Living for Laughs

Yes, Jason Stuart, is “that guy.” If his name doesn’t ring any bells, his face will certainly make you think, “I know ‘that guy’ from somewhere.” Most likely you’ve seen him making an appearance on some TV show or portraying someone in a movie. The character actor has 35 years of steady work in his career, approaching 150 credits on his IMDB page.
He has guest-starred and been a supporting actor in everything from Judd Apatow’s “Love,” to “My Wife and Kids,” to “Tangerine,” and “The Birth of a Nation.” So it’s no wonder his all-too-familiar face might just pop up anywhere, in any kind of role. But then Stuart is also a veteran comic, appearing in comedy clubs all over the country and opening for some of the industry’s biggest stars.
Born in the Bronx and raised in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, the self-described insecure Jewish kid turned to theatre and performing to mask his emerging sexuality. He jokes about going to see Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” as a youth and falling in love with Omar Sharif.
His talent and determination got him some early professional work in films like “Kindergarten Cop,” “Vegas Vacation,” and TV shows like “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Drew Carey Show.” But by the early ’90s, frustrated by years of living in the closet, Stuart chose to come out publicly on an episode of Geraldo Rivera’s talk show focused on “unconventional comedians.”
Some doors closed, but he never allowed his identity as a gay man define his professional career as an actor or a comedian, flourishing in both genres and gaining a reputation as one of the funniest comedians working today.
Stuart travels to the Avi Resort & Casino for the first time Friday, July 5, as part of the ongoing First Friday Comedy series. For this show, comedian Manny Hein will serve as the host, and Bob Kubota will be the feature comic.
All of the talent comes from a comedy organization called The Comedy Machine, which has been supplying venues across the country with some of the funniest clean comedians around.
We talked with Jason Stuart about his career, his comedy and the show he brings to town. Here’s his take…

Which came first, the comedy or the acting?
The acting. I’ve always thought of myself as an actor first, comedian second. When I think of what I want to do with the next phase of my career, I think about being a great character actor. I revered the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, his ability to always disappear into his characters, no matter the role. He was a character actor who happened to be a movie star.

Did the comedy feed the acting or did the acting feed the comedy?
I think the comedy fed the acting, very much so. Acting to me is like a relationship — it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Comedy is like a quick affair with someone very hot and it either turns out great or you go, “Oh, my God, why did I do that?” Why did I take that job?

Comedy is a tough way to make a living, isn’t it?
Oh, no, I think what’s tougher is working at Sears or Walmart in the tire department. Retail is like working for the devil.

How did you get into the comedy portion of the program?
I had management that said I was funny and I couldn’t get a job to save my life as an actor. In the ’80s they weren’t going to hire a gay guy to do anything. So I started doing standup and I thought, “Oh, my God, I can actually make money doing this.” So when I learned I could actually make money doing this, then I started touring the country opening for people. I opened for Shirley Hemphill from “What’s Happening,” I opened for Judy Tenuta, I opened for Ellen DeGeneres, I opened for Larry Miller, some wonderful comedians.

Your influences?
I think Joan Rivers and Don Rickles were my biggest influences. I loved the way they interacted with the audience, I love the way each show felt specific unto them. It didn’t feel like they were doing a rote show, it always felt like it was for a specific audience. I love that.

Describe your comedy.
First thing is, it’s funny. Second thing, it’s all about me and my life, and the third thing — it’s about how we’re all not really that different from each other.

What’s the strangest place you never thought you’d perform comedy?
Oh, my God, there are so many, I don’t even know where to start. I did a big benefit in a basement once and the guy said to me, “Here’s the mic, you’re going to do it in front of the buffet. The whole room in the basement is shaped like an L. I said, “There are two things that have to happen when I do standup, first thing is people have to see me and second, they have to hear me. If those things are challenged, it’s just not going to happen.” The guy says, “I know what I’m doing.” During my show, people would just walk up and try the potato salad. He said I wasn’t very funny and I said, “Well, no one heard me, everybody was on the other side of the room and I was behind a pole.” Later I called him and apologized. I was very inexperienced, it was my first year of being out, and I’d never been in this situation where nobody could hear me and nobody could see me, and I was interrupting people getting potato salad and cold cuts.

The things you guys endure for your craft.
There have been some wonderful things that have happened, too. I remember I was doing a show in St. Louis at the Funny Bone. That was one of my most popular places to work. I would literally do 10 or 12 shows in the week, and the lines were out the door. Some woman came over to me and said, “I just want you to know my son died last year of AIDS, (this was in 1994, before the cocktail), and you remind me of him. I haven’t been out in a year, and this is the first time and you made me laugh so loud. Thank you.” I thought, “Wow!”
It makes it all worth it — the lonely hotel rooms, all the stuff you have to go through, the flying in, doing the show that night, getting up at 6 o’clock doing press, radio and television interviews, going back for a nap for three hours — you’re sleeping half here, half there, that’s what I’m sort of doing here, right now.

What’s your favorite thing about doing comedy?
The audience, being on stage, talking to people, playing with them, making fun of ourselves, making fun of the crazy things we go through in life. In my book, Shut Up! I’m Talking, which is now available on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and CTV Publishing — not that I’m trying to get this book sold — there’s a big chapter called “Comedy Isn’t Pretty.” It talks about what it’s like to be on the road. So I was one of the first, not the first, but one of the first openly gay comics headlining mainstream comedy clubs, to really be a big success. And quite a lot of things happened, I got fired a number of times when I was even selling out, because I was gay. So there were a lot of things. I might be the first openly gay headliner to perform there at the Avi in Laughlin. That would be kind of cool.

What is your take on the comedy scene and whether or not you think “YouTubers” have paid their dues to the craft?
Well, the whole profession has changed. I think there’s nothing like live comedy to me. It’s not the same. You can see someone that can be incredibly funny in a two-minute sketch on YouTube, but when you have to go on stage and have to be funny for 45 minutes to an hour, it’s a different experience. You also have to know who your audience is. That why when I say, “shut up, I’m talking!” that’s funny, because it comes from a real place. The name of the book came from a real place, it came from what my mom used to say to us as we were kids, and when I say it and repeat it in front of an audience I have to set that up so they understand where this came from and they have to understand within a couple minutes — sometimes even less.

Do you ever think about the courage it takes to let an audience judge whether or not they like you when you’re doing comedy?
No, because I think it’s courageous to raise a family, to try to do a job you don’t necessarily like because you’ve got three kids and a husband to support, or a wife. So I can’t put myself in that light. I’m just trying to make people laugh, or trying to act in films and television things that tell a story. You can go into a room and go, “Oh my God, I heard that story from a completely different point of view. Like I was in a movie called “A Birth of a Nation,” three years ago and it’s about black abolitionist Nat Turner, and I got to be a part of telling that story from a black man’s point of view. People would ask me all the time, “how do you feel about it?” My answer — this is what I do — I take off my shoes. I put on the shoes of my black brothers and sisters and I just shut up and listen, because it didn’t happen to me. You get to be a part of stuff like that. I feel really lucky — for somebody like me. I’m not gorgeous, not young, not straight, and I get to do all this stuff. And then somebody asks me to write a book about my life. It was going to be called, I’m not Barbra Streisand, I thought she might be upset if I took her name for the cover — she has her own book coming out next year I think. I have a lot of fun and get to do some amazing things. I never take it for granted ’cause you never know what’s going to happen. The surprise is what it’s all about.

Anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I would tell people to join my social media. Check out my website, it’s brand new — it’s JasonStuart.com. Let them know they can hit me up on social media and I will answer anything they like. And I so look forward to meeting everybody after the show in Laughlin.


1ST FRIDAY COMEDY

Avi Grand Ballroom

Friday, July 5 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info