Arizona: The Funniest People And Pop Culture In The State
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Welcome to 50 States of Funny, where we’ll take a periodic look at the funniest people, places, and pop culture ephemera that each of our fifty territories has to offer. Is your state the funniest? Probably not, but feel free to fight it out with the fine people of Kentucky. In the meantime, let’s check out the comedy in the Grand Canyon State, home of one of the most hilarious huge holes in the nation.
Funniest Arizona People
It’s not the heat, it’s the humor -- there’s a surprising number of famous comedians who grew up in Arizona.
Even though he was born in Michigan, we’re going to count David Spade as an Arizona kid since he lived in Scottsdale since he was four. The self-described “friendless nerd” made his comedy bones performing at Greasy Tony’s Pizza in Tempe, cementing his status as a legit Arizona dude. He also performed stand-up at Arizona State, likely the funniest thing on campus outside of a Sun Devils basketball game.
As a young comic, Spade would return for Arizona visits. "Every time I come home--there are kids next door who are, like, six and eight years old--I come back in town for two days and Judy says, `Now Davy, I promised those kids you'd ride bikes with them.' `What are you talking about?' `You can't forget your fans! They're what made you.'"
Garry Shandling is another comic with Arizona bona fides even though he was born in Chicago. His family moved to Tucson when Garry was an infant so his ailing brother could get better medical treatment.
“I never saw a comedian work live in a club until I was about twenty years old,” Shandling says, “because I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where there’s just nothing. I’d only see comedians on TV”
Shandling spent three years studying engineering at the University of Arizona before deciding to commit to comedy. He wrote up some jokes, then “the only Jew in Tucson” drove to a Phoenix club to show his material to idol George Carlin. (Yeah, Shandling pretty much ambushed him.) Carlin didn’t buy any jokes but he did encourage Shandling to keep going, telling him there was funny stuff on every page. From those Arizona origins, a comedy superhero was born, creating It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Shows, two of the most acclaimed sitcoms of all time.
Your L’il Baby Aidy Bryant grew up in Phoenix as what they call “a theater kid,” wisely learning improv at summer camp instead of some useless skill like leathercraft. Then it was more improv at the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company before yes-and-ing her way to Chicago to hone her comedy craft.
“I’m a Phoenix diehard,” Bryant proclaims. “Born and raised. I might be in Chicago today, New York tomorrow, but I’m always a Phoenix girl at heart.”
Now she’s doing Arizona proud as a three-time Emmy nominee for Saturday Night Live and Shrill when she’s not jamming with Cardi B and Lizzo.
Robert Schimmel was working as a stereo salesman in Scottsdale when his sister persuaded him to try his dirty mouth on the stand-up stage. He was never a big TV or movie guy, but in 2004, Comedy Central ranked him #74 among the top 100 stand-ups of all time.
A typical Schimmel joke mixed sex stuff with old-fashioned family humor: “(My daughter) says, ‘Dad, do you know how hard it is for my boyfriend to put a condom on while we're in the swimming pool?’ And my dead grandmother appeared in front of me and said, ‘Bob, we'll see you in about two minutes.’” (That daughter, Arizona-born Jessica Schimmel, went on to work on The Simpsons.)
Schimmel died in 2010 in a car crash, sadly but appropriately, in Arizona.
Arizona Comedy Movies
Let’s go to the speed round and count down the 10 funniest movies set in Arizona. Extra points for Arizona being part of the joke. Ready, steady, go!
10. Bio-Dome Pauly Shore and one of the Baldwin Brothers Who Is Not Alex try to use the bathroom in what they believe to be a shopping mall. They get trapped in the closed ecological system, so full of lush bio-experiments that it doesn’t matter that it’s technically located in Arizona.
9. Beavis and Butt-head Do America - The animated idiots travel America -- including a stop in Arizona. Not much of an Arizona movie, but at least it doesn’t star Pauly Shore.
8. Hamlet 2 - It’s not easy being a high school performing arts teacher in Tucson, Arizona, the town “where dreams go to die” (at least according to this movie). Good enough to premiere at Sundance, not funny enough to remember.
7. Evolution - Comedy icon Ivan Retiman directs David Duchovney investigating a hilarious meteor crash in, you guessed it, Arizona.
6. Stir Crazy - Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder rob an Arizona bank wearing woodpecker costumes. Guess you had to be there.
5. National Lampoon’s Vacation
CLARK: Come on, kids, let’s go.
ELLEN: Don’t you want to look at the Grand Canyon?
CLARK puts his arm around his wife and takes a two-second gaze.
CLARK: Great. Let’s go.
4. Bad Santa - A funny movie about a sex-addicted Santa who robs Arizona shopping malls. Otherwise, not too Arizona-y.
3. Little Miss Sunshine - An Oscar-nominated comedy that features a road trip through Arizona on the way to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pagaent. The car trip was actually shot in sequence as they traveled the Arizona highways.
2. Joe Dirt - Poor Joe Dirt, left alone as a muletted baby at the Grand Canyon. Not a critical favorite, but the kind of comedy you end up watching on cable after a late night at the bars. The story was based on David Spade’s childhood Arizona friend.
1. Raising Arizona - #31 on the American FIlm Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Laughs list. Nic Cage and Holly Hunter can’t have children of their own, so they set off to kidnap Nathan Arizona Jr., one of five quintuplets and heir to a furniture fortune. AND the movie is set in Maricopa County, Arizona. So much Arizona!
Funny Arizona TV Shows
One of the best movies set in Arizona is Martin Scorsese’s 1974 drama-comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It’s also one of the few Scorsese flicks where no one gets whacked, although Alice’s husband does die in a car crash. Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for Best Actress, playing a widow moving to the American Southwest in search of a better life for her preteen son.
Widow? Car crash? Struggling single mother? CBS took one look and decided “Sounds like a lot of laughs, Arizona it is!”
The sitcom Alice replaced Burstyn with Linda Lavin, who for some reason had a heavy New York accent that disappeared as the seasons went on. Vic Tayback came over from the movie to play Mel, the cranky fry cook. The show was a hit, finishing among the top 20 shows for five straight seasons. Its popularity hasn’t lasted however, currently available on exactly none of the millions of services looking for junk TV to stream.
Funniest Tourist Attraction in Arizona
The funniest thing to see in Arizona isn’t in one location -- it’s all over the damn state. Drive a highway down here and you’re more likely than not to come across a janky dinosaur statue.
It’s like the entire state decided to double down on the ceramic stegosaurus craze.
So if you’re looking for a laugh in Arizona, just hop in your car and start driving around. Goofy-ass prehistoric giggles await.
“There’s a car-culture connection,’” says Roadside America’s Doug Kirby. “Dinosaurs are somehow ‘American.’”
And apparently, they’re somehow Arizonan.
And Finally, One Funny Arizona Fact
The village of Supai (population 208), located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, is the only place in the country where the mail is delivered by mule. It just feels like that everywhere else.