What am I going to do...go to heaven with all the straight people wearing white after Labor Day?"
- Jason Stuart
So I was pretty intrigued to see what gay actor/comedian Jason Stuart had to say--both on stage and behind the scenes--about what it's like trying to gain acceptance from his peers and the audience in the already brutal world of stand-up comedy. Unfortunately, the 52-minute documentary Making it to the Middle is short on laughs and insight. The film mixes musings from Stuart on his life and career with clips of him at two radio interviews, but the bulk is comprised of footage of him performing on stage in Columbus, Ohio during his "Looking for Mr. Right" comedy tour.
Stuart has appeared in bit roles in various films and popular TV shows (including Will & Grace, House and My Wife and Kids). When he was 8 years old, he was chosen to play Santa in the play Santa Claus for President: "I thought it would be funny to act as if I were Lucille Ball, on the I Love Lucy show, pregnant. So I did the whole thing as if I were pregnant...and I got all these laughs. It was so wonderful and so funny. I remember getting off stage and remember thinking to myself, 'This is what I want to do. This is my gift."
Stuart first hit the stage in 1983, when he opened for Damon Wayans. That was long after he studied acting--he took a class for two years when he was 14 (missing only one class--in order to see the television special Barbra Streisand...and Other Musical Instruments). He talks about coming out to his mom, who has become his biggest supporter. "My mom was always really funny, and she was flamboyant and all the guys wanted to have sex with her...and I wanted to be just like her." Comments like those--told naturally, without any on-stage affectations when he isn't trying to crack a joke--are the funniest parts of the film.
I'm a tough comic critic--it takes a lot to make me genuinely laugh, and my sense of humor tends to fall on the more sarcastic/evil side (think Waiting for Guffman, The Office, The Comeback, 30 Rock, Heathers). It's even harder for stand-up comics to make me laugh (Kathy Griffin is queen--she just has to breathe and I'll bust a gut). I prefer people who are funny just being themselves, not joke makers who adopt a different tone of speech when they hit the stage. Stuart's comedy--which I was introduced to here--is far too safe on stage, geared mostly toward straight middle-Americans who think gays are a cute novelty. "I'm gay comedy for the whole family!" he notes at one radio station. "I'm like your little nutty uncle...I'm sort of like Uncle Arthur on Bewitched." The Paul Lynde reference is appropriate, because on stage Stuart adopts a (much milder) version of that persona and its mannerisms.
Other lukewarm nuggets include:
Laughing yet? How about when Stuart pretends to misspeak by saying "Sig Fags" instead of "Six Flags"? Or when he notes that his response to a heckler that yelled "You suck!" was "You're right...and I'm damn good at it!" He also calls one heterosexual hunk in the audience (a frequent source of his attention) "Buck" because it "rhymes with my favorite word" and ends the set with an audience Q&A where those silly straight people ask the cutest questions, including--of course--whether Stuart is a pitcher or a catcher (mildly amusing: one man pointing out that Stuart looks like Chuck Norris "without the full beard").
What struck me the most, however, was how dated much of the act felt. You'll begin to think you're watching a performance from 1989, with references to Disney (what's with all the amusement park humor?!), evangelical TV preachers, The Gap, Janet Jackson's Control tour...it's all so generic and dated. Save for some brief references to Dick Cheney and Brokeback Mountain, most of the early material here feels too old.
Like many comics, Stuart spends plenty of time mimicking his mom and making fun of his family--and joking about Jews, gays and the South (with some very inoffensive racial material thrown in). The latter part of the show picks up with more political observations, but I didn't crack a smile one. His harmless use of profanity also seems slightly calculated (a "bitch" here, a "masturbate" and "vagina" there), and nothing here--neither the material nor the delivery--pushes the envelope at all.
The funniest part of the film was the end credits, where Stuart talks about his life goals, accompanied by a scrolling list across the bottom of the screen. His ambitions include: No. 2, Get a supporting actor Oscar nomination and not win; No. 3, 10 years later get another Oscar nomination for playing a straight guy and win; and No. 7, Schedule an appointment to change the oil in my car.
Stuart seems like a nice, affable guy, someone you'd love to know and have as a friend--a demeanor that doesn't always translate into stand-up gold. You have to be really nutty or really charming (like my boyfriend Joel). I would have preferred a lot more focus on his life and career, and what it was like trying to break into the industry as a gay man. We get small doses of that, but the majority of this film--and his stand-up routine here--is just too tame.
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