Napa Valley, California - Greater Tuna Review by Jef Holbrook

Greater Tuna Spoofs Small-Town America

By L. Pierce Carson, The Napa Valley Register

A simple party skit nearly three decades ago blossomed into a critically acclaimed comedy that’s been staged in theaters all over the world — even a command performance at the White House.“Greater Tuna” is a delightfully devilish satire on life in rural America created by Oklahoma natives Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, who also served as its original director.

Two actors play more than two dozen characters — including men, women, children and animals — who inhabit Tuna, “the third smallest town in Texas,” where the Lions Club is far too liberal and Patsy Cline hits are heard nonstop on radio station OKKK. The two-act, two-hour comedy begins with a radio report on the death of Judge Roscoe Buckner from an apparent stroke while wearing a 1950 turquoise Dale Evans one-piece swimsuit with “lots of cowgirl fringe,” and draws audiences in as it provides a fascinating look at outrageous small-town inhabitants, along with non-stop laughs.
The show began in the early ’80s as a party skit the trio created based on a political cartoon. Early tour dates found an instant audience coast to coast, as the show played to packed houses in San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston and Hartford before Sears and Williams found themselves performing “Greater Tuna” for more than a year Off-Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre.That led to an HBO special produced by Norman Lear, which took the “Greater Tuna” phenomenon to every city in America.

Sears and Williams eventually took the show to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a pair of command performances at the White House for President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush in 1990 and ’91.The popularity crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1988 as the highlight of Scotland’s famed Edinburgh Festival, while San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre saw a record-breaking seven-year run.Audiences liked “Greater Tuna” so much that Sears and Williams have written three sequels, which are all playing somewhere in the country at present.

“Greater Tuna” finally showed up in wine country last weekend, in the capable hands of a pair of talented Southerners, Jef Holbrook (Georgia) and Topher Payne (Mississippi). Sunday afternoon’s performance at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater was the final stop on a seven-month-long coast-to-coast tour. Seeing someone other than Sears and Williams inhabit the characters they created was indeed enlightening — to see that they’d drawn such larger-than-life caricatures that others could build on.

Although I’d seen the savvy Oklahomans send audiences into fits of laughter on numerous occasions, there were moments when I actually thought the weekend visitors were able to breathe added life into their respective roles. This is not an easy show to do as both men are often required to walk off stage and reappear in a matter of seconds as someone new, wearing a completely different set of clothes.

The two-member cast launches its small-town tale with radio announcers Thurston Wheelis (Holbrook) and Arlis Streuve (Payne), roles to which they return throughout the show. But they also introduce us to the Bumiller family — Holbrook as the well-intentioned mother, Bertha, and Payne playing the roles of the three children — twins Stanley (a reform school alum) and Charlene (a cheerleader reject) and Jody, who willingly takes home all the stray dogs offered to him by the director of the humane society.

Holbrook also does a star turn as Aunt Pearl Burriss, who runs a one-woman campaign against chicken-killing dogs with her “bitter pills” (read poison) until she accidentally kills her husband’s prize bird dog. The list of characters includes a klansman, staunch weatherman, UFO spotter, and the vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, a fashionista named Vera Carp. I feel Payne made this character even more bizarre than the actor who created the role.

A moderately sized crowd, offered a cool auditorium on a hot afternoon, seemed to really enjoy this marvelous satire of small town Americana. Holbrook and Payne did the show’s authors proud.

A quick preview of some of these Texans reveals Judge Buckner who dies under mysterious circumstances, Vera Carp and her censorship club, the Smut Snatchers of the New Order who meet to censor the dictionary, town drunk R.R. Snavely who spots a UFO shaped like a bean burrito, the Tuna Little Theatre’s unique production of “My Fair Lady” using the scenery and costumes from “South Pacific” and the town’s one-man Humane Society who launches an urgent campaign to rescue homeless ducks.

“Greater Tuna” has been called “A tour de force of comic acting” by Variety magazine, and “Wonderfully warped … Audiences go bananas” by the New York Post. The performance at Lincoln Theater in Yountville is the final show on the current national tour, and the first visit to Napa Valley by Topher Payne.

“Our show at Lincoln Theater will be our final performance in the tour.  I can’t believe it’s really ending.  The cast and crew have been together for seven months, and we really are like family.  But since it is time for us to say goodbye, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place to do it.”

“Greater Tuna” plays Lincoln Theater Napa Valley on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. For tickets which range from $29 to $39, contact the Lincoln Theater Napa Valley Box Office, 100 California Drive, Yountville, Napa Valley, by calling (707) 944-1300 or visit


Mount Vernon, Washington - Greater Tuna by Jef Holbrook

“Greater Tuna,” the comedic chronicle of a typical day in the third smallest town in Texas, comes to Lincoln Theater Napa Valley in Yountville on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. This comical two-man show is a popular satire of life in rural America – where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.

The play “Greater Tuna” was written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in 1981 in Austin, Texas where it became a cult favorite before moving on to Houston then to the Kennedy Center and finally an extended run at Circle In The Square in New York. Since then, the trio has written the popular sequels, “A Tuna Christmas” and “Red, White and Tuna.” Last summer, the fourth play in the Tuna canon opened in Galveston, “Tuna Does Vegas.”

The show’s stars Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne play more than 20 characters representing the population of the entire Greater Tuna area including men, women, children, animals and space aliens. The “cast of characters” requires very quick costume changes by Holbrook and Payne and their crack team of “dressers.” Some changes occur in fewer than four seconds, prompting Payne to refer to the dressers as his very own “NASCAR pit crew.”

“The show is a workout,” said Payne. “I walk off as Vera the church lady with wig, jewelry, pantyhose, gloves, everything.  Eight seconds later I’m back on as Stanley, a seventeen year-old delinquent in camouflage.”

“Greater Tuna” opens with the morning news report from the local low-power radio station hosted by two slow-talking broadcast celebrities - Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie - who keep the town up-to-date on Tuna’s late-breaking news. From there the production ensues with a fast-moving and highly-entertaining avalanche of the town’s characters and their sometimes ridiculous antics.

“Jef and I are actually around the same age as original stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were when they started back in 1981,” said Topher Payne. “So this tour really captures the energy and anarchy ‘Greater Tuna’ had early on.”

So are these two actors from anywhere near the town of Tuna, Texas? Not quite. Jef Holbrook is from Georgia and Topher Payne is from Mississippi, so even though they are not from Texas, the duo recognized some of the characters from their own childhoods.

“Early in rehearsals (director) Ed Howard told us we were being way too nice,” said Payne. “He told us that these people are from Texas. They say exactly what’s on their minds, and couldn’t care less what people think. Southerners coat everything with a little sugar. Texans don’t, and that makes them a lot of fun to play.”

Redding, California - Greater Tuna by Jef Holbrook

By Jon Lewis, Contributing Writer

What: Greater Tuna

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: State Theatre, 333 Oak St. in Red Bluff

Tickets: $24 and $29 ($3 discount for advance purchase)

Available at Fran's Hallmark, Act II and Sky River Music, all in Red Bluff, or by calling 529-2787 or visiting

Some numbers to consider when "Greater Tuna" swims into the State Theatre in Red Bluff at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday: two actors; 22 characters and 22 costumes; four: the number of seconds required for some of the costume changes; and two: the number of lungs you're likely to wear out from laughing.

"Greater Tuna" is the quick-witted, fast-paced brainchild of Ed Howard, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears that brings to life a day in Tuna, the "third-smallest city" in Texas, a hamlet populated by men, women, children, animals, oddballs and aliens.

Originally staged in 1981 in Austin, Texas, the show quickly developed a cult following and moved on to Houston and finally New York. The play begins with the morning news from "celebrities" Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie and proceeds, in quick-change fashion, to the various news and crime scenes around town.

News items include the mysterious death of Judge Buckner; the work of Vera Carp and her censorship club (the Smut Snatchers of the New Order) who attempt to censor the dictionary; a bean burrito-shaped UFO spotted by town drunk R.R. Snavely; and a performance by the Tuna Little Theater of "My Fair Lady" using costumes from "South Pacific."

Through it all, actors Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne pop into and out of a host of costumes with the help of some lightning-fast backstage dressers.

"Everybody knows these characters," said Paul Pierce, artistic director of the presenting Springer Theatricals. "If you're not related to them, married to them or live next door to them, you probably are them."

Pueblo, California - Greater Tuna Review by Jef Holbrook

Tuna Just As Funny As a Jerk In the Knee

by Scott Whited, The Pueblo Chieftain

 Is it more enlightened to laugh at people, or to laugh with people? The audience at “Greater Tuna,” the season finale for the Center Stage Performing Arts Series on Saturday night, didn’t have to concern themselves too much with that question. They got to laugh both with people – their fellow seat-sitters at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, and at people – the hapless inhabitants of Greater Tuna, the setting of the play described in the program as the “third smallest town in Texas.”

It’s late summer 1981, and the folks of Tuna are small- and narrow-minded, perfect fodder for laugh-inducing jabs by playwrights Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard (who also directed). A record-burning is in the offing, but listeners of omnipresent radio station OKKK are told not to worry: pompadoured Little Richard is going to hell, but hip-swiveling Elvis up in heaven because he’s a good ol’ country boy at heart.

This play is a favorite for both touring and ambitious local companies, mainly because of its primary theatrical device: Its 20-character cast is played by two virtuoso actors. This attracts actors because of the challenge and producers because of the reduced cost. Pueblo has, in fact, seen a number of versions over the last decade or two. People love to laugh (just ask Ed Wynn in “Mary Poppins”) and “Greater Tuna” provides plenty of laughs.

The two-man cast in this production featured two Georgians, Columbus-bred Jef Holbrook and Atlanta-based Topher Payne. Both were talented clowns, milking their characters for all the broad comedy they could. Heck, with so many yokel Texas twangs on display, they were halfway home. We all know that hicks and rubes are funny by definition, right?

A fine example was Holbrook’s R.R. Snavely, a besotted local who played an imaginary violin while trying to figure out whether he had or had not seen a UFO (short for “Unidentified Flying Object,” OKKK repeatedly clarifies for its audience), shaped like a chalupa. Payne depicted many a goofy laugh-inducer, especially the holier-than-thou Vera Carp, whose sleep-excused show-stopper was splaying her beskirted legs indelicately in the crowd’s collective face. Happily shocked chortles filled the auditorium.

There were occasional nods in the direction of empathy for the hicks. Holbrook’s big-hair housewife Bertha Bumiller does her best with her oddball brood, but betraying husband Hank (also played by Holbrook) leaves her soothing her pain with the country Dr. Phil: Patsy Cline singing her ode to eternal love, “Always.” Animal-lover Petey Fisk (Payne) beseeches a Lord he’s not sure is out there, “If you did create all this, we could sure use some help taking care of it.”

“Greater Tuna” takes sure aim at our funnybones. But the comedic response is similar to that of a knee’s jerk in response to a tap by a physician. We know these situations, accents, and characters are supposed to be funny, so we laugh as a reflex, almost without thinking.

Upon reflection, however, there is a mean-spirited quality to the humor. These people are provincial, not terribly well-educated, and biased in favor of their own experiences and habits. They deserve to be laughed at, right?As Vera Carp says to a fellow viewer visiting the town’s funeral home to pay respects to a male “hanging judge” who’s been found dead of a seeming stroke while wearing a Dale Evans swimsuit, “Glass houses.”

Glass houses, indeed.


Tuna Christmas at Thalian Hall by Jef Holbrook

'Tuna' casserole comes to Thalian Hall


Posted Dec 2, 2008 at 1:20 PMUpdated Dec 2, 2008 at 1:26 PM



By Ben Steelman, Staff Writer

For those who like comedy casseroles, Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts serves up "A Tuna Christmas," a quick-change comedy that flavors the holidays with Texas barbecue sauce.

This sequel to the Broadway hit "Greater Tuna" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday at Thalian Hall.

In "A Tuna Christmas," two actors (Topher Payne and Jeff Holbrook) portray all the inhabitants of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas.

As our story opens, Tuna's annual Christmas lawn display contest is boiling down to a battle between socialite Vera Carp and Didi Snavely, proprietor of Didi's Used Weapons ("If we can't kill it, it's immortal"). Meanwhile, Tuna's community-theater production of "A Christmas Carol" is threatened by unpaid electric bills and a Ghost of Christmas Past who refuses to give up his spit cup.

Ed Howard, who co-wrote the show with Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, directs this production, a touring show from the historic Springer Opera House in Columbus Ga.

Want to go?

What: 'A Tuna Christmas'
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 5
Where: Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $25 reserved seating, $18 general admission.
Details: 343-3664

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

Turmoil Brews, Comedy Ensues in Tuna, Texas by Jef Holbrook

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2008 6:01 am


Welcome to Tuna, Texas.

More exactly, “A Tuna Christmas.”

Scheduled to stage on Nov. 30 at Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville, Tenn., the comedy revolves around a motley set of characters in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas.

Actors Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne play all 22 characters in a play that brings the audience on board too.

“Gosh, it’s so funny,” said Holbrook by phone recently from Stone Mountain, Ga. “We start the show around the radio studio. We say, ‘Merry Christmas, Tuna,’ and we bring the audience in.”

Playwrights Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams wrote “A Tuna Christmas” in 1989 as a sequel to 1981’s “Greater Tuna.” The general story revolves around a Christmas yard display contest, which has been won 14 times in a row by town snob Vera Carp. Turmoil brews when a Christmas phantom strikes – one of many subplots within the play.

A slew of colorful characters emerge. From Joe Bob Lipsey to Didi Snavely (owner of Didi’s Used Weapons and wife of UFO hunter R.R. Snavely), many are Southern slices of the ridiculous.

“These characters are bigger than life, and I think people know these people,” Holbrook said. “You really get to know these people pretty quickly. And it’s funny. It’s like the audience is in on a giant in-joke.”

While the audience isn’t directly a part of “A Tuna Christmas,” the actors perform as if the audience is a part of the town.

“We talk right to them,” Holbrook said, “bring them in and invite them in. ‘A Tuna Christmas’ is different. Like in act two, there’s a scene when the audience is part of the high school gym. They get to be the whole town.”

Dozens of theatrical companies are staging “A Tuna Christmas” this holiday season. However, the version in which Holbrook stars, which is staged by Columbus, Ga.-based Springer Theatricals, is apart from the others.

One of the play’s writers, Ed Howard, directs.

“With Ed directing it, that means that it’s being done how they intended it,” Holbrook said. “Because he is the playwright, it’s been really helpful. He knows these people. I’m growing in leaps and bounds as an actor from this show.”

No wonder. The audience will see Holbrook perform different characters, men and women. Each character comes with its own attire, unique voice and vocal inflections, and level of participation in the story.

“The style is like a high-wire act,” Holbrook said. “People might say, ‘How’d they change so fast?’ It’s like a circus.”

Indeed, P.T. Barnum probably would have smiled had he seen “A Tuna Christmas.” Funny story with characters seemingly culled from the wackiest of Southern imaginations, Holbrook said the play leaves quite a lasting impression.

“I say come see this one,” Holbrook said. “Ed seems incredibly overjoyed. He said, ‘I feel like God is smiling down on this production.’ ”


What: “A Tuna Christmas” starring Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne

When: Nov. 30, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Niswonger Performing Arts Center, 212 Tusculum Blvd., Greeneville, Tenn.

Admission: $22 for adults, $6 for students, children under age 5 admitted free

Info: (423) 638-1679