Joe Sears throws satirical pies with the Greater Tuna comedy series.
Sears evokes many characters – of both sexes – for the Greater Tuna series of plays.
Photos by Brenda Ladd.
It’s safe to say that politics is particularly amenable to satire. Who doesn’t enjoy a good joke at the expense of politics and politicians? Without political satire, enduring election season and heck, even reading the newspaper, could get downright unbearable. With all the mud slinging that goes on, a good pie in the face can be awfully refreshing.
But people don’t necessarily want to be hit in the face by it. This is why successful satire comes around the corner and takes you by surprise – and this is when you find yourself stifling giggles and laughing at the very things in which you believe.
Ask Bartlesville native Joe Sears. Having mastered the art of satire, he knows a thing or two about successful political pie throwing.
Together with longtime “laughing buddy” Jaston Williams, Sears is one-half of the mastermind behind the longtime, critically acclaimed Greater Tuna comedic plays, which have garnered a dedicated following of fans both new and old for the past 30 years.
“There is always something new and silly going on in politics, so I think that people are always ready to laugh. We need to laugh. That’s what’s so fun about being a satirist – we make you laugh at some of our own mistakes and make you take a second look at things. We take something and stretch it way out of proportion, so when it slings back you think, ‘Oh wasn’t that funny?’” Sears says.
Based in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas’ third smallest town, where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies, the eclectic band of citizens –men, women, children and animals alike – who live there are portrayed by only two performers, making the poke on life in rural America an endearingly good time, no matter what side of the fence you’re on.
First written as a skit, Greater Tuna was originally based on a political cartoon depicting the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, where in it, both sides lose, with the U.S. government beating up the same people on both the totalitarianism and authoritarianism angles.
“During the ‘80s, the Moral Majority was just raging, and every day in the newspaper it was something totally ridiculous. When we first performed it, I was a radio host interviewing a man from the U.S. government, and he was demonstrating the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. He would beat me up, and I’d say ‘Folks, this man has just beat the livin’ hell out of me, and we’ll be back in a minute after this commercial,’” Sears explains.
During the commercial breaks, the little town of Tuna was born, and Sears and Williams would do commercials as the now seasoned, much loved array of different Tuna citizens. From that platform, the writing for Greater Tuna and its subsequent plays, A Tuna Christmas, Red White and Tuna, and Tuna Does Vegas came to life and have been making people laugh ever since, from Broadway and Carnegie Hall to the White House and the famed Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
Sears says that they’ve always tried not to make any judgment in their plays, making sure that all of the characters have something likeable about them – a detail that he believes has contributed to the ongoing success of Tuna.
“We have never wanted to make fun of anyone in our plays. That’s just not who we are. Our roots are in small towns, with Jaston being a small town Texas boy, and me coming from Oklahoma ranch people. That’s who we are – those rural town people are our people. Our families are Republicans and conservatives and we love them,” Sears explains.
“At the same time, I think that’s why Tuna has been successful in places like New York and Washington. People don’t want to see us make fun of our own people – they enjoy the satire because that’s who they are, too. Our work may be stringing up small town folks, but politicians are just as much fodder.”
Now approaching retirement age, Sears says he’s looking to retreat from the national stage and utilize the teaching degree he earned at Northeastern State University in his younger years.
“I couldn’t have asked for a more glamorous life and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but I’m ready to settle down and teach young people – particularly the young Oklahoma people,” he says.
“We have extremely good talent that comes out of Oklahoma. We come from an area that’s repressed in the arts – we’re not really known for the arts – but when we pop up, we’re a talented lot. I want to take part in guiding young people who are interested in pursuing the arts. That’s what artists do – we pass down what we know. I think that’s the responsibility of any accomplished artist.”