Throw “southern” and “comedy” together in a sentence and most likely Blue Collar Comedy Tour will come to mind. Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy came to represent the region’s comedic possibilities when all four shot to fame in the early aughts with their warmed over Hee Haw riffs. Their popularity derived from a brand of comedy that tended to rely heavily on stereotypes, southern tropes and a layman’s appeal to earn laughs. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
But the south has far more to offer in terms of humor than the “You might be a redneck” jokes that came to define Foxworthy. Comedy in the south has undergone a resurgence. Whether it’s the exciting work The New Movement has done in New Orleans and Austin, the thriving comedy scene in Atlanta or the fact that being a comic from the south doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a de facto redneck, the terms “south” and “comedy” nowadays means something far different than they did 15 years ago. The comics on this list were all born in the south and have earned their place on the stage based on witty, nuanced comedy that might have started from a regional point of view but always looks beyond to earn deserved laughs. They may not always talk about the south in their stand-up, but the influence is there nonetheless.
Sure, he might live in New York these days but he’s originally from Louisiana. Born in New Orleans, it wasn’t until he graduated from college that he explored his funny bone’s potential by relocating to New York to pursue comedy. If his name sounds familiar—and it should—it’s because he’s existed atop many a “Best Of” list for the past few years. If that seems like overnight success, think again. He’s been working the club scene since 2006. He’s appeared on all the important shows comedians hit before really making it big like Conan and Last Comic Standing, and he even has his own special as a part of Comedy Central’s The Half Hour series.
Originally from South Carolina, Scovel—like Normand—doesn’t lean too heavily on his roots when it comes to his routine. That’s not to say he’s never drawn upon the South’s rich history for comedic purposes, but don’t expect it to become a reoccurring thing. He famously appeared on Conan doing a bit as a southern character, but then quickly turned on his heel and later performed as an Eastern European character for crowds in Montreal. If audiences at either taping thought the real Scovel was either one of these figures, they were sorely mistaken. Scovel likes to keep audiences on their toes, playing with their expectations by defying them in the first place.
Although Notaro has been doing stand-up for years, it’s only more recently that her name has made it out of stand-up’s inner circles and into the public eye. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Notaro went on to perform her now-famous set at the Largo in Los Angeles. Her brave honesty and wry sensibility about the turns her life had recently taken informed one of the most talked about stand-up sets in recent history. From there, things took off for the Mississippi-born comic and they haven’t quite stopped, for good reason. HBO recently released her stand-up special Boyish Girl Interrupted. More than other comics on this list, Notaro integrates her family into her stand-up for hilarious effect, and of course their southern ancestry can’t go untapped.
Ansari may at first glance stick out on this list because most people don’t know the always well-dressed actor turned comic grew up in Southern Carolina. He’s quick to point out that when he shares this fact with people or audiences, he inevitably gets a surprised reaction, and of course he mines that reaction for all its worth in his stand-up. His most recent stand-up specials like Buried Alive and Live at Madison Square Gardens have focused more about relationships and the modern nonsense people experience as a result of dating apps, smartphones and the like. But woven in between those more prominent themes, Ansari has been known to wax funny about his home state, racism and delicious, delicious biscuits.
Perhaps the most outwardly southern comic on this list, Bargatze relies heavily on his origins to cultivate his craft. Hailing from Tennessee, Bargatze has risen through the ranks to become one of the most admired comics of his time. With a light southern drawl that inflects his meaning and adds to his bits, Bargatze has a drier sense of humor than one normally associates with the south, which may have developed as the result of growing up as the son of a full-time clown. That little tidbit and the resulting aftermath it created informed Bargatze’s first two comedy albums, Yelled at by a Clown and Full Time Magic.
For some reason, like Ansari, Cross doesn’t come off as immediately southern. Perhaps it’s something about his accent, or the chameleon-like way he has of enfolding himself into popular characters like Tobias Funke from Arrested Development. Yet, he is. The comic/writer/actor/director was born in Georgia. He first tried his hand at stand-up before developing a talent for sketch comedy. It was that sharp ability that landed him a job writing for The Ben Stiller Show and helped him go on to co-create Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk. Whether he’s talking about people’s inability to tell if Coors Light is cold by touch alone, or the spread of the “redneck accent” throughout the United States, Cross has a sardonic approach to all manner of topics, even those related to the south.
Also born in Georgia, Tucker got into comedy once he headed west for the bright lights of Los Angeles. There he often appeared in Def Comedy Jam, which helped him land movie roles like Smokey in Friday, and we all know where that went. Between the comedian turned actor’s stints in the Rush Hour franchise and memorable turn in Silver Linings Playbook, he’s made quite the place for himself in Hollywood. He never forgot his comedy roots, though, In 2015, he starred in his first full-length comedy special on Netflix titled Chris Tucker – Live. It may have taken Tucker years and years to get to that point, but it was important to him. “A lot of people don’t know I’m a comedian,” he told the LA Times in July. “I wanted to show them.”
Originally from West Virginia, Zimmerman has come to settle down in New York like many of his fellow comics, but his rising star power proves “southern comic” means all different manner of things these days. In 2012, Zimmerman had perhaps one of the most famous last names in the country, a fact he gets into when he shares what happens when he visits Panera Bread and hands over his rewards card. It’s his ability to laugh at bizarre circumstances that has earned Zimmerman a larger spotlight in recent years. He used to tour with the Beards of Comedy troupe up until making his television debut on John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show in 2013. Since then he went on to record his first solo comedy album, Smiling at Wolves.
Often seen with a beard and wearing flannel, Stone might share more in common looks-wise with a lumberjack. And lumberjacks, as we all know, don’t live in the south. In reality, Stone is another Georgia native. He made his TV debut in 2013 on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. It may have only been two short years since the nation first glimpsed his comedic style, but Stone has continued to impress audiences with his somehow earnest and slightly sarcastic demeanor. Stone covers all manner of topics, but he doesn’t shy away from his home state and the people who reside there. Take, for instance, when he shares his desire to be a radio DJ only to end up working at a southern gospel station.
With her origins in North Carolina, Feimster followed a different route to comedy than most. After college, she began working as an entertainment journalist for the syndicated newspaper column Beck/Smith, which helped her land in national publications like New York Daily News. She worked on honing her stand-up and sketch muscles while writing, which eventually caught the eye of Chelsea Handler, who hired Feimster to write and perform on her show Chelsea Lately. She’s got a soft North Carolina drawl and a harder edge to comedy than that drawl might suppose. For that reason, and her sharp mind, she’s made waves in stand-up, appearing at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and Oddball Fest.
Amanda Wicks is a New Orleans-based writer specializing in comedy and music. She’s more “haha” funny than “lol,” but feel free to follow her anyway on Twitter at @aawicks.