My Two Favorite Laughs

Posted: July 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

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Above: Bob Knight.

I’ve been a actor/comic since 1980. I’ve never had any other job. Over the years, two laughs stand out in my mind, and both were an audience of one.

Laugh One: As I was finishing up college at Indiana University, I had to make a decision. Should I become a full-time comic? Or should I seek out a more conventional career path? It was decision heavy on my mind the day I went to listen to IU Basketball Coach Bob Knight give his annual talk to the student body. (If you don’t know about Bob Knight, suffice to say he was not only a great coach, he was also…volatile.)

I lived off campus in an apartment complex owned by Scott May, former member of the NCAA Championship IU team of 1976, and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. On my way out to Coach Knight’s talk, I asked Scott what question could I ask during the Q&A that would actually impress Coach with depth of insight into the program. He said, “Ask him if the passing game the way he coaches it is ahead of it’s time.”

Thus armed, I headed up to the mic at Q&A time, and asked the question. I immediately realized Scott had set me up. Coach looked at me for a ling second as his face turned as read as his famous sweaters. He launched into an angry five minute tirade with more curse words than I knew existed. He wasn’t angry at me, but at the team. He ended his epic rant with, “These *&^$8#^$ couldn’t pass the &@*$&#@ ball if I let ’em deflate it and throw it like a *#*@*^@# FRISBEE!” (Clearly, Scott had seen the practice that day, and had led me into his fiendish trap.) Coach wound down, looked at me and said, “Sorry….what was your question again?”

I had two choices. Slink back to my seat, or go for the laugh. What the heck…”Do you think the passing game the way you WISH you were coaching it is ahead of it’s time?” I asked. He stared at me for what seemed an eternity, as the other 2,999 students in the auditorium sucked the air out of the place with an audible gasp. He threw back his head and laughed…hard. BOOM!

In that moment, I knew if I could make Coach Knight laugh after snapping, I could make anyone and everyone laugh. Career decision made.

Laugh Two: I was in Las Vegas on the Red Carpet for the opening night of Jersey Boys. I found myself standing next to one of my comedy heroes, John Cleese. (If you don’t know who he is, he was/is a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) John is notoriously cranky about signing autographs, but I at least had to try. I slid over next him and looked up. (Literally. He’s 7’2 or something. If he came at you doing his Ministry of Silly Walks walk, he could step over you without breaking stride.) I introduced myself, and offered my Red Carpet laminate and a Sharpie. “Would you mind?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, and wrote “F%^k off, Kevin.” Grinning, he handed it back. I figured I might as well take a shot and said, “You have to sign your name, otherwise people will think it was Eric.” (His fellow Python Eric Idle being famous for being extremely mercurial. Extremely.)

BOOM! My other favorite. I can’t begin to describe how it felt to make arguably the greatest comic mind of the past 50 years really LAUGH.

He signed his name.

 

broadway (1)Broadway! We love it. We pay big bucks to see it, whether on Broadway itself, at the Smith Center, or in a resident casino show. But what is it, exactly? What makes a show a “Broadway” show as opposed to any other show? Is it the music? Singing? Acting? Dancing? None of the above. The answer is surprisingly simple. If a show played in a Broadway theater in Manhattan, it’s a Broadway show. Currently, there are 41 Broadway theaters in NYC.

Broadway has a long and glorious history in Vegas casinos. Stars including Betty Grable, Frank Gorshin, Juliet Prowse, Jack Soo, Dick Shawn, Tony Danza, Carol Channing, John O’Hurley, Ann Margaret and, yes, David Hasselhoff, have all performed in Broadway shows in casinos. Peter Marshall, host of TV’s “Hollywood Squares,” starred in two separate Broadway shows here before he became a television star.

Broadway musicals were first offered by casinos in the early 1960s. The Thunderbird produced two to three Broadway shows per year. Over the years, Vegas casinos have offered “Fiddler on the Roof,” “South Pacific,” “Mame,” “Sweet Charity,” “Hair,” “Flower Drum Song,” “High Button Shoes,” “Artists and Models,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Anything Goes,” “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” “Starlight Express,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Jersey Boys,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Lion King,” “Spamalot,” “The Producers,” “Avenue Q,” “Chicago,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Hello Dolly!,” “Tommy,” “Cats,” “Rock of Ages,” “Rent,” “Hairspray,” “Miss Saigon,” “A Chorus Line,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” The Odd Couple,” “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The Boys in the Band,” and “Defending the Caveman.”

Virtually every casino on the Strip has hosted a Broadway show at some point, as well as the Plaza, Golden Nugget and The D on Fremont Street.

As an actor, I’ve been astonished by the quality of work I’ve seen here. Something about a long run enables actors to dig deeply into their roles. “Jersey Boys” made me tear up three times during the show, “Music of the Night” from “Phantom” made my “soul take flight” all four times I attended. Mark Donovan’s monologue in “Million Dollar Quartet,” in which he describes Sam Phillips’ recording studio as a place where “the soul of a man never dies,” never failed to move me, and I saw it every night on the way back to my dressing room after my show.

My daughter, McKenna, and I rocked out, laughed, and had a blast at “Mamma Mia!” on her eighth birthday. (No, I didn’t know the plot beforehand. Yes, I had to dance around the question, “Why doesn’t she know who her daddy is?”)

But that’s the beauty of Broadway shows. They make us ask questions of ourselves. They make us think, and feel. They move us. (Not that spectacle-centered shows and reviews aren’t wonderful. After all, I am a spectacle guy myself, having toured with Ringling Bros.) Broadway shows ask a little more of an audience. They ask us to engage. To follow these wonderful characters as they act out the arc of their life stories, sometimes to victory, sometimes to their own destruction. It’s an emotional as well as a sensory experience, and that’s what makes Broadway special. That’s what makes it important. Broadway tells us a story about us.

Currently, Las Vegas is in a “Broadway doesn’t work in casinos” phase. The closing of three shows during the past year have sounded the predictable death-knell of Broadway in the tourist corridor. I think that’s a bit premature. Broadway cycles in and out. After their national tours wind down. “Book of Mormon,” “Wicked,” “Hamilton,” or something equally wonderful will take up residency in a casino, and the headlines will read, “Vegas Discovers Broadway!”

Until then, there is one Broadway show in a casino residency today. It’s been here since 2007 and has set the records for longevity and number of performances — over 4,000 — of all Broadway shows in Vegas history. It’s a one-person comedy about men and women in relationships. It explains women and men to each other in a way that brings couples together, instead of tearing them apart. It’s called “Defending the Caveman,” and is presented nightly at The D at 8:40 p.m.

As the actor in the show, I’ve been privileged to be named Entertainer of the Year in 2008 and set the Guinness World Record for Most Theatrical Performances in 50 Days. It’s a show of which I am extremely proud, and I’d love for you to see it. Grab your significant other, have some laughs, and let me tell you a Broadway story about you.

For Caveman tickets, call the Box Office at 702-388-2111, or book online at TheD.com.

 

~Burke

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Actor/Improviser/Teacher Del Close

When an audience does not respond well to a performance, the performer will often use the ancient showbiz phrase, “I died up there.” And that’s how it feels. Like a slow, lingering death-by-indifference. It’s part of the life we performers have chosen. It’s what we signed up for.

There are, however, a significant number of performers who have died onstage for real. Sheet-over-the-head, dead-gone-dead. A wonderful performer and dear friend Steve Daly said, “There’s the way every performer wants to go….onstage during a show.”

I’m not so sure. Here are a few performers who have gone to the greenroom in the sky during a performance.

In 1918, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed under the name Chung Ling Soo, was shot through the chest while performing a trick known as The Bullet Catch. Metal fatigue in the gimmicked portion of the rifle caused the actual bullet to be fired. He died the next day.

Zero Mostel, Movie and Broadway star, and creator of the role Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, collapsed and died from an aortic aneurism during a preview performance of The Merchant in 1977.

In 1984, Comic/Magician Tommy Cooper, famous for tricks that went hilariously wrong, collapsed onstage from heart failure during a TV appearance on Live From Her Majesty’s in London. The audience, thinking it was a bit, laughed for a full minute before the director cut to commercial, and Tommy was taken offstage.

Comedian/Movie Star Dick Shawn died of heart in 1986 failure during a sold-out performance at UC San Diego. He lay onstage for five minutes before stagehands realized it wasn’t a bit. Even when paramedics arrived and took him away by ambulance, many audience members still believed it was a bit done in very poor taste.

Singer/Musicologist Tiny Tim suffered a fatal heart attack onstage in 1996 while singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips during a benefit concert hosted by the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.

Near Misses…

In 2017, actor Stacy Keach suffered a silent heart attack in Chicago during the opening night performance of the one-man play Pamplona, in which he portrayed Ernest Hemingway. As of this writing, he is recovering.

At the Concert For the Americas in 1984, drummer Buddy Rich suffered a heart attack while playing his solo during his band’s closing number. He finished the solo and the song, bowed, walked offstage, THEN went to the hospital and recovered. Badass Level: INFINITE.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve’s opinion regarding performers wanting to go during a performance. I think I’ll pass, given a choice. I think I’d rather go out the way legendary improv performer/teacher Del Close did, in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones and friends. Some of his last words were, “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.*”

In his will, Del bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater with instructions that it be used as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.

That’s a good way to go. I’ll take that.

Just not quite yet.

~Kevin Burke

spawn

I met Todd McFarlane at an autograph-signing at a comicbook* convention…my first at age 56. Todd broke away from Marvel comics in the early ’90’s at a point where he was making $1 million per year as the writer/artist on the Spider-Man comicbooks. There, he created the supervillain Venom. He left because he had characters he wanted to create, but couldn’t come to an agreement regarding ownership. (Creators for DC and Marvel did not own any ongoing piece of their creations. To this day, Stan Lee himself does not own a piece of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, or any of the many other characters he co-created with different artists.) Todd left Marvel to start Image Comics in 1992. His first hit was Spawn, which started a trend toward creator-owned comicbook characters.

I’ve always liked Todd’s art, and the fact that he told Marvel to go jump in a lake. So, at the Amazing Comic Con in Las Vegas, I brought along my copy of Spawn #8. The artwork is beautiful, and Spawn is posed in an iconic Spider-Man pose created by Todd a few years earlier. Perfect for signing.

I asked Todd if he would quote a favorite line he’d written for Spawn. He thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t really…..there’s nothing I…AH! Here. Here you go. I’ll write this” He inscribed, “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES!!” Then, deadly earnest, he said, “What I mean by that is this…YOU have to take control of your life. So many people miss that. If you want to be an artist, pick up a pencil. If you want to stop drinking, put down the fucking bottle. If you hate your boss, quit your job. Only you can prevent forest fires.” We then chatted about the Cubs, Steve Bartman, and how he wishes he had won the auction for the ball. He would have waited, then publicly blown it up just before game one of the World Series.

He also spoke about art. Todd is writing, producing, and directing a SPAWN film. He told me that this degree of creative control was non-negotiable. He’s successful enough that he doesn’t need the film, which puts him in a position to do it his way or no way. “That’s the reason to pursue success.” he said, ‘To be able to create more art. If I hadn’t been constantly creating and building on my early success, I wouldn’t be able to move this project forward. After this project, I’ll create more art.”

He also said, “Hollywood has all these new platforms to deliver content, but they have no new IDEAS. Everything they are doing now is something they’ve already done. Now is the time to be a creator. They need YOU.”

All in all it was a delightful 6 minute chat with one of my favorite artist/writers.

(*Stan Lee later that day said the ONLY correct written form is the one-word “comicbook”. I’ll take his word for it, and pass that along to you.)

 

Image  —  Posted: June 27, 2017 in humor, ToddMcFarlane, comicbooks, autograph
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rbbbcircus

For the first time in 146 years, there are no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances scheduled, and the world is a poorer place for it. The Greatest Show on Earth is no more. Your great-great grandparents may have had a date at a show. It is now certain that your great-great grandchildren will not.

Before we continue, a word about the animals…If you believe they were mistreated or abused, stop reading. This is not for you. All I can tell you is that I was there. I lived and worked with these animals 24/7, and if you believe they were abused, then you were NOT there. Elephants, for example, do not breed unless their social and biological needs are met. RBBB had the single most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. The proof is in the pudding.

Still here? Great. In the 1800’s PT Barnum created the circus spectacle. Three rings, two stages, more than the eye could take in during a single performance. Family entertainment for children of all ages on a scale never before seen. Barnum partnered with the greatest circus showman of that era, James Bailey, to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Ringling Bros. bought the show and combined it with their own. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.
At that time, RBBB was a tent show. The Big Top seated from 5,000 to 9,000 people over the years. The 100-car train carried 1,200 employees and nearly as many animals. It was a city on wheels which moved the circus across the USA on a perpetual tour of one-night-stands. Each night, the circus would pack itself up, load itself out, head to the next stand, and do it all over again. So impressive was this feat, the US Army brought RBBB in to consult on logistics regarding moving people and materials in order to better fight WWI.
Moving the show into arenas and out of the tent in 1956, RBBB was still a juggernaut with a train a mile long. As new arenas were built across the country, Ringling rolled out to meet them. When the Astrodome was built in Houston, RBBB rolled in and sold it out. 67,000 seats. A record for the Astrodome and Ringling.

Those are the basic facts.

Now for the truth. Ringling was more than a show. It was a culture with it’s own language, traditions, and peculiar form of justice. Some people stayed; Lou Jacobs was a Ringling clown for 66 years. Some people left after one season. All are part of a family that made up the longest continually-running theatrical production in modern history.
All are world-class athletes who pushed the very boundaries of human ability, 13 times per week. In the final performance, trapeze artist Ammed Garcia Tuniziani twice attempted a quadruple somersault…a feat so difficult only a handful of performers have sporadically succeeded over the past 30 years. Ammed failed, but it didn’t matter. The RBBB audience was thrilled by the attempts.

Ringling was a truly great spectacle. 24 elephants. 14 tigers. 18 horses. Llamas, dogs, chimps, a giraffe, a famous gorilla, bears, and at least one disgruntled bison all were featured under the Ringling banner.
Human acts included teeterboard artists from Soviet-bloc countries who performed double backward somersaults to a five-man-high pyramid, a man in tails and top hat who balanced 30 feet in the air on one finger, human cannonballs, contortionists, BMX riders, unicycle riders, wire walkers, and 24 clowns per show…all these and more put their lives on the line daily in order to spread joy and wonder.

As joyful and wondrous as it is, the circus is a cruel mistress who kills it’s brightest stars. Two members of the Wallenda wire walking family were killed in a fall in 1962. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous in 1932 for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, she fell 40 feet and died a few days later. Dessi Espana died in 2004 when a piece of aerial equipment failed and sent her plunging 30 feet down to the arena floor. Two Ringling performers, Ceslee Conkling, a clown, and Ted Svertesky, an elephant trainer, were killed in a circus train crash in 1994. Ringling Bros. performers accepted the possibility of being killed as the price of admission to being a member of the Greatest Show on Earth family.
Circus life was never easy. Performers and crew lived in rooms on the mile-long train mentioned earlier. Each room was 6X3X7.5, and was built out of 3/4 inch plywood. (Funfact: According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to TWICE as much living space.) While each car had sinks and commodes, the only showers were to be had inside the arena locker rooms. Sit down baths? Not an option unless someone rented a hotel room. Everyone traveled from the railroad yard where the train was parked to the arena and back aboard the RBBB bus, which cost 25 cents to ride each way.
As in any community, love was fallen into–and went unrequited, weddings were celebrated, babies were born, breakups and divorces were mourned. Life was lived by the clock of show schedules, and centered around the three sacred performance rings.

A word about rings…As many circus-type acts as a theatrical show may have, it’s not an actual CIRCUS unless it has at least one ring. It’s the ring which defines circus, circumscribing life and death within its 42 feet diameter. Why 42 feet? That’s the ideal diameter for a galloping horse. The RBBB rings are where Mass was held on Sunday morning, and where lives were risked on Sunday afternoon.

Today, the rings have been disassembled and sold to the highest bidder The train has been sold off car by car. Pie-Car Jr, the RBBB food truck which parked out back of the arena and sold food to performers “at cost,” (lol) is probably headed to a carnival where it will feed fairground workers. Guy lines will be cut into one-inch sections and sold as a remembrance of the show. The elephants are headed to a 700 acre facility in North Florida, and the performers are headed for home, the open road, other shows, or oblivion.
Our city has been dismantled and dissolved. Forever. I’m sad that you’ll never be able to visit us, again. I’m sad that a chain of performances stretching back 146 years is now broken. Most of all, I’m sad for the children who will never see 24 elephants on parade, 20 clowns piling out of an impossibly tiny car, and hear a Ringmaster cry, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of ALLLLL ages! The producers are proud to present…..RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!”

In the Broadway musical BARNUM, PT Barnum sings about a bleak and dreary world saying, “Someone’s got to make it bright. Shoot a rocket! Shine a light! Tell ya who that someone’s gonna be….”

Until today, we KNEW who that someone was gonna be.

Now?

No idea, but I can’t wait to find out!!!!

See you down the road.

I wrote a play.

Posted: March 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

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The BBC has an annual radio playwriting contest. On a whim, I assigned myself the task of writing a play and entering. The attached PDF is the final result. In the end, the important thing is not how well written it is, or if it’s even remotely entertaining. The important thing is, there is now a play where there was none before.  Still…all production rights are reserved.

Why I do what I do.

Posted: February 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

In 1986, I was a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The show was playing for two weeks at the Washington DC Armory, and it was shortly before the matinee showtime on the first Thursday of the stand. I was backstage when I noticed a man sitting alone in a wheelchair. Backstage was not a public area. It was unusual that anyone not on the show would be there, much less a man alone in a wheelchair.

I looked a little more closely, and I realized it was James Brady, Ronald Reagan’s former press secretary. He had been shot in the head by Mark Hinkley during the assassination attempt. Hence, the wheelchair.

Or course I wanted to meet him, but I wasn’t sure if I should approach him. I had seen him be overly emotional on TV, and I didn’t want to upset him. I decided that if he freaked out, I would just run away. After all, there were 20 clowns on the show…he wouldn’t know which one was me. So I introduced myself and said, “Are you Mr. Brady?”

“Yes I am. Nice to meet you.” he said. Whew! He was fine. I said, “Welcome to Ringling Bros. I hope you enjoy the show, and I just wanted to tell you how much I admire the pictures you took of Abraham Lincoln.” (OK, it was a stupid joke, but it was all I could think of.)

“I think you’re thinking of Matthew Brady.” he said. “That’s not you?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’m JIM Brady.” I said, “Oh! Well. It’s nice to meet you, whoever you are.” I tipped my hat and walked away. He started laughing so hard, I thought he was going to fall out of the chair.

20 years later, I had the pleasure of meeting him again. This time I was out of clown makeup, and working in a different show in Atlantic City. “Mr. Brady, you probably don’t remember me, but we met backstage at the Armory when I was a clown with Ringling.” I said. He immediately said, “Your name is Kevin, right?” I was stunned, “How could you possibly remember?”

“Since I got shot,” he said, “people have treated me like gold. They’ve been wonderful to me. But, they treat me as though I’m fragile. Not even my best friends will fuck with me anymore to make me laugh. But you did, and I remember that.”

And THAT is why I do what I do.