Originally from St. Louis, Maricopan Tony Vicich leads a comedy workshop in Tempe. He got his start in stand-up comedy in 1978. Photo by Katie Mayer

By Katie Mayer

Ask Maricopa Meadows resident Tony Vicich a question and you’ll likely get a joke in return.

His words may surprise you, or perhaps make you think, but they’ll almost always make you laugh.

That’s because Vicich is a seasoned comedian who excelled at his craft for decades as a touring comic. He is now a key player in cultivating the next generation of Arizona comics. With his jokes appearing on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman” and he himself performing on Showtime and Comedy Central, Vicich has made his mark on Hollywood as much as Arizona.

Today, the 60-year-old St. Louis native owns and operates ComedySchools.com and is gearing up to launch his own radio show. He appears regularly at Tempe Center for the Arts and at restaurants, bars and clubs around the Valley.

“Comedy is in the way you think,” Vicich says. “Finally what you think doesn’t sound insane, get you in trouble or make people cry or punch you – it makes them laugh.”

Surprisingly, Vicich didn’t start as a comic. Instead, he pursued acting when he first moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s – studying Method Acting under world-renowned instructor Lee Strasberg, who once taught Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.

“I wanted to be a dramatic actor,” Vicich says while making a sweeping gesture with his hand.

Like other comics, Vicich talks fast with a raspy voice. A look beyond his gray ponytail and goatee reveals a shockingly well-informed mind brimming with random facts on everything from history to literature to current events.

“The good comics are very serious people and, oddly enough, very good people,” he says. “We have a heightened sense of injustice.”

But the good side of Vicich, which so many know today, was once masked by his demons. Bartending to support himself during the freewheeling 1970s in Hollywood, Vicich tumbled down a path of heavy drug and alcohol use and eventually into what he calls a career in “unlicensed pharmaceutical sales.”

“I was living in Hollywood and was 23 at the time,” Vicich says. “It led to an epicurean lifestyle – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

His first time performing stand-up was in 1978 at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, where “it went so horribly that I never went onto another stage until I sobered up,” Vicich says.

Still, he saw many of the great comics of the day such as Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and Jay Leno and rubbed shoulders with Robin Williams.

By the 1980s Vicich became sober, and from there his career skyrocketed.

“I had a white-light moment,” Vicich says of his sobriety.

The moment came after Vicich was arrested for DUI and found himself out of jail, inebriated again and yelling at a 7-Eleven employee to sell him booze.

“When I got home I was so drunk and I looked up and said, ‘God, I know I said you don’t exist, but now I do … please help me stop drinking and doing drugs,’” Vicich says.

He called a sober friend, started attending 12-step meetings and has now been sober more than 30 years.

Vicich then hooked up with frequent late show comedian and prominent sitcom writer Ritch Shydner after meeting him at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Together, the two performed around the country, including their first gig in Phoenix in 1985.

“He’s as funny as anyone I’ve ever met,” says Shydner, who lives in Los Angeles. “As a comedian, he wrote lines that I used on my appearances on ‘The Tonight Show’ and the ‘Late Show with David Letterman.’”

Vicich also married and adopted a daughter, Alishia. His comedy work allowed him to make a good living and support his family.

“There is no better father in the world than that guy,” Shydner says.

But just when life seemed to be on a steady track for the comedian, Vicich experienced what he calls “an implosion of events.”

His marriage fell apart,; a comedy club he owned in Oklahoma City went under and he found himself jobless. Just when he was about to start work at the post office, his lucked changed.

“Sometimes what you think is the worst part of your life becomes the best,” Vicich says.

He was asked by comedian Craig Shoemaker to help with a one-man show in San Francisco. There he learned the art and business of operating comedy workshops from San Francisco Comedy College owner Kurtis Matthews.

“I told Tony ‘You are great with people and a good comedian, let me help you get into the business,” Matthews recalls. “I gave him the structure for his school, but he truly made it his own, and people just kept coming.”

Today, Matthews credits Vicich as one of the reasons the Valley has such a large volume of comedy clubs.

“When you have so many comedians, they need a place to go,” Matthews says.

One of those comedians is Valerie Roberts, of Gilbert, who started Vicich’s classes last year and is now preparing to headline her own show at Tempe Center for the Arts.

“Tony taught me that even when you think your writing is great, you can always go back and make it better,” Roberts says.

Today, what Vicich loves most about teaching comedy is “seeing the fog lift from a student’s eyes and then watching them say something funny on their own.”

His other loves are his wife of two years Shirley Vicich and living in Maricopa – although he does perform a bit mocking the city on everything from how much home values dipped to how far away Maricopa is to the smell of cows.

“It’s home here,” Vicich says.

In fact, he’s the last remaining original homeowner on his street, he says. As so many others gave up their homes, he kept his.

“It’s like being a frontier guy and when everyone else left, we stayed,” Vicich says proudly.

His old mentor Matthews chuckles at the stark contrast Vicich is today to the man he was in the past.

“Who knew under this hard living Hollywood guy is a cowboy wanting to live out there?” Matthews says.
“I’m happy he is thriving … he’s a natural teacher; he loves standup and he loves the industry.”

This story previously appeared in the Fall Edition of InMaricopa the Magazine.