Greater Tuna epitomizes the nature of comedy in that it makes hilarious in the present what was painful in the day, decade, or century before. “We are going to laugh about this one day!” is only stated while the speaker is in a state of misery, but, just as the speaker predicts, the situation usually gets a few giggles in retrospect. In Greater Tuna, co-authors Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard take all that is embarrassing and tragic in American cultural history and use it to fuel the humor of the play. Racism, bigotry, violence and fanaticism are the bread and butter of the “red-blooded American” residents of the town of Tuna and the main course of the entire comedy. In spite of this, it is almost impossible to walk away from a performance without a fondness and affection for the lunatics who reside there.
The entire play takes place over a single day in the life of Tuna, where anybody’s business is everybody’s business. The glue of the town is the local radio station where all the town news, regardless of significance, is broadcast. Only minutes into the plays’ morning broadcast, we learn that the title of the winning essay in the Tuna Junior High School American Heritage Essay contest is “Human Rights, Why Bother?” This is just the beginning of a barrage of references to slavery, segregation, and prejudice. Through appropriately named OKKK radio, we are introduced to the local Ku Klux Klan leader, Elmer Watkins, whose fervent prayer is success in “making the world a better place for the right kind of people.” Either listening to or speaking through the same station is virtually every resident of Tuna, most sharing the same sentiments as Mr. Watkins. Endeavors to ban certain books from schools and committees such as “The Citizens For Fewer Blacks in Literature” are par for the course. One of the upcoming events advertised through OKKK radio is the burning of rock ’n’ roll records by artists such as Little Richard and Brenda Lee. Records of Elvis and Buddy Holly, according to local Baptist leader Reverend Spikes, are acceptable because they are “good southern boys and they will be forgiven.” In other words, it’s okay as long as the musician is white. That this play is actually a comedy is only made possible by the fact that the people of Tuna are completely ignorant of their ignorance. Characters like Bertha Bumiller and Didi Snavely may be backward, mouthy, and crass, but they are without any sort of façade or pretentious front. As soon as something is in their heads, it exits their mouths, which is strangely endearing and sets the stage for humor.
Early in the play we are introduced to Stanley, Bertha Bumiller’s delinquent son. The interaction between Stanley and the local sheriff quickly exposes the complete incompetence of the law enforcement in Tuna. Sheriff Givens struts around gleefully, basking in the glow of his own intelligence because he can finally nab Stanley for crimes committed. These happen to be two trivial traffic violations. As Stanley is being threatened and harassed by the sheriff, he remains unruffled because the much more serious crime he is guilty of is far from discovery. With self satisfaction, Givens announces that Stanley will be fined forty-one dollars and twenty-seven cents for his offenses. This pronouncement elicits laughter not only form Stanley but most likely from the audience members as well. It seems insane that a criminal getting away with a heinous offense could be comical; this is once again an instance where the true nature of satire surfaces. The amount of unsolved crimes is grim and sobering in the real world, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting for Stanley to have his dark secret kept. The irony of the sheriff’s own foolishness after calling Stanley a “damned fool” is just too perfect not to be funny. After all, the victim of Stanley’s offense was Judge Roscoe Buckner, who held the record for the number of hangings in the 1930s. He had it coming. Just ask Stanley.
Outside of Tuna, Texas, animal cruelty is a punishable offense and a source of pain for anyone with a soft spot for furry friends. Petey Fisk, the local leader of the Greater Tuna Humane Society and most likely the only member, is one of these people. With rampant dog poisonings and a local enthusiasm for hunting, he fights a futile crusade to unlock the town’s humane side. To Bertha Bumiller however, Petey is the worst of the worst, a “dog pusher” feeding her son Jody’s addiction to bringing home lost puppies. In her mind it is Petey’s fault that she has been forced to administer strychnine laced dog biscuits to limit the canine population and thus the local supply of Jody’s drug of choice. Between Bertha and her aunt Pearl who has her own tally of dog deaths, Poor Petey is living in his own private hell punctuated with the pain of his empathy for fish, ducks, and dogs. It is strange that the Galahad of the animal kingdom who has nightmares in hunting season and is so passive that he hates to bother god with prayers should create laughter—but welcome to Tuna.
Tuna is a unique town that attracts dust and tropical storms, as well as locusts and unidentified flying chalupas. Only in Tuna could grandmothers get stuck in Sorghum molasses and dictionaries be routinely censored for offensiveness and words that are “misunderstandable to pre-college students.” It is a place fraught with stupidity, willing ignorance, and values right out of the Confederate south. It is not a wonder that Tuna is small and probably shrinking because if you are black, Native American or a Mexican who is not a housekeeper, you don’t have a place there. Still, if one was to ask town drunk R.R. Snavely, “Church Lady” Vera Carp, cliché spewing Reverend Spikes, or any number of characters in the play, they would probably tell you that Tuna is paradise. To them, Tuna is one of the few remaining beacons of virtue in a fallen world.
It is this very contentment with and pride in a town so deplorable that ultimately makes this play so hilarious. This, coupled with the fact that only two people portray every character in the piece, makes this play unforgettable. Greater Tuna is irreverent and wrong on so many levels. Prepare to laugh.