Doug Robinson: G-rated comedian chose values over fortune, fame (+video)
By Doug Robinson, Deseret News
Published: Sunday, Jan. 3 2016 6:10 p.m. MST
Updated: 4 hours ago
SOUTH JORDAN — It was right there in front of him: his future. Jason Hewlett, the comedian/impressionist (and more) from Utah, merely had to sign the contract and he would step into another world. He would be set financially. He would have his own show in venues around the country. He would eventually have his own nightly gig in Las Vegas, with his name in lights at a major casino. He would be, with the flourish of a pen, The Next Danny Gans, he was told.
Hewlett and his wife, Tami, had flown to Las Vegas to meet with a wealthy casino owner. Big promises were made. “We’ll train you,” he said, “we’ll help you. You’re going to be rich and famous.”
It was a performer’s dream, but as talks continued, a shadow fell over the proceedings. There was a catch: Hewlett had always made a point of producing a family-friendly act. The contract stated that Hewlett’s new employer would have total control of what he did on stage. “You do a G-rated act, but we need something more adult for our audiences,” he was told.
He returned to Salt Lake City to mull over the contract and then called back for further clarification, hoping there could be some middle ground. He was told there would be no compromise. His employer would dictate everything in his act, and Hewlett could guess what that meant in Vegas. The last time he’d even hinted at doing anything off-color onstage occurred years earlier at BYU, of all places, and afterward he had made a personal vow never to go there again. Now he was being offered a contract that would demand “adult” humor.
On the other hand, Hewlett had been preparing for an opportunity like this for years. He had performed wherever he could find an audience. He had spent hours and hours in front of a mirror exercising his face, perfecting the Samantha Stevens nose wiggle, the rubber mouth and the goofy velociraptor routine. It had taken him six months just to teach himself to play the piano to complete his Billy Joel routine with a rendition of “Piano Man.” He’d sacrificed his body to get to that meeting in Vegas. He’d literally thrown himself offstage once just to get a laugh and gotten hurt doing it; he’d done the Jim Carrey impression until his neck muscles were twisted like a pretzel.
But the moment of truth had arrived. The choice, as he saw it, was simple: Guarantee the future and sell his soul, or set himself adrift again trying to make a living in entertainment.
He didn’t know it, but he was about to lose everything.
Jump ahead about a decade. Hewlett isn’t the next Danny Gans, but he believes he has found something better than doing Vegas night after night. He performs for corporate events, 200 shows a year, all “G-rated.” He has taken the stage for Coke, American Express, the U.S. military, Delta Air Lines, Life Vantage, Younique, CHG Healthcare, Nu-Skin and various private events, including a wedding in Paris and a show for Bill Gates and pals. He has performed in France, Mexico, Denmark, Sweden, Nova Scotia, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Djibouti, the Florida Keys, Hawaii and just about every major city in North America.
On a given night he might do impressions of De Niro, Eastwood, Carrey, Nicholson, Bee Gees, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson, Adele, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Mumford and Sons, plus that velociraptor bit, which defies description (see YouTube). He mimics (and parodies) the stars’ singing voices so well you wonder why he didn’t simply become a singer himself. There’s a lot of other silliness in the next mix, including stand-up routines on everything from selfies to Lasik eye surgery.
It is physically demanding work, and at 37 he is like an aging football player who can feel every tackle. He does 35 to 75 impressions a night; multiply that by 200 shows a year and it adds up to a lot of miles on his body and voice. He ices his knees the morning after a performance. “I’m in pain all the time,” he says. “I feel like Brett Favre.” He has spent “thousands of dollars” on physical therapy and voice therapy. He had to cut back the Jim Carrey routine because it was so hard on his neck. He took gymnastics lessons to improve the landings on some of his more physical routines. He once jumped off an 8-foot stage onto a cement arena floor in dress shoes and shattered his heels.
“I had to push him around in a wheelchair,” says Tami. “He had to give that up. People miss the Jim Carrey (impression), but his neck couldn’t take it anymore. People shout from the audience, ‘Where is Jim Carrey?!’ He’ll do it, but not the parts with the neck stuff.”
Partly because of the wear and tear on his body, Hewlett is raising his fee to cut back on performances and increasingly hires himself out as a combination keynote/motivational speaker, emcee and impressionist all mixed into one zany act. He probably would have drifted in this direction anyway; after all, he read stacks of positive-thinking and self-help books during his teen years.
“I have a message that makes people smile and laugh,” he says. “They’ll think it’s a show even if it’s billed as a speech. It’s an infusion of everything I do well, entertainment and inspiration to lift your spirit. When you make people laugh, it opens the heart to learning.”
His message: “Discover and embrace what makes you great.”
It is a subject he has lived. Hewlett discovered early on that the one thing he could do — when nothing else came easily — was make people laugh. A third-grade teacher was wise enough to strike a deal with the class clown: If he could be quiet for an entire class period, the teacher told Hewlett, he would give him five minutes at the end of class to perform. Hewlett held up his end of the deal, to the teacher’s surprise, and Hewlett did his Pee-wee Herman impression.
“The class ate it up and I was hooked,” he says.
School was difficult for him and laughter saved him. He makes a living talking and performing in front of thousands, but during his childhood he worked with a speech therapist to overcome a slight lisp and a difficulty pronouncing R’s. “I couldn’t recite two lines of poetry,” he says.
He barely passed his classes. His parents, John and Marsha, moved their family from Park City to Sandy just so Jason, the oldest of their five children, could attend a private school and reverse his academic slide. Waterford School required him to repeat ninth grade and gave him one year to prove himself academically. His parents hired tutors, and he claims he studied eight hours a day.
“I still barely passed my classes,” he says.
He became active in student government — he would eventually become student body president — and tried out for the basketball team but barely made the cut as a freshman. “I made it because they didn’t have enough players,” he says. “This is 1A basketball, and I was the last guy on the bench.” A coach told him he would never play because he simply wasn’t good enough. He completed a goal of making 50,000 baskets that summer, spending all his free time on playground courts. He made the starting lineup as a sophomore and the all-state team as a junior.
He went to a basketball camp at BYU to hone his skills, hoping he had a future in the sport. On the last day of camp, Tony Ingle, the BYU basketball coach at the time, handed out awards to various campers. Near the end of the ceremony, Ingle announced he wanted to give a special award to Hewlett — not for basketball, but for making the camp more fun. He invited Hewlett to perform for the team for five minutes. Hewlett was crushed.
“All I was thinking about was basketball,” he says. “I had worked so hard at it. It was devastating to me.”
Hewlett shook off his dejection and launched his Jim Carrey routine, followed by a Michael Jackson impression. The team went nuts. Ingle playfully offered him a scholarship — not to play basketball but for his ability to make people laugh.
“I want you to be a team manager because I want you on the bus,” the coach told him.
Says Hewlett: “I went back to my dorm and cried. But I realized basketball is not it. I was now recognized by significant adults as an entertainer. Tony had done me a favor. It solidified things for me.”
Events and circumstances seemed to conspire to put him on the stage, from the recognition of others to his own yet unrealized talents and physical attributes. Take, for instance, The Mouth, which takes up the entire cover of his autobiography. It appears to be a normal mouth — until he opens it — and keeps opening it. It’s like a snake jaw that can be unhinged to swallow a large rodent. A dentist once told him he could fit both hands in there to work on his teeth. He was self-conscious about it until he discovered he could use it to make people laugh. His classmates loved it. Hey, do that thing with your mouth. It was great for doing impressions of Jim Carrey or, again, the velociraptor (you really need to see YouTube).
Hewlett also came equipped with a voice that has an uncanny range and quality, allowing him to imitate anyone from Adele and Neil Young to Elvis and MJ (plus an amazing array of sound effects). He was singing in the hallway at Waterford one day when the choir teacher heard him and pulled him into her classroom. She sat at the piano and played a song and asked him to sing it. She was impressed, so she asked him to sing something else, and he sang the Alvin and the Chipmunks’ version of “The Christmas Song.” “You could make a living as a singer,” she concluded. He joined the school choir on the spot. A self-taught pianist, he is a natural musician.
As a young boy he had been intrigued enough by his gift of imitation that he studied muscle groups of the face and then practiced daily in front of the mirror to discover a way to move those muscles independently — lips, eyebrows, nose, ears — in ways that would put Carrey to shame. He taught himself to move any part of his lips as if it were attached to a string. He practiced making comic faces in front of the mirror. Whatever he heard, he mimicked — cartoon characters, musicians, actors, dogs, teachers, siblings. To work up the MJ routine, he bought slick-bottom church shoes and a sheet of plywood for dancing. He pointed a video camera at himself and danced and sang while imitating a Michael Jackson video, which he wound and rewound so many times he wore it out and had to buy a replacement.
He was doing all these things but was never certain where it would all lead.
Not everyone was laughing with Hewlett. In 1997, he arrived in Brazil ready to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’ve heard about you,” his mission president told him after introductions were made. “If you’re here to be a clown and make people laugh, you can get on the plane and go home. But if you’re here as a representative of Christ, then you can stay.” Hewlett’s reputation had preceded him, probably bolstered by his stay at the missionary training center in Provo. Hewlett was taken aback. He assured his mission president that he was there to serve.
“That was a pivotal moment,” says Hewlett. “I had to learn not to rely on humor or charisma to make people listen to the message. It changed my whole life in a big way. The talent I had cultivated so long and hard was no longer allowed. What did I have left? I had to rely on God.”
Hewlett did his best impression of a sober missionary, but after months of having doors slammed shut, Hewlett’s companion told him, “We need you to drag out some of your comic routine to get in the door.” So he employed a little comic relief at times to get people to listen to the message. Out came a fleeting glimpse of velociraptor and the facial contortions. Eventually, people on the street would flag him down and ask him to perform. “I do this much funny and this much Spirit,” he would say.
Looking back, he says, “It was a great opener. It crossed all language barriers and demographics.”
He flourished as a missionary. As a child he had been sickly and had missed school frequently because of it. He didn’t miss a day during his two-year mission. When he got home, he went to bed for two months, exhausted and ill.
During his mission he had decided he’d try to make a living as a funny man, but when he returned home he went to work selling golf equipment and found himself working alongside, of all people, Ingle, who had been fired by BYU.
“What are you doing here?” Ingle asked. Hewlett said he was selling golf equipment. “No, what are you really doing here?” Ingle asked again. “You’re the funniest person I’ve ever known and you should be performing right now.”
Ingle lined him up with a friend named Chris Poulos, who had managed various show business acts, to coach him and to help him find work. But Hewlett’s first performance was for the Kamas Fiesta Days beauty pageant. He was asked to perform for five minutes while the votes were counted. He was such a hit they asked him to do 10 more. Having exhausted the material he had prepared, he winged it and won a standing ovation.
When Hewlett told his father, a successful insurance salesman, that he wanted to turn comedy into a vocation, John was predictably skeptical. Then he listened to a demo of his son’s act and was instantly sold. Through personal contacts, he set up an audition in Las Vegas with Johnny Stewart, owner of “Legends in Concert,” which provided impersonation acts around the country. At the age of 22, Hewlett won a job as a Ricky Martin impersonator for $1,200 a week, starting in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a summer. Later he performed two impersonations — Martin and then Elton John — in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
After months of doing the same acts night after night, Hewlett wanted more; he wanted to do impressions of many performers, a la Gans, the late, great impressionist who had a headline act in Vegas. Hewlett went to Vegas to watch Gans perform and halfway through the performance told his dad, “I can do this and I can do it better.” He left “Legends in Concert” and struck out on his own.
He went to work honing a complete act of material, performing for Cub Scouts, firesides, clubs, parties and schools, with Tami handling the lighting and the music. He performed without compensation in the athletes village and USOC hospitality suite during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, in front of increasingly smaller audiences, which often consisted of puzzled non-English-speaking athletes.
Hewlett got his big break in 2004. He was summoned to Vegas again and offered a decadelong contract for a lot of money. He would be sent to venues around the country to get his act ready for Vegas.
“They told me, ‘You’re going to be the next Danny Gans, you’re going to be a headliner, if you want to be,’” says Hewlett. “And I did want to be. That was my dream.”
But there was that problem with content control. One of the hallmarks of Hewlett’s act was that it was G-rated. He argued that Gans himself had done G-rated work. “You’re not famous; you can’t make such demands,” he was told.
Years earlier, during a summer camp at BYU, Hewlett had spontaneously crossed the G-rated line. He was auditioning for a performing group at the school and did his full-on Jackson routine, ripping off his shirt and doing the hip thrusts. The crowd loved it and egged him on; he obliged. All the other performers had done show tunes or opera or “safe” rock numbers. He went a different direction. He got a huge ovation, but when he walked backstage the director of the audition informed him he was disqualified and his performance had been inappropriate.
“I was extremely upset, because I knew it was the most entertaining thing at the camp,” he recalls. “But later that night I realized the (director) had a point. I knew he was right. I told myself, I’m on this earth to make people smile and inspire them, and I can’t have a foot in both worlds. I have to choose. ‘Who’s on the Lord’s side?’ I decided I would be a G-rated family-friendly entertainer who would spread joy for families. I wouldn’t do something just because it pleased crowds.”
Now he was in Vegas and staring at a contract that was tempting him to do just that. After being told again that Vegas would manage his career, production and content entirely, he said, “OK, then, I can’t sign this.”
He lost almost everything after that. He paid a writer-producer with a proven track record $100,000 to develop clean material for a show in Vegas. Hewlett himself lived in a small hotel in Vegas for six months. Meanwhile, he had started construction on a new home and Tami was pregnant and holding down a job until he could establish himself in the entertainment business.
“I didn’t read the fine print of the contract (with the writer-producer) and I got maybe 10 minutes of material out of it for what was supposed to be an hourlong program,” he says.
He was broke. He had spent all his savings and had nothing to show for it. He moved back to Utah and into his in-laws’ basement. “That’s when show became business,” he says. “Tami’s parents thought I should get a real job.”
For years he cobbled together a living doing ticketed public performances at venues around the state for which he was the headline act. He succeeded largely through word of mouth and his own endurance. He had a mortgage to pay and four children and a wife depending on him. Sometimes he would do more than one show a day. “My body hurt so much,” he says.
By 2011, he had had enough. “I was missing my kids growing up,” he says. He began cutting back on public performances and instead turned to corporate events, private parties and so forth. He estimates he has performed for more than 1 million people and for more than 2,000 corporate events. He averages about one per week — business is so good that he says he turns away more shows than he accepts — and his schedule enables him to be with his family almost around the clock. He often takes one of his children to a performance. He wonders what his family life would be like if he had signed the Vegas contract.
His act is evolving as he ages, but always the laughs come with a message of hope and happiness. “My days as solely an entertainer are coming to an end,” he says. “Now my act is Dan Gans meets Brian Regan meets Zig Ziglar. I believe my message is needed more than ever. I am not a speaker in the traditional sense. A better word would be humorist. But I will make you think through the comedy.”
Hewlett, a tall, animated, friendly man with thick brown hair (he was going bald until he began taking Propecia), is nearly as fidgety in the family room of his South Jordan home as he is onstage. He sleeps only a few hours every night, his head thrumming with ideas. A habitual thinker, he has filled two 5-foot cabinets with material for songs, poems, parodies and comedy sketches, and he regularly updates six journals he keeps for different aspects of his life (personal, professional, spiritual, comedic).
Tami, who is sitting nearby, has heard all this before and has seen countless shows, from the audience or directing the spotlight. “I still laugh,” she says. “I laugh at him and I get joy out of seeing people get enjoyment out of it. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Where did that come from?’ He’s constantly coming up with things.”
“It’s a miracle,” says Hewlett. “I’m shocked I can do something that I love that brings people joy.”