Jack Burns Biography Part One

I took a lot of time & care in creating this biography and tried to reference all sources. If you find any use for this biography or any other pages on this site (I guess someone might) please give some "dap" to "The Revenge of Warren Ferguson!" website. It's the courteous thing to do, you know what I mean, huh-huh-huh?
Any grammatical or factual errors/omissions (factual changes backed by legitimate source), please contact the "webmistress" mwithing@graffiti.net


Smiling Irish Eyes
Oh, those smiling Irish eyes...


John Francis Burns was born on November 15, 1933 in Boston, Massachusetts.1 According to the liner notes from his first comedy album, "Jack spent about twenty years reaching the age of twenty."2 Much of that time was spent traveling as the only child to an Air Force officer. Being the perennial new kid on the block may have helped develop Burns's sense of humor as he noted in a 1973 interview: "I started telling jokes because it seemed easier than having the hell kicked out of me."3 Before setting his sights on show business, Burns looked to follow his father in a military career and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1952. It wasn't long before Burns realized a military life was not for him: "the first week of boot camp changed my mind."4 He served in Korea, rose to the rank of sergeant, and was discharged around 1954.

His next career aspiration was in news radio. He returned to his native Boston to study broadcasting at the Leland Powers radio school while working part-time at a local radio station. He soon became news director of Boston's WEZE and seemed to have found his calling: "I loved it. In 1959 I interviewed the Kennedys and went to Cuba to meet Castro. I was staying at the Hotel Nationale De Cuba in Havana and it was...well, I really believe life is like a B-movie without the music. The blonde told me she was working with anti-Castro forces and she needed to use my telephone because hers was bugged. Fantastic! People with beards running around, carrying guns. The last I saw of the blonde was when they dragged her and the phone from my room. Somebody suggested it might be time for me to return to the States."5 That same year Burns met DJ George Carlin, who worked at the same radio station, and they started doing comedy routines on the air.

This teaming caused Burns to change his career goals yet again and he and Carlin moved their radio show to KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas. Here they would be mistakenly arrested (Carlin had a news clipping in a shirt he took to be dry-cleaned which had a story on the opposite side about two men robbing an automobile club). In 1960, they moved to Los Angeles only to have their apartment burglarized soon after their arrival.6

Their luck changed when they were hired by the radio station KDAY and began doing shows at the Hollywood coffeehouse Cosmo's Alley. At this venue, they caught the eye of shock comic Lenny Bruce who helped them get gigs and an agent. Bruce was an early influence on Burns's comedy style and he and Carlin did a tribute bit entitled "Lenny Bruce-Mort Sahl" on their album Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight.

Burns and Carlin LP
Jack Burns's first appearance on vinyl, Burns and Carlin at the
Playboy Club Tonight
, was recorded in 1960 at Cosmo's Alley (not at
the Playboy Club) but was not released until 1963 after Burns
and Carlin had already gone their separate ways.


Burns reflected on this early part of his career: "Evidently Lenny Bruce thought we were intelligent. There were things George and I would try occasionally that were sharp, but we were playing some pretty rough clubs so you couldn't get away with a lot we wanted to do. I hadn't gone to college, my college had been the United States Marine Corps, and before that I'd been an army brat. But I was always trying to educate myself. In this respect, I was always sort of an outsider because who the hell did I hang around with on my corner of the street who read Kirkegaard or Proust."7

Jolly George and Captain Jack
Jolly George and Captain Jack bring
their brand of "sicknik" humor to Playboy
Magazine
, January 1962, pp. 111-113.


Although achieving a level of success, including their first appearance on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1960, Burns and Carlin went their separate ways in 1962. Author Lonnie Burr observed that "they were too close in spirit, appearance, and comedic style to make a workable team. Comedy teams are composed of opposites, usually physically and temperamentally."8 Burns and Carlin were both Irish-Catholic and clean cut (Carlin was at that time). If Burr's assessment is correct, it's no wonder Burns's next choice of comedy partner gave him the blueprint for a successful comedy team.

In the fall of 1962, Burns arrived in Chicago to join The Second City comedy troupe.9 Here, Burns specialized in improvisational comedy, which is one of the most difficult comedic styles to master. Decades later, Burns would look back fondly at this period of his career: "There's never been anything that's compared to the intellectual stimulation, the creative stimulation, the joy and camaraderie of Second City...It's very strange. I'm very antiwar, and yet in only two places in my life have I felt that camaraderie. One was in the Marine Corps and the other was Second City, and they both had a sense of discipline...It was like a commune. It was the sixties. Second City was, in many ways, the highlight of my life."10 In 1964, Burns played two roles in the critically acclaimed Goldstein, the feature film debut of Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), which was shot in Chicago and was a vehicle for Second City actors.

Goldstein
Jack Burns played a truck driver and a good-looking Officer O'Neil (he'll get his "steake" dinner) in Goldstein.
According to the "Conversation with Philip Kaufman" on the official DVD release, Avery Schreiber
also had a part in this film, but it was cut from the final product.


Playhouse on the Mall
A program for a "Playhouse on the Mall"
show in Paramus, New Jersey (December 27 -
January 1, 1967) featuring some prominent
"Second Citizens." The program includes a unique
Who's Who on Burns (see first footnote below).


As a member of The Second City, Burns developed an improv act with Avery Schreiber. They would take suggestions from the audience and improvise characters in a routine. During one of these shows, they devised their most well-known act of "The Cab Driver and the Conventioneer." As Burns described the moment, "One night during the improv set, we said, 'Give us some characters.' We got 'cab driver' and 'out-of-town conventioneer' [Schreiber remembered the suggestions as 'cab driver' and 'bigot']. I don't even remember if we had an intermission that night. I almost think it happened on the spur of the moment. It may have been one of those moments where we just had a free-form thing and didn't have a break, because I don't recall ever discussing it other than sitting on those chairs, and we were in the cab."11

"The Cab Driver and the Conventioneer" became their trademark routine during the many years they worked together. Burns played a loud, annoying, motor-mouth bigot making racist, anti-Semitic, and paranoid anti-Communist observations years before Archie Bunker and All in the Family hit the television airwaves:12

Conventioneer [Burns]: I don't care about the color of a man's skin. I was the first guy to scream when they took Amos 'n' Andy off the air.

Conventioneer [Burns]: Listen, you'd drink too if you had Dave's cross to bear. He's got a son that's an albino. I said, Dave, I said, remember this. I said, Dave, it could be a blessing in disguise. I said, Don't take it too hard, Dave. The good lord moves in mysterious ways. I said, remember Dave. I said, remember, you can never be too white.

Conventioneer [Burns]: Them Commies are everywhere. Oh, them Commies are everywhere, you look. Are you kidding me? Everywhere, everywhere these days.
The Cab Driver [Schreiber]: Yeah, there goes one now, you see 'em? I'll try to hit the next one for ya.


The New Emerging Bigot
Burns' and Schreiber's first LP (1965).


It was during this sketch that Burns developed his character's habit of asking his driver a question and following it with a rapid-fire stream of "huhs?" (a gimmick he would also use, for better or for worse, on The Andy Griffith Show as well as his "the girls were all over me" line). Author Lawrence Epstein analyzed their famous exchanges: "Burns would want to make sure Schreiber was listening, so he'd end a statement with a "huh?" to which Schreiber would respond "Yeah." The words would be repeated quickly, as though the two would never really be able to communicate. It all built up to a great ethnic divide."13

Burns explained the "huh?" bit somewhat differently: "And I started saying, 'Huh,' whatever he answered, as soon as I sat down, because I couldn't think of what to say next. Repeating myself. Very Boston Irish. 'You know what I mean?' 'Yeah'. 'Huh?' 'Yeah.' 'Huh?' 'Yeah.' 'Huh?' 'I know what you mean.'"14

Epstein's "ethnic divide" analysis, however, is very apt as, unlike Burns and Carlin, Burns and Schreiber were polar opposites in backgrounds, looks, and [in terms of the characters they portrayed] political philosophies. Schreiber was Jewish, overweight, and somewhat carelessly dressed with a mountain of curly hair and a big, fluffy mustache, whose cab driver character was a begrudgingly tolerant (to a point) liberal. Burns was Catholic, thin, well-groomed and tailored, whose conventioneer was a tactless conservative. Their comic styles were also different; Schreiber was more of a physical comedian [his facial expressions were a key in their act] while Burns was more verbal.15 They had a dark, incendiary style of humor working with the social, racial, and political concerns of the day. Here's an example of Burns' and Schreiber's "ethnic divide":

Conventioneer [Burns]: You see that barroom over there? What do you say you park the cab, you let the meter run, I'll pay for that, I'm gonna buy you a beer.
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: Oh, no man.
Conventioneer [Burns]: Come on, huh? A couple of vets, we get together and raise a little hell. Come on! Come on! Come on!
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: Thanks, but no.
Conventioneer [Burns]: Come on, whadda you say, huh?
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: Take it easy...
Conventioneer [Burns]: Come on, whadda you...
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: See the sign? Don't touch the driver.
Conventioneer [Burns]: Come on! Couple of guys, we'll throw down a few, we'll go there and raise a little hell, huh?
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: I hate to be pushy about it, but...
Conventioneer [Burns]: Huh? Come on!
Cab Driver [Schreiber]: No!
[long pause]
Conventioneer [Burns]: Boy, you people are real clannish ain't ya?


huh?huh?huh?
"You know what I mean? Huh? Huh? Huh?"


Another character Burns played was the unscrupulous evangelist Holy Moly (Schreiber played all the poor souls Moly tried to "heal"):

Schreiber comes on stage speaking in a thick Jewish accent.
Holy Moly: Are you one of us?
Schreiber: I'm a convert.
Holy Moly: That's all right, that's quite all right. I understand that He was, too.


Schreiber summed up Burns's unique talent: "Jack had, and still has, a wonderful ability to pin people, and events, he doesn't really admire."16

Holy Moly!
Holy Moly conducting his special
brand of healing power on
victim Dennis Cunningham.


Entertainers
Jack Burns was one of The Entertainers hosted by Carol Burnett and Bob
Newhart on September 25, 1964. During this episode, Jack disturbed Burnett
in her makeshift dressing room as Broadway star Tessie O'Shea looked on.


They took their Taxi Cab act on the road and, in 1964, were discovered at New York's Square East by someone from the Jack Paar show and got their first television gig.17 As Burns remembered, "What we did, you can't [couldn't] do that on television. We were talking about prejudice and things of that nature. But we always felt the audience was ready because we'd been doing it for a year and we knew the results in clubs. So that was how Avery and I started. Paar said, 'Can you come back for eight more shots with eight more cab drivers?'"18


Entertainers
Burns and Schreiber got a real taxi prop for their
April 25, 1966 appearance on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall.


Burns and Schreiber were frequent performers on the television variety show circuit (including several appearances on The Hollywood Palace) and, in 1965, their first album In One Head and Out the Other: The New Emerging Bigot (taken from their shows at the "hungry i" in San Francisco) was released. "But," as Burns noted, "we weren't as they say, 'together.' We were doing too many things. Not only were we a team, but we also worked separately."19


Hollywood Palace
Burns & Scheiber on The Hollywood Palace May 6, 1967.


In 1965, Burns was performing stand-up in San Francisco and caught the eye of Andy Griffith who offered him the very popular role [well, not very] of Deputy Sheriff Warren Ferguson (Don Knotts having left his regular role of Barney Fife to embark on a movie career).20 That same year, Schreiber played Captain Manzini, the villainous, yet lovable, antique car collector who constantly pressured star Jerry Van Dyke to sell him his "mother," in the almost as popular sitcom My Mother the Car. Van Dyke, incidentally, played a deputy for one episode on The Andy Griffith Show and couldn't hold Warren's holster.

Warren!
Despite his many successes as a stand-up comedian and comedy writer,
Jack Burns may be best recognized for his short-lived and unappreciated role
as Warren on The Andy Griffith Show thanks to never-ending reruns.
Bottom right: Avery Schreiber as Capt. Manzini.


Griffith briefly explained the hiring of Burns in Richard Kelly's 1980 book The Andy Griffith Show: "We went to San Francisco and met this very funny stand-up comedian. We thought his performance was fine and decided to make him Floyd's nephew on the show. So we put him on--and we said we were not replacing Don [Knotts]--but we were replacing Don and we were giving him Don Knotts material--and it didn't work."21

While Captain Manzini was destined for a short life because My Mother the Car was canceled after the end of its first and only season, Burns's Warren Ferguson received the ax after only eleven episodes on TAGS. As Griffith revealed: "I can't begin to explain how uncomfortable we were. I get strung out pretty easily, and if I'm uncomfortable I'm hell to be around, and I was very uncomfortable. Just before Christmas we decided we had to let him go and pay him off for the rest of the year. I didn't want the William Morris people to tell him then, but they told him before Christmas. I saw Jack some years later and he said he was bitter for a while, but he got over it. It wasn't Jack's fault, it was our fault."22 Success is the best revenge for bitterness, and Burns would find plenty of success after Warren.


Sgt. Krock
Jack Burns as a suspicious Sgt. Krock in the episode "GP Loves UU"
from the short-lived sitcom Occasional Wife (aired December 13, 1966).


Cavett
Jack Burns cracks up Dick Cavett on the host's
short-lived morning show, This Morning, which
was re-aired as a half-hour prime-time clips show
entitled Here's Dick Cavett on June 10, 1968.
Minsky's
Jack Burns as Candy Butcher, a pitchman for dirty
booklets and "an exotic assortment of genuine
chocolate bon bons...with the nuts inside" in the
1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky's.


Frank Donaldson
Jack's character, government official Frank Donaldson, receives less than
a warm welcome from the Ghost of Capt. Daniel Gregg when he tries
to take 7/12 of the Gregg property for towers with "high tension
wires" in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (episode "The Spirit of the Law,"
original airdate November 27, 1969).


Of Burns' and Schreiber's ill-fated sitcom roles, one writer at the time observed, "Obviously neither of these perceptive young comics can do his best work while locked into a situation format limiting the creative aspects of his talent."23 The team looked to find a gig more suitable to their style and joined forces again in 1967 to host a well-publicized but short-lived CBS summer variety show, as a replacement for the Smothers Brothers, called Our Place. Also that year, Burns and Schreiber wrote for a Zero Mostel television comedy special Zero Hour. Burns remarked that, during this time, "I discovered how much I enjoyed writing. So, for about four years, we went our separate ways."24 Burns wrote for The Kraft Music Hall, Hee Haw, and "created TV history by suggesting that Flip Wilson don a dress as Geraldine for his first special"25 which, I guess, must have been a better idea than it sounds.

Jack Burns Biography Part Two



End Notes


1. Lonnie Burr. Two for the Show: Great Comedy Teams (New York: Julian Messner, 1979), pg. 160. This is the only source I've found that gives Jack Burns's birth name as John Francis Burns (I can understand why he went by "Jack"). A 1966 Second City "Playhouse on the Mall" program had his real name as "Michael Upword," but then it also read that Jack was an "ex-Boy Scout Master" who "learned his comedy while taking the fifth before [the] H.U.A.C."
2. Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight, ERA Records, 1960.
3. Dick Lochte, "Natty and the Beanbag: Burns and Schreiber Owe A Lot to a Taxicab," TV Guide (August 18-24, 1973), pg. 15.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Burr, pg. 160.
7. Donna McCrohan. The Second City (New York: Perigee Books, 1987), pp. 73-4.
8. Burr, pg. 161.
9. Second City was so-named because of the derogatory label given to the windy city in a New Yorker article by A. J. Liebling. See: Lawrence J. Epstein. Mixed Nuts. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), pg. 222.
10. McCrohan, pg. 166.
11. Ibid, pg. 90.
12. All bits taken from the LP In One Head and Out the Other, Columbia Records, 1965.
13. Epstein, pg. 227.
14. McCrohan, pg. 91.
15. The physical/verbal comedy style comparison was my observation, but I later found confirmation in: Charles Dennis. "Our Place Presents a Mad, Comic Mind," The Telegram TV Weekly (Toronto: June 30-July 7, 1967), pg. 101.
16. McCrohan, pg. 90.
17. Burr, pg. 162.
18. McCrohan, pg. 91.
19. Lochte, pg. 18.
20. "Burns and Schreiber Find a 'Place'," Detroit Free Press TV Channel (July 2-8, 1967), pg. 2 states that executive producer Sheldon Leonard discovered Burns; however, the production notes on the Warren edition of the Columbia House Collector's video set credits the discovery to Andy Griffith.
21. Richard Kelly. The Andy Griffith Show (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1980), pg. 59.
22. Ibid. Griffith referred to the William Morris Agency in this quote.
23. "Burns and Schreiber Find a 'Place'," pg. 2.
24. Lochte, pg. 18.
25. Ibid.

 

Check out Part Two of the Jack Burns Biography

 

Other pages connected to this site you may find of interest:

Burns and Schreiber in Our Place


Burns and Schreiber on vinyl
Records

Burns and Schreiber on The Flip Wilson Show


Burns & Schreiber on The Hollywood Palace


And check out Jack Burns when he guest hosted Saturday Night Live!!!
SNL

 

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