Jack Burns, a Comic Force on Camera and Off, Is Dead at 86

Jack Burns, a Comic Force on Camera and Off, Is Dead at 86


Jack Burns, who found fame as the hilariously pompous half of Burns and Schreiber, one of the best known comedy teams of the 1960s and ’70s, then made another mark as a television writer, dies on Monday in Toluca Lake, Calif. He was 86.

Patti Lawhon, the executor of Mr. Burns’s estate, announced the death. He learned he had pancreatic cancer in 2017.

Mr. Burns was a popular comic presence for nearly 40 years, beginning with a brief but successful stint as a partner of George Carlin (and at one point showing up for a brief but less successful run on “The Andy Griffith Show”). After his long and fruitful partnership with Mr. Schreiber ended, he went on to produce “The Muppet Show,” writing about two dozen episodes.

He also wrote for variety shows like “Hee Haw” and comedy specials starring Flip Wilson and Paul Lynde. And he lent his brash, booming voice to animated series like “Animaniacs” and “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” as well as to an ad campaign promoting the use of safety belts. He was the voice of a crash-test dummy.

But it was Burns and Schreiber that cemented his fame. The two comics became known for routines that were flecked with social satire, exquisite timing and rapid-fire repartee, exemplified by their signature “yeah/huh?/yeah/huh?” bantering.

Mr. Burns’s loud know-it-all persona played well off Mr. Schreiber’s warm, low-key one, particularly when Mr. Schreiber, as he so often did, punctured Mr. Burn’s pomposity. That was never more vividly on display than in their best-known sketch, in which a blithely bigoted passenger (Mr. Burns) blathers to a world-weary taxicab driver (Mr. Schreiber).

In one version of the sketch, Mr. Burns recognizes Mr. Schreiber from a previous ride and tells him that he sells tinsel for a living.

Burns: Tinsel, like you put on your Christmas tree.

Schreiber: Like you put on your Christmas tree.

Burns: Oh, I remember now, you told me. You’re not of the Christian persuasion.

Schreiber: I’m not persuaded.

Burns: You’re what we call your Judaic.

Schreiber: If it makes you uncomfortable, you know you can get another cab.

Burns: Are you kidding? I don’t care what a man is. Besides, I couldn’t get another cab this time of night anyway.

When they performed the sketch as part of a Second City revue in Manhattan in 1964, Brian O’Doherty, a critic for The New York Times, praised Mr. Burns as a “connoisseur of vulgarity who apparently can sweat at will” and Mr. Schreiber as “an underplaying comic master attached to a Stalinesque mustache.”

They spent parts of a dozen years together, had their own series on ABC-TV in the summer of 1973, and broke up about 18 months after that.

Mr. Burns explained their comic chemistry to The Los Angeles Times after Mr. Schreiber died in 2002: “He was Jewish. I was Irish. He was mellow and sweet and optimistic, and I was angry and cynical and pessimistic.”

John Francis Burns was born on Nov. 15, 1933, in Boston. His father, Garrette, was a military officer; his mother was Mary (Hogan) Burns. After serving in the Marines in Korea in the early 1950s, he studied at the Leland Powers School of Television, Radio and Theater in Brookline, Mass.

By the late 1950s he was a newsman at a Boston radio station, WEZE. When Mr. Carlin went to work there as an announcer in 1959, they struck up a friendship and soon realized that they had each developed a comedic Irish character.

“Jack’s guy had more of an edge,” Mr. Carlin said in his autobiography, “Last Words” (2009, with Tony Hendra). “These two guys would talk together for hours. They were great characters for saying things you weren’t quite willing to say yourself.”

They became a team only after they left separately for another station, KXOL, in Fort Worth; Mr. Burns remained a newsman, and Mr. Carlin was a disc jockey. They performed locally, then left for Hollywood. Success came quickly.

Burns and Carlin, as the act was known, were booked at top nightclubs around the country, appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show and recorded an album at the Hollywood nightclub Cosmo Alley — although it was released (in 1963, a year after they broke up) as “Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight.”

After the split, Mr. Burns joined the Compass Players, an improvisational troupe, then moved to its successor, The Second City, where he met Mr. Schreiber and developed the taxicab sketch.

During their run as a comedy team, they pursued other jobs. In 1965, Mr. Burns was cast on “The Andy Griffith Show” as Deputy Sheriff Warren Ferguson, replacing Don Knotts, who had played Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife since the series began in 1960. Mr. Burns had hoped that he would be able to adapt his onstage style to the character and not remind viewers of the beloved Mr. Knotts.

But it did not work out, and Mr. Burns lost the role after 11 episodes. Mr. Griffith blamed himself, telling The New York Times, “We tried to force Jack to do those wild, peculiar things that Knotts did — and he was willing to try — but we made a mistake.”

Mr. Burns was a guest star on various TV shows from the late 1960s until the late ’90s. He also found a successful second career off camera.

For a decade he was integral to the Muppet empire. In addition to his association with “The Muppet Show,” which began in 1976 and earned him two Emmy nominations, he collaborated with Jerry Juhl to write “The Muppet Movie” (1979) and was a writer on two straight-to-video Muppet productions, both released in 1985.

He was also as a producer, writer and script supervisor for the ABC comedy series “Fridays.” In 1981, when the guest host, Andy Kaufman, famously started a fight during a sketch with Michael Richards, a cast member, Mr. Burns, who had been off camera, rushed to the stage and traded punches with Mr. Kaufman.

One of the show’s producers was later quoted as saying that Mr. Kaufman had planned the brawl as an improvisation and that Mr. Richards had been prepared for it.

Mr. Burns, who retired nearly 20 years ago, leaves no immediate survivors.

His role as the voice of a crash-test dummy, Vince, was one of his most enduring, running from 1985 to 1999. In the ads — promoting safety belts for the federal Department of Transportation — Lorenzo Music portrayed Larry, another dummy.

In one ad, Vince says: “For years, I’ve been eating steering wheels. For what?”

Larry: “To prove how safety belts save lives.”

Vince: “But thousands die every year in car accidents because they don’t buckle up.”

Larry (gesturing to Vince not to put on his belt): “Vince, we’re dummies. We don’t wear safety belts.”



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