R.I.P. Jack Burns (1933-2020)

Jack Burns, an early comedy partner of George Carlin who went on to tag-team another popular TV comedy duo with Avery Schreiber, host the first Saturday Night Live to be properly called SNL, then become the head writer for The Muppet Show and co-write The Muppet Movie, has died. He was 86.

I heard the news first from Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, who wrote on Twitter: “A foundational piece of the Carlin legacy has gone to the big comedy club in the sky. Jack was one of the sharpest motherfuckers I knew. He shaped my father’s mind in unique ways. RIP Jack Burns.”

Burns and Carlin were both working for radio station KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas, in the late 1950s when they decided to team up and start doing comedy. In 1960, they took their act to California. The following year, they became favorites at The Playboy Club, with 15 weeks of gigs there in 1961 and 1962, followed by an album in 1963, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight.

Carlin, of course, reached legendary status as a solo act.

But Burns found a new partner in Schreiber at The Second City in Chicago. They’d appear on multiple TV shows, as well as a summer series of their own on ABC in 1973, The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour. Their best-known running gag, a sketch in which Burns rides and sings as an annoying taxi passenger.

They’d vary up the location and reason, but somehow they always found each other.

Andy Griffith asked Burns to come in and try to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show, an experiment that lasted 11 episodes.

But Burns found success behind the scenes, serving as the head writer for the first season of Hee Haw in 1969, and then years later, the first season of The Muppet Show. Burns also co-wrote the screenplay for The Muppet Movie!

In March 1977, Burns hosted the first episode of Saturday Night on NBC that carried an extra word in its title, Saturday Night Live.

In the early 80s, though, Burns worked for the competition, as they used to say in TV land, as a writer and producer on ABC’s Fridays. He even played a part in the infamous live episode of Fridays, inserting himself into the scene to escalate the argument between Andy Kaufman and Michael Richards into a slap fight.

He will be missed. Rest in peace, Jack.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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