 30 years of my insane life.”
Building the Town of Tuna
The “Greater Tuna” characters started as a lark in the early 1980s, he said. Originally,
they were meant only to entertain a few theatre friends at a party after a friend
recruited Williams and Sears to come up with a last minute act.
“It wasn’t intentional,” he said. “The guy who lived downstairs from us worked in
our theater. He was having a party and wanted the people to be entertained. So, Joe
and I just threw this together. We created Bertha (Bumiller) and Petey (Fisk). And
people went crazy. They just went crazy. And that’s when I told Sears, ‘We are on
to something. We gotta play with this.’ That’s literally how it started. Then it started
getting real serious.”
Originally, he thought the idea would work only in the Lone Star State. But the idea
became a show and started bringing down houses. It ended with representation at the
William Morris Agency in New York. After that, Williams began to realize the honesty
of the characters gave them the ability to play anywhere in the United States. The
audience got the humor.
“We never have done things the way other people do,” Williams said. “We’ve broken
every rule. They teach courses in college that teach you that you can’t do it the
way we’ve done it. It’s not that we intended to break the rules, we just never read
the rule book. That’s how the Tuna thing came about.”
Williams and Sears are now producing their own show. Currently, Williams says he’s
branching out into writing. He’s found he likes it even more than acting, and “Blame
it on Valentine, Texas” serves as an autobiographical one-man show that draws deeply
from his West Texas upbringing.
On a warm day in February, Williams held court in a dance studio in the Sports Studies
Center on Texas Tech’s campus. He showed clips from movies and talked about real-life
stage experiences to about 20 people in the audience. Then, as students went before
him with scenes, he taught them how to turn the volume up on humor through honest
behavior and attention to detail.
Hannah McKinney, a first year graduate student from the Metroplex studying performance
and pedagogy, said she felt terrified before performing in front of Williams with
a monologue from “Humble Boy.”
Though it’s a standard piece in her repertoire she uses regularly to audition, McKinney
said Williams showed her never to be satisfied just because it’s polished and ready.
“You tend to think it’s polished and good and you don’t have to work on it anymore,”
she said. “You tend to stop exploring options. Just working with him showed me you
can keep working on it. How you handle props is something else I learned from the
class. And that sometimes, if you spend your whole scene looking at each other, you
end up shutting out your audience. Definitely, it firmed up some things in my mind
that comedy is never funny to the people it’s happening to. I guess I’ve always known
that, but it was cool to see that take shape right in front of you.”
James Bush, an assistant professor of theater, said he brought Williams to the university
to give budding actors a chance to hear about the real world of performance from someone
who once stood in their place.
“Jaston’s a teacher by nature,” Bush said. “He actually mentioned to me he’d love
to teach a class, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s set it up.’ I went and talked with all the
powers that be and we decided we’d work in a master class. After he had the students
do the scenes, he totally reworked them. When he added those new activities, it brightened
them up completely. He added a little about what you can do, and how you can take
the honesty you know with you and talk about and act about what you know.”
Master Class Photos
Photos by Brenda Ladd
and Joey Hernandez