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Comedy Fri Feb 24 2012

Interview: Adam Burke


After writing an article about local stand-up comedy for a Chicago magazine, Adam Burke started performing himself and is now a fixture at comedy showcases across the Chicago and the Midwest. Born in Australia and raised in Northern Ireland, he is known for his distinct accent and his verbose, clever wordplay on subjects ranging from Mick Jagger to the word "callipygian." In addition, he has opened for comedians such as Jeff Ross, Maria Bamford, Bo Burnham, Brendon Burns, and Jake Johannsen, and co-hosts the popular Cole's Bar comedy open mic on Wednesdays with Cameron Esposito.

Growing up, were you interested in writing or comedy?

Growing up, I was the one - I have two brothers and a sister - but I was the one that everyone thought was going to be a writer...and I think that's just 'cause I was the most pretentious kid. This is an apocryphal tale that I deny of my sister catching me at night with a flashlight just reading the dictionary. So yeah, I think everyone thought I was going to be some sort of writer. I think my mom really wanted me to do something with that. But my brother's a really good writer, too.

We were hugely interested because - I don't know if you have any brothers or sisters, but like, especially when you have two brothers. My brothers are like three years younger and three years older, so we would very much watch all the same movies and we knew Ghostbusters backwards and forwards. And we knew, when we were in our teens, we were into two things hardcore: Steve Martin and the Marx Brothers. Especially as we got older, we could quote most Marx Brothers backwards and forwards, and we could quote most of Steve Martin's 1979 live - there's a film of him from 1979 doing the Hollywood Bowl or something, it's ridiculous - we knew most of that.

As far as being a's weird because I found an old journal of mine and I had written jokes in there. But I never thought I'd tell them. I just knew in my heart-of-hearts, I knew if I ever went on stage, I'd have a heart-attack, I'd die.

Have you had the opportunity to observe other comedy scenes outside of Chicago?

I really haven't that much. The Madison scene is interesting because it's so small. It's so small that they have this fucking gorgeous club. I've been to a couple towns where it's like that. Bloomington, Indiana is like that, where there might be ten people really doing stand-up regularly, but one of their workout rooms is a gorgeous club, they get to go and work out to 50-200 people. So that's interesting. I can't speak to L.A. or New York because I've never spent much time there as a comedian.

But I had a little of an entrée to the London scene. Which is...I'm so glad I didn't do stand-up in London. Because I wouldn't be doing it now. Because it's fucking brutal. It's so hard to get up. The audiences often times could give two fucks. Sometimes they're great, but its like...especially at open mics, the British audience, they think (and are probably correct) that they are as or are funnier than you. Because it's a very funny culture, and British pub culture is very jokey. So for you to go up in a pub and go, "Everyone stop having your hilarious conversations, I need to talk to you for four minutes," it's tough.

And then London is so big. I had forgotten about this. I went over there a couple times over the last three years, and I would try to book shows, and it would take me two hours to get to the fucking show. So you go and you'd get six minutes, four minutes or whatever - and it's so weird. I think, in London, you kind of get a name just by being around enough because people are so impressed that you made it out to all these fucking venues.

What do you hear about New York or L.A. or other cities from comics who started out in Chicago?

I know the L.A. scene is completely different. It's just so many people out there. I'll say this: just from talking to someone, the L.A. scene really makes you appreciate the Chicago scene. Because I was talking to a friend out there about when he was going up next and he was like, "Well, I have a show in two weeks."

Well, I mean, to be quite honest, at the level he was at here when he left, or the level that me and my peers are at [knocks on wood], I probably have at least one showcase show where it's not an open mic, every week. You know what I mean? At least. In front of a "real audience." Probably one a week, or certainly an average one a week. We get so much stage time here, it's great.

I was talking to a national headliner as well. This was a couple years ago, I was working with him at a club. I was asking about moving to New York. And he said "Well, how often do you get up here?" And I told him, and he said, "I couldn't recommend you moving to New York." Because, this is a guy who'd been on Letterman tons of times. He said, "I've been on Letterman all these times, it can get hard for me to up."

So that's what I hear. I know that people do love the New York scene. And there seems to be so many rooms in New York and so many opportunities to go up. I'd be interested to see. I haven't been out there for any period of time, certainly not to do stand up. That's one of my goals for this year, to get out there.

The show that you do every week that you were referring to, that's Kiss Kiss Cabaret, correct?

I do an 8-10 minute slot there every week. It's so much fun. I mean it's great. Because they sell it out so often. So just having a regular gig, where every Friday I can go and there's 200 people there? That's unheard of, you know? So I love it. And its great, they really encourage me.

It also forces you to put up your new shit. Because something like a variety show, they tend to have fans and super fans, they get a lot of return people. So you can't do your 10-minute bit that kills, because you know that there's people who've seen you before. So it's perfect for me, because I do the Cole's open mic on Wednesday and I try to write something new for that every week. And then if possible, if I've come up with something that's half-decent on Wednesday, then I'll try to include it on Friday and then I get to try it out on the real audience pretty quickly.

It's great, I don't know how I lucked into it, but I lucked into it somehow and it's awesome.

I actually looked at your schedule for this month. You're co-hosting at Cole's and performing at Kiss Kiss Cabaret every week. But you also have gigs at UP, Comedy Bar, ComedySportz 100 Proof, Comedians You Should Know, Lincoln Lodge, and Mayne Stage. Do all those rooms feel different to you?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of comics will say you can never blame the audience, right? If your set doesn't go well or whatever, never blame the audience. That's what I feel. I mean, I'm only 5 years in, so I could be "Nope, always blame the audience!" I think that's a good rule of thumb, because there's no point in blaming the audience, because they're not constant, the only constant is you.

However, having said that, that doesn't mean don't take the audience into account. The goal is to be able to do whatever you do wherever you happen to be. And that's a Paul F. Tompkins or Patton Oswalt, they don't give a fuck where they are. Patton's just going to Patton and Maria Bamford's just going to be Maria Bamford. And that's the goal.

But there's different vibes. You can get away with something - like at Lincoln Lodge, for start, it's just physically smaller, it's a narrorwer room. So I could do the same material, but I'm going to do it differently at the Comedy Bar is because the Comedy Bar is really bright, it's really wide, and you have to play to the whole room there in a different way than you play at Lincoln Lodge.

What's an example of playing the material differently depending on the room?

Well, I'd say this for example. Lincoln Lodge, I can't physically see half the audience. I can see the first two rows. In a way that sort of emboldens you, because you sort of have to hear for the laughter and have to do that. At Comedy Bar, I can see who's laughing and who's not laughing. And I can see who feels disengaged. So I would say visibly I'm gonna turn to those people and engage them. If they are completely turned off, I will probably talk to them in a way I might not at Lincoln Lodge, because I can't physically see if they're dead.

And you'll just go broader, some your act outs might just be bigger. Again, if you do a really big act out in a tiny room, that scares the shit out of people in the front row. It's like, "Is he gonna fall on me?"

So you don't change it hugely. It is really hard to pinpoint, but there are different energies in different rooms. Not get all fucking Dreamcatcher about it.

How do you determine what your best material is?

What I think my best material is, is the stuff that I enjoy doing most. I think for a lot of modern stand-up - again, what the fuck do I know? But the idea is, telling material only you can tell, that's so close to your voice, that's so close to your experience. It doesn't have to be This American Life, but stuff that's come out of your particular -you know, this raw material, the idea that three different comics could have the same experience.

There's a great example, where Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher, and the Puterbaugh Sisters all went on a road trip together and they all went to this one store that sold baseball bats. And they all had a different bit about it. And they all noticed something different about the store. And all three bits were really funny.

So that idea that you have this raw material and goes through this grinder of your voice, and your vision, and your past experience, and then this bit comes out that you put it through someone else's grinder is going to look different. It's more like how pearls are different colors, based on what kind of minerals [are] around the oyster, that kind of thing.

So I would say my best material is stuff that's closest to that. Where I feel like only I can tell this joke and I'm telling I think the best version of it and then I worked on it and it is where it needs to be. And I think you probably never get done working on a joke.

Is it possible to make a living just doing stand-up in Chicago?

Even with these new clubs opening, even if you were up at one of those once a month - which you wouldn't be - it would be very difficult to make a living just doing stand-up in Chicago. You need to have some other part-time gig or something. Yeah, I don't think it's possible to do that.

Now making a living doing stand-up in the Midwest is different. Because if you could figure out that gas-to-distance ratio where you still come out of that feature gig ahead - you know, going to Indianapolis or Madison or Milwaukee or whatever - that's possible I think. I know some people who sort of make that work. That's essentially what they do.

What are some of your influences on your comedy outside of comedy?

Outside of stand-up comedy, Spike Milligan - these are both comedians but not stand-ups, per say - Spike Milligan and Peter Cook, British comedians.

Outside of comedy altogether, Flann O'Brien. He was an Irish writer. And that would be my goal: If I could somehow be Flann O'Brien on stage, that would be awesome. But it's impossible. He's someone who was so far up the arse of the collective Western world, but Flann O'Brien is huge for me.

What's your advice to anyone who wants to try out stand-up comedy in Chicago?

If you want to try it out, then I have no advice for you, because it's very simple. Go to any open mic. Google "Bad Slava Chicago mics" and this guy has a comprehensive list. Go to any open mic if you want to try it out. Be patient. Be nice. They'll get you up. Fuck it, bring in your friends. Other comedians will love you, because they have audience members.

All stand-up is is failure. I mean, learning how to do it, the only way to learn it is to do it and have it not go well. Because anyone will tell you this. I'm only five years in. But Hannibal Buress had a tweet - someone just Twittered him "any advice to stand-ups?" and he goes "write a lot and perform a lot." And if you write a lot and perform a lot, it stands to reason that you're going to do an awful lot of stuff that eats shit and you're gonna suck.

That's my only advice to anyone who wants to do it. If you're worried about failing, or only want to have good sets, then don't bother. Or make your friends laugh. Because your friends will laugh, they already think you're funny.

But if you want to do stand-up, then it's failing over and over again. And it is! And it never stops. You probably get to a point after 10 years when you might bomb once a year. Or if you're Bill Cosby, you'll never bomb again because people already love you.

Again if you want to try it out, don't worry about it, because fuck it. But if you want to pursue it, then don't be afraid of failure. Because if you're afraid of failure, then you're afraid of stand-up.

Chicago Underground Comedy will host Adam Burke Unlimited at Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 9:30pm. FREE. For more information and listing of upcoming shows, click here.

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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

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