A Groundbreaking Triumph of Comedy & Community
The Phoenix Bill of Rights Comedy Show

By Mariah Fleming

Last Sunday a “Who’s Who in Comedy” came together to help raise funds for Arizona’s Bill of Rights Monument. If you weren’t one of the audience members cheering and leaping up repeatedly to give standing ovations to the performers, you missed the most phenomenal comedy event in Arizona history. The Phoenix Comedy Festival Bill of Rights Show was a full house, all out smash. Every performance was triumphant, and the audience’s support and reaction exceeded all expectation.

Phoenix Comedy Festival, Image by Shari Corbett, Click for larger image

Stars of the show, comedians Lewis Black, Chris Bliss, Bill Engvall, Bobcat Goldthwait, legendary civil rights activist Dick Gregory, Kathleen Madigan, Father Guido Sarducci, ground breaking comedy activist and icon Tommy Smothers and Steven Wright, performed a perfect, well paced, four hour show. As a special treat, Little Feat members Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett played an outstanding set of music at the beginning of the second act. Everyone appeared pro bono for the benefit.

The drum beat to make this hugely successful show an annual event started as soon as the first comic, famed Saturday Night Live comedian Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello, walked onstage, after being asked to begin the night with a “moment of prayer.” In his full “Vatican Rag” regalia (look it up, it’s worth it!) Fr. Guido (comedian and author of the hilarious and enduringly popular “The Lazlo Letters”) elicited a prolonged roar from the crowd. Novello received the first of many standing ovations.

Filled to the brim with political and social commentary, juggling and just plain joyfulness, everything seemed to be a target for satire. Following Father Guido Sarducci, each comedian’s set was flawless, hilarious and insightful. Along with everyone else on the bill, Lewis Black’s comic blasphemy spared no sacred cows. “We’re a really great country. I love my country, but you Democrats are like an amorphous blob…like a turtle on its back that can’t flip over,” he proclaimed. “And you Republicans, you just won’t quit! You even let people who are clinically insane represent you! And you have a guy whose religion re-baptizes people posthumously! Wow! When I die, I’m gonna be on the run!” he said.

Talking about state of things in Arizona, Black continued: “Here in Arizona, my god! Every time there’s something in the news about Arizona it’s bad news! You guys have that law that lets people bring concealed weapons into bars, right?” he asked. A few audience members clapped. “Well, that’s NOT what the Bill of Rights is for!” he bellowed, as audience members guffawed. “I mean, I don’t drink before I come on stage! Why? Because then, the anger becomes real!” he wryly observed.

Black not only entertained but he informed the crowd of a little known fact about how our country operates. He asked: “How many of you in the audience know, that if you make over $106,000 a year, the government only taxes you on the first $106,000? Applaud if you know that!” A smattering of audience members applauded. He responded, saying that’s not right. “They should pay taxes like everybody else!” he hollered, “AND, THAT’S HOW YOU FIX THE GOD DAMN ECONOMY!!” He jumped up and down on the stage for emphasis, while tears of laughter ran down faces in the audience. “This isn’t the future, this is the past in high definition!!” Lewis sneered.

Dick Gregory, legendary for his civil rights activism and courageous social commentary, cut through the heart of politics, race and human rights with his razor sharp wit. Talking about President Obama, Gregory said: “You white people are about the luckiest people on the planet! You got a nice, quiet Negro, he don’t talk loud, got degrees from the finest schools.” Continuing his thought, Gregory declared: “I’ll tell ya, if I’d have been president and your governor stuck her hand in MY face, I woulda ate it!” Gregory hit on gay rights too: “When Obama came out for gay rights, he increased his votes by about 40%...and that’s not counting the closet gays in the Republican Party!”

A paradigm shift from ears to eyes occurred midway during the show, when Chris Bliss did his complex, hypnotic juggling act, completely enthralling the audience. When I asked him if it was hard to pull it off that night he said: “For me it was the most stress free moment of the show! It’s not hard. It’s just muscle memory.”

Bliss, who came up with the idea for the Bill of Rights Monument, said the entertainers enjoyed the show as much as the audience. “We had seats set up on both sides of the stage so the comedians could watch the show backstage, and they all watched the whole show. Even Dick Gregory! Nobody went back to the dressing rooms!” he told me. “For the comedians too, it was an unbelievable night. They were all excited, saying it was wonderful to perform together and they’d never seen anything like this show!” Bliss said.

If we’re lucky, The Phoenix Comedy Show will happen next year too. Dick Gregory told the audience “We should do this again. I’m 80 years old and I’d do it again!” Bliss and event promoter Danny Zelisko, who helped Bliss make it happen, hope another Phoenix Comedy Festival happens too. The two have trademarked the name “Phoenix Comedy Festival” in anticipation of more shows. “What happens next year we’re not sure of yet.” said Bliss, “But I can tell you, the table has certainly been set by the audience for doing something on this scale again next year!”

Zelisko concurs: “The way the event went, I would say the odds are as good as they can be, that when next year rolls around, there will be people wanting to do this again!” The hit show was recorded and may become available to the public. “We had somebody come in and shoot some video, but we’re not sure yet.” Bliss said. “It’s complicated though. A lot of it is just talking to the acts about it.”

Bliss, who spearheaded the event, is not yet sure how much money the charity event raised. But he does know how much it meant to put it together. Dick Gregory, keenly aware of the real difference one person can make in the world, told the audience: “Too much attention is paid to entertainers and athletes in this country. The people who are here, who put this project together, and the people here who came to support it, did more than 98% or the athletes and entertainers do.”

At the beginning of the show, Lewis Black came onstage, and in his inimitably wry style, told the audience “If you people who are here tonight think this is going to change anything…it’s not!” At the end of the night, when all the entertainers stood together onstage to say goodnight, the entire audience stood up and clapped for a long time. And I can’t help but wonder if, at that final moment, Lewis Black had second thoughts about what he’d said at the beginning.

The Bill of Rights Monument Project still needs donations to complete the stunning $400,000 monument and install it in Wesley Bolin Plaza. Music and More Arizona supports the project. You can be part of this momentous, bipartisan project. To make your donation, click here: mybillofrights.org/arizona-project-programs.