Jason Stuart, below, is funny. He’s witty, spontaneous and shrewd. His show is uplifting, warm and good for the soul.
Stuart is a fine actor, too. His movies include “Kindergarten Cop,” the star-loaded “Love is Strange,” “Gia” and “Tangerine,” which sold to Magnolia Pictures at Sundance 2015. His acting skills affect his stand-up comedy.
“I’m best when I improvise,” says Stuart. He makes no claim to being a Shakespearean actor or a Brando. In a comedy club, he finds the emotional core of the audience and works it. “Sometimes I succeed, wildly, or get by, but I never bomb.”
Jason Stuart is gay, which can imperil his work. “When a casino promoter learned I was gay,” he says, “he fired me, before the show; before I left home.” A club owner declined to enter gay bars to hang posters for an up-coming show by Stuart. “What if a guy hits on me,” he said to Stuart.
Frank Bruni, the Op-Ed columnist for the New York “Times,” wrote how Americans are uneasy around gays. “Chris Rock,” Stuart told “Advocate” magazine, “said Hollywood is a White industry.” Producers used to claim a Black actor could not carry a moneymaking movie and then came Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington. “I’d add that Hollywood has a White-straight-man problem.”
In a comedy club, Stuart can set the audience at ease.” “I tell them of the true me. I say, ‘I heard one per cent of Americans are gay. If that’s true, I slept with them all.’ This always gets a solid laugh and relaxes the audience.”
Then he teases a member of the audience about what he said. “I always lightly pick on a good-looking person. No one cares if I tease a good-looking man; he already won the big race.”
For corporate clients, Stuart has a version of his act that focuses on LGBT. “Work quality can’t vary by sexual orientation,” he says. “Using humour, I show how employee sexuality need not be a concern for managers.”
Onstage, Stuart is an actor portraying a stand-up comedian. “I work hard to build rapport with the audience.” He and his audience work together, the way an actor in live theatre might work with the audience.
Most stand-up comedians are obsessed with writing or scripting their acts, but not Jason Stuart. “Many successful comedians,” says Stuart, “plough through scripted shows, whether the audience connects with them or not.” “I keep a list of words,” he says.
A focus on words allows Stuart to find that place where he and his audience meet. “Working around words keeps my act spontaneous, says Stuart. This increases the fun of the show for the audience and me." “The stage is my sanctuary,” says Stuart. “It’s where I go to hide. Onstage, no one can get at me. I am safe.”
In this interview, Jason Stuart talks of comedy, acting and being gay. He’s smart, quick and charming; his insights are keen and finely drawn. Stuart shows why he’s a remarkable role model for everybody.
Grub Street (GS) You started as an actor.
Jason Stuart (JS) Yes, when I was eight years old I did my first Purim play. That’s a traditional Jewish play, presented in a temple, as part of a day of celebration. After that performance, I wanted to be on the stage.
I think Lucille Ball was a big influence on me. I thought Ball was so funny. I loved her television show, “I Love Lucy.”
GS To this day, her show airs, somewhere in the world, every minute of the day.
JS I loved the way people laughed with her antics. “I Love Lucy” began, roughly, at the time women began, in large numbers, wanted to get out of the home, find a job, earn recognition beyond the family and achieve autonomy. Ball played on this goal for her comedy.
GS Ball was trying to break out of an externally imposed shell.
JS Yes, she was; most of her antics, though hilarious, were to set her free, in a large sense. Not that her husband, Desi Arnez, was necessarily a tyrant; he represented conventional life on “I Love Lucy.” Lucy chased self-sufficiency, her husband tried, a bit, mostly unsuccessfully, to hold her back.
GS Did you perform in other plays.
JS Later, after the Purim play, I did a community theatre production show called, “Santa Claus for President.” I got laughs because I somehow pretended to be Lucille Ball pregnant. As her, I was so fat I got all laughs, which drew me to the stage.
GS Why the stage.
JS As a small child, I was the target of much bullying, treated badly for being gay. I wasn’t able to talk about it. As a result, I gravitated to certain people, such as Lucille Ball and to the stage, where I felt safe.
GS In a way, you assumed power, being onstage, everyone watching you.
JS I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’re right. Onstage, they couldn't hurt me.
GS Did the laughs you got, in the Santa Claus show, drive you to comedy.
JS No, I was afraid of comedy. I was afraid of doing a standup comic. I never wanted to do stand-up.
Stand-up never occurred to me, as a workable possibility, until I had a manager, Katherine James. She has since passed away. In the 1980s, suddenly everybody was doing stand-up, making money at it; Katherine urged me to go for it.
GS That was a smart move by Katherine James.
JS Yes, I think so. Still, sometimes I wonder. It’s much more difficult for a gay man to work as a comedian.
It’s an odd riddle of sorts. There is no gay man in my position. There are few openly gay comedians, a mere handful, such as Alec Mapa, Anthony Kalloniatis, he works as Ant, and me. Maybe there are a few others, but not many.
Mapa, Ant and I have made it to the middle of the pack as comedians. So far, no openly gay male comedian has made it to the top or even into the top rung. Ross Matters, “Ross the Intern,” from “The Tonight Show,” has a good chance of breaking into the top rung.
GS He’s great. Is he breaking the straight ceiling?
GS Why do you think no gay man has broken into the top rung of stand-up comedians, yet?
JS I’m not sure. Gay men, as an audience for entertainment, seemingly prefer drag queens, straight girls and anything naked. Gay comedians aren’t their first choice.
I also think self-esteem has a great deal to do with it. Only now, have gay comedians been able to develop self-confidence. More confidence, more success, I do think.
Lesbians will go to watch anything lesbian, repeatedly. Not long ago, I did a show, in Maine, with Suzanne Westenhoefer. You may remember her from the remake of the game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” on GSN, in 2006.
GS Yes, she, too, is a good comedian.
JS For that show, I think the audience was half lesbians, a quarter straight people and a quarter gay men. As I’m a gay man, doing stand-up, I thought more gay men would come to watch and support my show. No; gay men seem more apt to watch Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho or a drag show is where the gay money goes.
Lesbians, alternatively, don’t care as much about fame. They support lesbian entertainers. Still, this may be me pontificating based solely on my personal experience.
GS You make great sense.
JS Thanks, for a straight male comedian, the first audience is straight people. For a Jewish comedian, as I am, the first audience would be Jewish people. As I’m gay, Jews don’t come in droves to see me; an openly gay Jewish comedian is not the first choice of many Jews.
Still, when Jews do come to my shows, they love what I do. I’m their newest discovery; the response is mostly positive. The trick is to get the Jewish audience to my shows.
My point is that all audiences are fickle, not only gays or Jews. I don’t have the answer. If I had the answer, I’d be doing it.
GS Has your overall experience, as a stand-up, been positive.
JS Positive, yes, but putting people in seats remains difficult for all stand-up comedians. I’ve done much television, many sitcoms and dramas, which helped my stand-up career. My CD, “Gay Comedy without a Dress,” has also helped.
GS Tell me more about your CD, the title intrigues.
JS The idea, for the CD, came about early in my stand-up career, maybe twelve years ago. The material, on the CD, deals with finding my way in a new frontier, the first openly gay and successful stand-up celebrity. A publicist wrote a piece on me, in which she said, “When you break new ground, you get to walk on it.” In the old days, gays didn’t openly admit their sexuality; today, we do.
Yes, there’s gay celebrity and there’s celebrity. It’s difficult for a gay man to break as only a celebrity, without the adjective. Patrick Harris is one example; among lesbians, there are Rosie O’Donnell or Ellen DeGeneres as well as a few others. It seems easier for an LGBT comedian if she or he had much success before coming out.
GS Do you think prior success does make coming out easier.
JS I don’t know if prior success made coming out easier. Prior success likely meant they had a large enough following to continue after they came out. Harris, O’Donnell and DeGeneres each had a strong base, which thoroughly enjoyed his or her work; that’s what kept the total base from abandoning them when they came out.
GS Are you leading the way along this path.
JS Maybe, I’m steadily moving along. I recently did an episode of “Sleepy Hollow,” which aired on 2 February 2015 on Fox stations. I did a film called “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” with all these drag queens, an episode of “Real Rob,” with Rob Schneider, and “Mink Stole.”
One of my films showed and sold at Sundance, in January 2015. The movie is “Tangerine”; Sean Baker directed; Jay Dupluss and Mark Dupluss. Magnolia Pictures bought the film and plan to release it in 2015.
GS Watching your stand-up act, on the web, you appear comfortable onstage.
JS Oh, I’m an actor performing the role of a stand-up comedian. I have a rapport with the audience. The audience and I collaborate, in the same way they might collaborate with an actor in a scene.
I not sure, but I don’t think many stand-up comedians approach the work as an actor. Many don’t have an acting background. Mostly they do jokes, tell stories and so forth.
GS Often, for a comedian, acting comes later in his or her career.
JS Yes, that’s true, perhaps when she or he gets a sitcom.
GS Is a comedian a comedian or are there types of comedians.
JS There are several kinds of comedians. There are writer comedians, funny looking comedians, comedians that tell funny jokes or stories, comedians that run all over the stage and jump up and do make funny faces and so forth. I’m the comedian that has a funny view of life.
I’m average looking. Nothing about me is especially unique. I’m not heavy or skinny, short or tall. Looking at me, it’s difficult to say if I’m Jewish or a Roman Catholic, for example.
When I started doing stand-up, my usualness sometimes bothered me. Where do I hang my hat on? Today, I don’t try to be someone else. I am Jason Stuart; that is who I am. That’s how I am funny.
GS Your comedy seems spontaneous. Are you performing a script?
JS That’s my gift, improvisation, comedic or dramatic. I try to make my act genuine, which, for me, means spontaneous. I’m not as good working from a script, say, but I can do it, effectively.
I prefer to develop an idea of the audience mindset; sometimes, it hits when I step onstage, other times, it takes a while to flourish. Then, I play to that mindset. I work hard to fit into the circumstances of the club and the mood of the audience.
Usually, the wall comes down, if it exists, and the audience relaxes, after my first comment. I might say I read that one per cent of all Americans are gay. My punchline is if that’s true, I’ve slept with them all. The tag is how I point, in a fun way, to someone in the audience.
GS When you point someone out, of the audience, do you care if they’re straight or gay?
JS No, I only care if they’re good-looking. No one cares if you make fun of a good-looking person. Other people often envy a good-looking person.
I think any barriers between us, the audience and me, crumble by this point. I try to let people know where I am, what I’m doing, who I am. This is why first joke is important, as it reveals me, with no fear; this gets the audience on my side.
GS I noticed, watching one of your online videos, that you thank the audience at the end of your act.
JS It’s common courtesy.
GS You said you like improvise your act. Do you ever write down your act, as some comedians do?
JS I write down ideas. Then I work it out onstage. For me, onstage is what counts. Bill Cosby used to say air was for filling up basketballs; for me, onstage is about words.
GS I suppose circumstances might call for different words.
GS What’s your favourite word?
GS What is your least favourite word?
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
GS Most comedians seem obsessed with writing routines down.
JS That’s not for me.
GS The goal, it seems, is to deliver a written routine as if it were spontaneous, never written down.
JS That’s interesting.
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
JS Calvin Klein underwear fit me just right.
GS Do you think comedians are more susceptible to abuse, such as firing, than are other entertainers?
JS Yes, comedians are vulnerable. Club owners, say, have so much power over the careers of comedians, young and old. More than one owner has fired me. I know how it feels; it isn’t a good feeling.
A problem, which ends in firing a comedian, often results from misunderstanding. Maybe the club doesn’t fill up. Maybe the comedian says something the owner doesn’t think suitable or like. It’s difficult all around and often hard to predict or specify.
A club owner once fired me before I left my house. Roughly, a year ago, a casino fired me from a comedy night because I’m gay. As soon as the owner found out I was gay, I was off the show.
GS That’s terrible.
JS I think it is for somebody offering a different position, as do I. If a booker or manager doesn’t want anything different said, say, about masculinity, then there’s a problem. Progress, in every part of life, comes from blending different positions; there are many ways to be masculine.
GS Over the past generation or two, what makes up masculinity has changed, but ideas about masculinity are sometimes slow to keep up.
JS Two-hundred years ago masculine meant wealth; a masculine man was rich. A feminine man, who was a little pudgy, was rich or thought rich. He could buy silly clothes, a velvet coat and such. If he were fatter, that meant he had the money to buy food and thus was wealthy. He had acceptance, held high status and much prestige, in the open, if not in the background, because of his wealth.
GS That is funny. Could you do Fallon or Letterman, say, considering your views?
JS In a sense, Letterman is over. He’s retiring in May 2015. There’s little room for a new-to-the-show act.
People at Fallon saw my material. They wanted to see more. They saw more.
Then they, the people at Fallon, claimed my material wasn’t fresh enough for television. They were wrong. Mostly, I think, producers, of late-night television, want comedians under thirty years old of age and, maybe, conventional.
GS That’s the audience for these shows, mostly.
JS I suppose so. I haven’t done stand-up on a national television show for five years. I stopped chasing those guest shots; I felt the rejection was too much.
At one point, I walked out of an audition for “Last Comic Standing.” One of the producers suggested I not talk about being gay. Many producers made the same comment to me, many times, over the years.
In fact, that was the fad, once: don’t talk about it; that is, being gay. You’re a better comic if you don’t talk about whom you are. Talk about life outside yourself.
In the comedy world, there’s a hierarchy of what you talk about and how you talk about it. It’s different with a club audience than it is on television. That’s why you’ll only see certain comedians on the “Last Comic Standing,” and such shows; they do a specific style of comedy.
GS A safe form of comedy, perhaps.
JS I don’t know for sure, if it’s necessarily safe, but that style of comedy bypasses audience interests, in a large way. Talking only about external topics, such as taking the subway, is a style of comedy that’s narrow and, perhaps, dated, but it does appeal to some audiences. I think what television audience see is more what the comedian thinks is funny, given his or her reference group, that is, other comedians.
GS It’s comedians working to comedians.
JS Yes, I think so. When I started, a comedian had to go into a club and make people laugh; a headliner had to make the audience laugh for roughly forty-five minutes or an hour. That was the main priority.
The second priority was you had to do time, on the road, say, bombing.
GS George Burns said all acts needed a place to fail before finding success.
JS True, the third priority was the comedian had to attract an audience, that is, sell tickets. She or he had to pull people into the club to spend money. This meant the comedian must be funny and likeable.
Today, it’s only about selling tickets. Funny doesn’t have to be far-reaching, in the sense it once did. Today, comedy can be more specific.
GS Does being gay noticeably affect your bookings.
JS Some producers and books think all I talk of is being gay, which isn’t true. My comedy doesn’t depend on me as a gay man; it depends on my funny viewpoint. The issue is would you make a similar comment to a Black comic, say Chris Rock, when he talks about racism. Would you say that to Rosanne, who talked about being a homemaker?
GS No, the blowback would be unbearable.
JS Right, but gay comedians hear it all the time. There’s only been one openly gay person on “The Late Show,” with David Letterman show, ever; that’s Suzanne Westenhoefer. He had to have a heart attack for her to get on his show; that was in 2000.
In 2006, Westenhoefer was on the new version of the hit television show from the 1950s, “I’ve Got a Secret.” Burt Dubrow created the new version with an all-gay panel. It was a great show, but didn’t get a second season renewal.
GS It’s worth nothing that Dubrow wanted regular show that used gay panellists.
JS LogoTV tried a similar show called “Gossip.” The plan was to have four gay-male comedians, as diverse a group as possible. Hopes didn’t work out; “Gossip” aired with one gay male and three straight women.
The women weren’t bisexual. They weren’t transgender. They weren’t lesbians, but three straight, heterosexual women on a gay network. The result was similar to having a show, on the Black Entertainment Network (BET), with one Black person and three Whites.
Can you imagine doing that to the Black, Hispanic or Asian community? It would not happen. Yet, for some reason, with gays, it’s okay.
Why would anyone want to watch another show, with four “girls” talking? There’s “The View” and “The Talk,” on network television. The idea of four gay males talking is different.
GS Against the odds, you made it.
JS I’m one of the lucky gay comedians and actors. I’ve been able to ply my trade, my comedy and acting, without many of the problems others face. I am lucky, in this sense.
GS Say you’re opening for another comedian, say, Sandra Bernhardt, does that affect your act.
JS It’s a show. It’s not just you. So you have to bleed into each other’s act.
Sandra Bernhardt is much more of a monologist. She doesn’t do joke after joke after joke. She tells stories and sings.
She wouldn’t want a joke, joke, joke comedian opening for her. It wouldn’t work. She’d never have me open for her, for different reasons.
GS What reasons?
JS I’m too high-energy, too attention getting. The contrast, between a high-energy opening act and her calmer presentation, would grate on the audience. I think this is the main reason I haven’t opened for her.
As well, Sandra Bernhardt is so famous. The audience comes to see her. She never has, doesn’t need, an opening act.
I used to see her at the Comedy Store, in Los Angeles. She would either kill or bomb. The same goes for Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin.
Many comedians, who are gay icons, don’t have the same sensibilities as do straight comedians. When gay-icon comedians work a mostly straight club, say, the Comedy Store, the audience rarely finds their beat. Bernhardt, Cho and Griffin stay on their mark, nothing phases them; either, the audience comes around or it doesn’t.
I try to make the audience laugh, whatever it takes. I’m adaptable. I opened for Russell Peters; a large part of his audience is ethnic. These are my people.
Ethnic people usually have a strong sense of humour and identify with a wide range of emotions. This makes the audience for Peters great for any comedian. Ethnic has never been a problem for me.
Peters is a huge star. It doesn’t matter whom, if anyone, opens for him. The audience comes to see him; still, his audience enjoyed me.
I opened for “The Village People,” Larry Miller, Ellen DeGeneres, Kay Clinton, Arsenio Hall, at the Comedy Store, back in the day; Dean Cook and many others.
GS You opened for Dean Cook.
JS Yes, it was at the Laugh Factory, in Las Vegas. I’ve worked with him one hundred times or more. I never had a bad experience with Cook.
He’s had a rough couple of years. Both his parents died. His brother stole all his money.
I know some comedians don’t like his act. Maybe there’s something personal at work or he’s too frenetic, I don’t know. I always enjoyed working with Dean Cook.
GS Morey Amsterdam said he was a comedian, when the audience laughed.
JS If a comedian doesn’t make another comedian laugh, that does not make him or her unfunny. Audiences often love comedians other comedians think are unfunny. Comedy is akin to food: there are many tastes and flavour, chefs often like different dishes than do diners.
Often, not always, those with the idea they are less successful often envy those they view as more successful. This may be the case with Dana Cook. The same ones that envy Cook often dump on his audience, too.
GS Maybe it’s all the envious can know, that is, envy.
JS I’ve gone into clubs, say, where I never thought I could tear up the room, but I did. In other places, I survived, let’s say. Yet, rarely, do I bomb; I know what to do, I’m a technician and work as hard as I must to bond with the audience and do.
GS How would you handle opening, say, for the late Richard Jeni?
JS He and I are so different; we would’ve complemented each other.
GS Is this the same with Dane Cook?
JS I think I’m the perfect act to open for Cook. A large part of our audience is female. We work well, together.
GS You do corporate events where you talk about coming out.
JS Yes, I’ve done such corporate events, over the years. These shows stem from my experience with the media. Interviewers ask the same questions, too often. What’s it like being a gay comedian and so forth. I thus created a show that answered these questions.
In the corporate shows, I talk about being opening gay in the workplace. What I tell audiences is the only difference between them and me is that more people know of me than know of them. Everybody is much the same.
GS What do you say, for example, to a club manager that thinks gay comedians are funny, but won’t hire a gay comedian because she or he makes the manager uncomfortable.
JS I would say it’s not his or her job to be comfortable; it’s to be profitable. Her or his job is to hire different shows. Different shows bring in different people.
Every week a club can have a different audience. The same audience won’t and probably can’t come often enough to keep the club in business. A club wants to cycle or recycle and build its audience.
This is likely impossible, but it’s a worthy goal. Having the same audience, all the time, also means the manager must hire only certain comedians to ensure the show sells out. The manager can’t book only straight or gay comedians and succeed; she or he needs a mix: gay and straight, male and female or, maybe, ethnic comedians.
A club in Des Moines, Iowa, booked me a few years ago. The club owner was a good fellow that weighed more than three hundred pounds. He was a large man, let’s say.
When I arrived at the club, I noticed a roll of some of my posters in a corner of his office. I asked why he hadn't put up these posters. He said he was nervous about going into gay clubs, to put up my posters. “What if someone hit on me,” he said.
GS How bizarre is that?
JS True, but I think the reason comedy clubs have problems roots in booking too few women comedians. Yes, there are many fewer women comedians than there are men comedians. Fewer bookings, across-the-board, results in fewer women going into comedy; it’s a never-ending circle.
GS You don’t buy into the infamous comment, by the late Christopher Hitchens, that women are not funny.
JS No and it’s much the same for ethnic comedians. If the Black, Asian or Latino community turns out for its ethnic comedians, she or he finds bookings. If not, then not. Community support is everything.
My point is audiences will turn out for any comedian, regardless of orientation or ethnicity, if the comedian is funny and club books him or her. Parts of that audience will surely return to see non-ethnic or straight comedians, too. This strategy builds overtime to create a large, loyal audience for the club.
GS Who are your favourite comedians?
JS Louis CK, I’m enamoured with him. His series, “Louie,” on which he plays himself, is great. His does such a good job convincing the audience he will say anything; that he’ll throw his family under the bus, for a laugh.
GS He does make some wild comments.
JS That’s what he wants the audience to believe.
GS What other comedians do you admire?
JS Kathy Griffin is a good comedian. She makes people laugh. Her audience likes her. Those are the only reasons I think she’s a good comedian.
Griffin is everywhere, these days, which might be problematic. She’s done so many specials. She replaced Joan Rivers on “Fashion Police.” The CNN New Year’s Eve show, with Anderson Cooper, gets her much attention from those that normally might not watch her specials.
GS Yes, that’s true.
JS Still, she must work to make money. She’s doing all she can while she’s a hot commodity. Five years from now, no one may know her name or her work and she’ll starve.
GS I suppose audiences and promoters want her to do the extremes of what she does. Audiences surely have favourite routines you do. They want to hear you do them live, as if you’re a rock star performing his or her hits.
JS In show business, comedy, everybody wants something. I want to appear on Fallon. I want to appear on “Last Comic Standing,” but the producers won’t return my calls.
I was up for “Last Comic Standing” three times; interviewed once. I auditioned. The producers laughed hysterically, but said, “No,” to me appearing on the show.
One producer said, “You can do this without being gay.” Later, this person said to me, “I just want you to know I’m so sorry about what happen.” He said, “We passed on you, but thought you were hysterically funny.”
GS Why didn’t you appear on the show?
JS The producers, it seems, wanted what they thought was an interesting show and I didn’t fit. They didn’t want a show that featured acts the audience might want to see; they wanted acts they want to see on the show. That’s how executives manipulate television for some poorly explained reason.
GS Every comedian has an opinion about Jerry Seinfeld.
JS He’s brilliant, but he doesn’t make me laugh, as it’s not my style of comedy. His material is too set-up, too unemotional. I like emotion, that’s what comedy is all about.
GS What did you think of George Carlin?
JS He was a groundbreaker, with much emotion. I loved Carlin, although I think he was more of a monologist than purely a comedian; that was his style. He was so prolific, too.
GS What other comedians have influenced you.
JS Joan Rivers, Joan Rivers, Joan Rivers. You can see her influence in my act. Lilly Tomlin is the best, though. She took comedy to the highest degree. Rodney Dangerfield, in his day, was great, as is Don Rickles, today; he is the funniest.
GS My only complaint about Rickles is how he apologies, ‘for only having fun,’ at the end of his shows. This goes back to the 1950s.
JS He wants to keep working. When the insults in his act started killing, I think it frightened him. Nobody was doing what he was doing; yet, it was working.
GS I think when he became successful he should have stopped apologising.
JS How? You’re making it sound like people forget about real-life. How does he put a kid through college? How does he have a house and a wife?
GS To keep working he needs to apologise.
JS Yes, to work.
GS So if he apologises, “We’re only having fun,” he usually says, at the end for the show, this keeps the audience coming back.
JS I don’t agree with him always apologising, either, but I understand it. It’s scary, scrambling for a living; he apologised to ensure he got more work. Plus, he’s old school, you know.
GS Yes, there’s that, too.
JS I think we pick apart these people too much, when it’s only jokes.
GS This is true; over-analysis is not necessarily good.
JS I should mention that Totie Fields was a huge influence on me, too.
JS She was on the “Dean Martin Roast,” when they roasted Dean, himself. The Dean Martin persona was of a heavy drinker, with the implication his long-term memory was faulty, when, in real life, he wasn’t much of a drinker. Fields takes the dais and says, “I don’t know if you know this, Dean, but I was your first wife.”
I’m sure the show producers edited ten minutes of laughter from that show. That was a different time, though. Today, we consider heavy drinking, real or not, a disease and no one, ever, makes fun of a disease. Her joke wouldn't have made air, today.
GS You now have a podcast.
JS Yes, I’ve been able to make a living for thirty years as an actor, comedian and, most recently, a podcaster. The latter calls for special skills, such as a persona, developed enough that I can talk about myself in a way listeners want to hear more on the next show.
My podcast, “Absolutely Jason Stuart,” needs strong interviewing skills and empathy for guests. I work hard not to lose grasp of the show. It’s easy, because of my improvisational skills, to wander off on to tangents.
GS How much do you prepare for the podcast?
JS I’m an interested person. I must know the people I interview so we can talk about their work or life. There can thus be much preparation. I need to know what it is about the guest that interests my listeners and me.
Bruce Vilanch, who often writers the “Oscars®” show has guested on “Absolutely Jason Stuart” as has Kelly Carlin, Susan Westenhoefer and Frank DeCarlo.
GS Russell Peters guested on your podcast.
JS Yes, I met Russell Peters when I was performing at the Montreal Comedy Festival. He claims I teased him, mercilessly, about doing homophobic material. He took my teasing seriously; he’s a sensitive man. We became friendly.
I asked Peters to be on my podcast. He said, “Yes.” He was a great guest.
GS You’re in the movie, “Gia,” a biography of the model, Gia Carangi.
JS I have a little part in that television movie. They billed me as “Booker #2.” A credit is a credit.
GS How did you land a role in a cult movie?
JS Michel Cristofer directed “Gia.” He wrote “The Shadow Box,” one of my favourite plays. He’s an actor, too.
At the time, I had an agent. He called Cristofer, suggesting me for a role. Normally, the director calls agents to set up interviews with actors.
Cristofer saw me on Broadway, in a play at the Town Hall Theatre. The show Cristofer saw me in included an incredible line up of comedians. He thought I was hilarious.
When my agent said, “I had an interest in the part,” Cristofer said he wanted me for “Gia.” When he had the chance to use me in a production, he did. Sometimes chasing a role pays off.
GS Did you meet Angelina Jolie?
JS Yes, I remember her concerns about pulling off the leading role, as Gia Carangi. She said, “I don’t know if I should be doing this?” She spoke those words hard. “I don’t know if I’m going to be any good in this role,” she said.
I was sure the role, of Gia, would change her career. I told her so. The role of course changed her career.
At a screening, of “Gia,” Jolie walked clear across the room to say hello to me. That shocked me, in a good way. I didn’t think she’d remember me. I only worked one day on the movie.
GS The world is coming to recognise her as a classy person.
JS The only other person that’s crossed a room to greet me was Rosie O’Donnell. I’ve known O’Donnell for years. I went to see her in a play.
After the play, many stars were mingling in the lobby. Marlo Thomas was there, as were Lee Grant and Barbara Walters. When O’Donnell saw me, she crossed the huge lobby and gave me a big bear hug.
O’Donnell is a classy woman, too. She’s incredibly encouraging. She has her demons, as we each do, and no off-on switch.
GS O’Donnell left “The View,” again, after only a year and her long-term love interest left.
JS O’Donnell is getting older. She’s coming to grips with mistakes she’s made. Each of us must come to grips with our past, too. O’Donnell came out late in life, which I think is harder.
GS Why is it more difficult to come out later?
JS You must do it in front of everyone. Many or most friends, say, may have met you, known you, as straight. Now that you’re openly gay, those people may think they have to reassess. They don’t have to reassess, but think they must.
GS What question do interviewers ask you most often?
JS Why’d you want to be a comedian? Who are the people that you love? When did you start? How did you start? Do I think being a comedian is the hardest job in the world?
GS What question did you hope the interview might ask, but did not?
JS I wish someone would ask, “Who would you like me to call that could change your life.”
GS That’s interesting. Other than television shows on which you have appeared, which ones do you like?
JS Gawd I love “Masters of Sex” and “Good Wife.” My guilty pleasure is “True Story,” with which I’m obsessed.
I enjoy television shows that involve famous people in “real” circumstances. I don’t like any of the “Housewives of ….” shows, though. I like the reality show featuring Tatum O’Neil and her father, Ryan O’Neil; it’s extraordinarily interesting to watch what they do with their fame.
GS Do you watch “Herself,” with Tory Spelling.
JS Yes, as I can. I like how she and the O’Neils show sides of themselves that are otherwise invisible. I don’t know why they want to do it, but I can’t stop watching it.
I would never want to do such a show, ever, no matter how much it paid. I’m open, but guarded. I could never have a camera following me 24/7.
GS I want to run an idea by you.
GS I think comedians start at the far reaches of society, with good, sharp, perceptive material. As they become increasingly successful, they move toward the centre of society, which means their material grows less sharp, less pointed and less shrewd. Once she or he achieves success, that is, finds themselves in the centre, their material grows bland, vanilla, not in the least cutting.
The comedian wanted and fought for visibility. Once achieved, the fight is over. Success peels the sharpness of talent.
JS Jay Leno is a perfect example. Once he landed “The Tonight Show,” keeping his job was his obsession. I don’t think he got over how he wangled the job, which kept him anxious.
He did a safe monologue. He wanted to get it right, every night. Yet, I heard his stand-up act was sharper, more pointed, as when he recently guested on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.”
The audience loved the less reserved, if only slightly, Jay Leno. His first joke, about Ikea opening a store in Thailand, would never have made his monologue when he hosted the show. When he hosted “The Tonight Show,” his opening monologue was safe.
GS Leno chewed through a great of material when he hosted “The Tonight Show.”
JS Yes, eight minutes a night, perhaps thirty or more jokes. He needed the twenty writers he had on staff. David Letterman does roughly ten jokes a monologue; he has one monologue writer, on staff, and a gaggle of freelancers sending him new jokes every day.
Leno would leave after taping “The Tonight Show.” He’d take a plane to Vegas; perform a live show, in a casino, then fly back to LA. At roughly 10:30 pm, he and his writers reviewed that night’s show. They’d also write half the monologue for the next show. I don’t know how he worked so hard.
GS Are there other questions that you wished the interviewer asked, but didn’t.
JS Well, questions about my acting career, I think. I have such high dreams for my acting. What happens when those dreams go unfilled? How does anyone deal with not meeting expectations?
GS How do you deal with that?
JS I’m in a good place. These days, I specifically go after what I want to do. I’m not broke. I have a lovely home. I have a car that works. I have money in the bank.
Yet, I need to work, if only because I love my work. I have several movies coming out. Creatively and, for my career, I am in a good place.
There was a time I had to take whatever offers came my way. Now, I can do what I want. I can say no to an offer that I don’t believe suits me.
This is how I handle not meeting all my dreams and expectations. I found my way to a place from which I can decide. I found some autonomy, I guess.
GS What would be your dream job?
JS Easy answer, a supporting character on a quality series.
GS Who would you be supporting in your dream job?
JS I’d love to work with Edie Falco, on “Nurse Jackie” or another quality series. Falco pays attention to the details of her performance. This becomes obvious when you’re on the set with her.
I guested on a television series, recently, which will remain nameless. I was trying to get in and out of the show, quickly, for the credit and the money. There was no creativity on that show; the main concern was getting the episode shot and moving on to the next.
I don’t want to act or work only to get the job done. I want to do quality work, ideally with a legacy. This is always possible, given the high-quality crews that are readily available, but not every producer uses the best; sometimes for budgetary reasons, sometimes the best aren’t available and so forth.
Today, most creative work focuses on getting the work done. Then everybody wonders why the show isn’t successful. I believe audiences can tell quality from lesser efforts.
By definition, the creative is not an assembly line product. Creativity has no templates. Creativity is mostly spontaneous, although good preparation is necessary.
I want to perform a role as well as I can. I want everybody involved, in the show, treated with respect and dignity. This is how quality work, with lasting effects, appears.
I had many great chances, such as a part I portrayed on “My Wife and Kids,” for time. There was also a great guest spot on “The Closer.” I had the chance to work with Ira Sachs, in “Love is Strange,” which was extraordinary.
My role, in “Love is Strange,” was as an official that married the characters portrayed by Alpha Molina and John Lithgow. I had three pages of dialogue, while Molina and Lithgow, stood still, barely saying a word; that lifted my performance. The silence of the Molina and Lithgow parts, in that scene, created my performance, not me.
GS That’s the way it should be.
JS Yes, but on the television show, which must remain nameless, that was not the case. The director was kind and generous. That’s how the show could shoot; otherwise, chaos would have ruled.
When a director is a yeller or a rusher, actors feel as if they are machines. They are not, of course. Still, if a director wants a machine performance that’s what she or he gets.
GS You’re not going to get an audience for long, with an actor-is-a-machine approach.
JS No, but some people do love bad television and every actor needs to pay his or her bills.
GS Still, Tuesdays 9 pm, television, in its many forms, must have a show, good or bad, to air; advertisers won’t buy a black screen.
JS Right, but I don’t want to be on that show, which merely fills time. If someone offers me a role on that time-filling show, I’ll likely do it. I won’t purse that role, though.
GS Was there a specific turning point in your career.
JS That unnameable television show made a huge difference.
After that show, I realised, “I don’t want to do this, any more, unless I work on a show that aims for quality.” I worked hard to arrive at a place, in my career, where I can decide I don’t only want to fill time and make money. I can wait for quality offers, not jump at every offer made.
GS That’s making it isn’t it; that’s success, being able to make your own decisions?
JS Yes, I guess, but it’s hard to recognise. Neither of my parents read much, if at all, never went to school and so forth. My father was a Russian Polish immigrant; he was in the Holocaust, the ghettos, not the camps.
My mom is 77. She was poor, poor, poor from Brooklyn and wore high heels to the beach. She worked as a beautician.
Today, mom wears a snap on ponytail and shops at Forever 77. She wears a push up bra; her boobs go up so high, I wonder how they got up here. That’s my mom.
As good as my parents were to me, they didn't imbue me with much awareness of success markers. Today, I do find it hard to view myself as a success. From all that I say, I guess I am a success, but it hasn’t sunk in, fully, and maybe never will.
GS Maybe your success is that you don’t fit anywhere, but you fit everywhere.
JS I wish that were true.
JS That was a fun show, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I thought I was going to be improvising; performing scenes with Danny DeVito or Charlie Day. Turned out, my scenes shot with only me, alone, the only actor on the set. I get many parts where my scenes shoot with me only.
On “Always Sunny,” I was the auctioneer for a special event at Patty’s Pub. My part was funny. Still, I was alone, when my scenes shot, without any other members of the cast and that was a disappointment.
This happens a great deal, I think, to gay actors. We’re off to the side. A director may wonder where we fit into the show, into life.
GS You must have fit on “Will and Grace.”
JS I did two episodes of “Will and Grace.” I played Stuart, the manager of the duplex, where Jack, portrayed by Sean Hayes, did his television show. “Will and Grace” reminded me of a reality show, it changed so much.
I remember sitting by my fax machine waiting for my scenes to arrive. The director liked how I portrayed Stuart. As a result, they moved me around and around. They rewrote my scene several times. It was nerve wracking, at times.
Once, at a taping of “Will and Grace,” my first episode, in fact, I fell on my knees, pleading, “Am I in this scene or not?” Finally, my role fixed and I had one line; they cut me from my other appearance, the episode with Glenn Close as the guest star.
GS Were the changes to do sensitivity.
JS No, it was all about the joke. The creative team didn’t believe the joke would work in front of that audience for the taping. I found so little in that joke, it was hard, as a comedian, not to interfere with the writers; I managed to stay out of it.
I think, for actors, this is less of a problem. They deliver their lines as written. Actors trust and rely on the writers to know what is funny; comedians know better.
As it turned out, the audience went crazy for the four actors. The joke didn’t matter as much as anyone thought. The stars of “Will and Grace” were great to work with and this showed through to the audience.
GS You worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
JS Yes, that was on “Kindergarten Cop,” in 1990. That was my second hugely successful studio picture. I had a big scene with Schwarzenegger, in which he tries to get at the villain, portrayed by Carroll Baker.
GS Is that Carroll Baker from movies such as “Baby Doll,” “Carpetbaggers,” “Harlow” and “Giant.”
JS Yes, that’s she. She didn’t want me to touch her hair, during filming, even though I was portraying a hairdresser. That was a difficult work-a-round.
One day, she misplaced her reading glasses. I went to a mall, in Santa Ana, to find her a new pair. Then she changed.
We became fast friends, Baker and I. We hung out. I was in her trailer. I did her hair. She thought it was great my mom was beautician. This experience taught me to engage, not to hang on the edge.
GS How did you get the part in this movie?
JS My improvisational skill landed me the part in “Kindergarten Cop.” Improv seems my gift; I am not a Shakespearean actor or Brando. I’m best in an emotive or funny role that I can create.
GS You said “Kindergarten Cop” was your second hit movie. What was the first one?
JS “Eternity,” also in 1990, was my first big movie. This was the biggest movie for star power, in which I appeared, to this day.
It starred Jon Voight, Armand Assante and Wilford Brimley. Ann-Margaret co-starred and Hal Ashby directed. Frankie Valli and Eugene Roche also co-starred.
The movie tells the story of two gamblers that lose a pile of money, in New York City, and leave for Las Vegas to turn their luck around. I played the head reporter on a news team. The movie cost roughly one hundred thousand dollars to make; given the stars, the producers made it on half a shoestring.
The screening shocked me into reality. In post-production, they cut my part, which seemed important to the storyline, to a minimum. No one tells the actors about editing decisions.
GS I suspect the director decides about storyline, unless actors have contractual inclusions.
JS “Welcome to Hollywood,” I thought. I’m in the movie, but I am not; well, I’m hardly in the movie. In the final cut, I had two lines.
GS You appeared on “Everybody Hates Chris,” too.
JS Yes, it was the third time I worked with the director, Keith Truesdell, who I adore. I worked with him on “Fat Actress,” starring Kirstie Alley, and “The Secret Life of an American Teenager,” starring Shailene Woodley.
Truesdell is a director, with a distinct calmness. This is not always the case. It's thus fun to work with Truesdell.
I did a funny skit, on “Everybody Hates Chris,” portraying one of two gay men. They were doing an infomercial in the 1980s. They were selling toys and, at the time, they couldn’t let on they were gay.
GS What education do you have?
JS I graduated from high school in Los Angeles. I danced in a circle, at the ceremony. I was wearing a tie-dye shirt. Still, I got a diploma.
In school, bullies victimised me. High school was isolating; I felt I was the only gay student in the school. I couldn’t put myself through those feelings, again, voluntarily, by going to college.
Thus, I couldn’t see myself in college, with people my own age. I thought it would be an extension of high school bullying. It was just too much to consider.
I think it was a big mistake, not to go to college. I would have learned to socialise much better. Maybe my path would have changed or been easier.
We’re doing an interview. You want to talk to me. If we were at a real-life party, I’d probably be standing off to the side trying not to eat.
GS Trying not to eat, is that true?
JS Yes, I’m a compulsive overeater. I work hard to manage my overeating.
GS What occupation, other than comedy and acting, would you like to try?
JS Political advocate.
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
JS I would not care to work as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
GS What inspires you?
JS Death inspires me.
GS What are you reading right now?
JS I recently finished the Anjelica Huston biography, “Watch Me: a memoir.”
GS What books do you urge readers to read?
JS Any biography, such as “Shelley: also known as Shirley” and “Shelley II: the middle of my century” both by Shelly Winters. The Lauren Bacall biographies are excellent, too: “By Myself” and “By Myself and Then Some.”
GS In what city could you lose yourself for hours to explore?
JS Amsterdam, it such an open city is every way.
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began working in comedy or acting, which you now regret.
JS Yes, accepting I had to start at the bottom.
GS You advise entertainers to start at the top.
JS Yes, the slide down is much easier than the climb up.
GS Thanks, Jason.
JS You’re welcome.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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