Chris Rock recently lamented the difference between rock stars and comedians. Rock stars have it easy. Their fans actually want to hear the old stuff. But, he continued, no one says to comedians, "Say that funny thing you said last year." When I heard this, two names sprung to mind to disprove him. Bill Cosby and Adam Burke. What comedy fan in the history of the world won't happily listen again (and again) to Cosby's "The Dentist" or "Same Thing Happens Every Night"?
Burke's growing legions of fans say the same. If you've been fortunate to hear Burke's take on dogs studying law at Northwestern, on why popcorn is the quintessential American snack, on his famously colorful dreams, or on Carl Sandburg and Chicago (name one other comedian who can do THAT), you know that you go to his shows hungering to re-hear his classics and leave breathless with the volume of freshly written new quotables.
Burke is as inventive with language as Willy Wonka was with candy. Fans aren't surprised to learn that he was first a writer, later hooked on comedy after trying it for an article about stand-up. As a transplanted Londoner (by way of Australia and Northern Ireland), he also brings a hilarious fish-and-chips-out-of-water perspective to American life.
But don't take my word for it. Come hear Burke at the Wilmette Theatre this Saturday when he headlines October's Comedy at the Mette. And there's good news for fans who have cornered Burke post-show to demand a CD: his first album, Universal Squirrel Theory, was released last week by comedy label, AST (Aspecialthing) Records, whose artists include laugh luminaries Marc Maron, Paul F. Tompkins, Doug Benson, Greg Proops, Jimmy Pardo and fellow Chicagoan, Dan Telfer.
Burke kindly spoke with me about life in comedy, why he won't be joining the Chicago comedians' yearly exodus to L.A. (yet) and surviving Samhainophobia (the fear of Halloween).
Q: What was it like to record your album?
A: It was nerve-racking because I knew I wanted to do a definitive set. I did a lot of thinking about the order and the material I wanted to cover. It was really exciting. A lot of people came out. The venue was Timothy O'Toole's downtown and there was a great energy in the room. We did two shows in one night. The album is basically the second show.
Q: What was the most memorable moment of the recording for you?
A: I liked that there was a little bit of heckling, so there's some crowd work on the record. I love crowd work. It's one of my favorite things about doing stand-up. The fact that I got to have a little back and forth with the audience, that kind of stuff, I really liked. Oh, and towards the end of the album someone yells out "expletive!" because of a poetry reference.
Q: That was the Carl Sandburg joke?
Q: I think it's the first time anyone ever killed with a Carl Sandburg joke. Are you doing that one in Wilmette?
A: I probably won't do anything that's off the album. The good thing about doing the album is it really spurs you to write more material.
Q: How did you decide to name the album "Universal Squirrel Theory," which is also one of the tracks?
A: I was going to go with something else. I had a short list of three and asked, it was on either Twitter or Facebook, "Of these three, which do people like best?" and that was the winner.
Once that was out, it lent itself to the art design. I'm really happy with the way the album looks. Aspecialthing Records did a great job. Ryan Corey laid it out and Dmitry Samarov, who is a local author, was at one of the shows and he did the drawing of me that's on the back. I did the front cover and Ryan Corey did all the inside stuff. I really like that it's a collaboration.
Q: Which other titles did you consider?
A: I was thinking of "Boutonnieres and Absinthe" and "Repair to the Swoonery." They ended up being track titles.
Q: What made now the right time for the album?
A: Partially to have a record and partially I was doing enough shows where people were asking me after my set if I have [a CD]. It's always really nice when people ask that and I wanted to have a better answer than a forlorn shrug.
And once I mentioned it to other people … Drew Michael and Danny Kallas and the "Comedians You Should Know" guys were super helpful and helped me set up the show where the recordings were done and a local guy called Doug Bistro did the recording.
It turned out that Aspecialthing Records, a comedy label in California, was looking to work with new comics and Dan Telfer helped me send over the raw audio and they wanted to take it on. They mixed it and edited it for me. It's been lots of different people helping out with different bits, so it's a really exciting process.
Q: So how many gigs do you have each week?
A: Well, the last week has been fantastic because I had basically none. My brother was in town from England so it was great to take a week off. But generally, I'm never on stage fewer than three times a week and it can be as many as twelve to fifteen. I know I've done eight shows in a weekend. I co-run an open mic [at Cole's Bar in Chicago] and that's always a gig in and of itself. It can go for hours.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: These days, because the millions and the jewels haven't come in from the sales of the CD yet, I have a day job. I have other writing gigs that I do. So I'll do those and then I'll go out. If I don't have a show, I try to hit up an open mic. So it's normally quite long. I went through a period where I didn't have all those pieces going and I much prefer to be busy, it turns out.
Q: That's a really full schedule. I always need to know what people eat for breakfast so they can do that.
A: I'm terrible at breakfast. I normally forget. I like breakfast foods round about nine o'clock at night. I'm a big fan of brunch because brunch means Bloody Mary. But breakfast, I don't know, it's too complicated a concept for me in the morning.
Q: So what's the secret to doing so much?
A: The secret is I love doing it. Doing stand-up is never a chore. All the other stuff that you do around it helps you do it, helps you travel and keep body and soul together, so to speak. It's all so at the end of the day you get to do stand-up.
That all sounds sort of strange and over-elegiac about stand-up, but it's got to be rewarding or otherwise all the hundreds of people who do it in Chicago wouldn't do it. That sounds so schmaltzy, but at the end of the day you get to do a set and there's not a lot better than having a great set.
Q: When you're on the road doing stand-up, is there anything that you have with you for comfort or good luck?
A: Notebooks. I'm good at losing notebooks and bad at keeping them. Notebooks are like the sine qua non of stand-up. You get a lot of time sitting around and there might be something you notice about the town you're in. You need to write it down so you remember how it popped into your head. That kind of stuff is great because it helps you get into the act. And it's really great if something that you wrote two hours ago goes over in the show.
I'm not usually a ritualistic person. I don't have a blankie or a civil war era penny I need to rub. I don't think I used to be able to do this, but it's great to have a couple of hours before the gig to read. It keeps your brain ticking and because you can think about the gig too much. So, books. Books to read and to write in.
Q: What do you like to read?
A: A lot more history these days. I'm sort of halfway through two books. The Invention of Air which is a book about Joseph Priestley and then that great book about Chicago, City of the Century, which I've been meaning to read for six years. I just got through the most recent Irving Welsh, too, which was fun. Skagboys.
Q: Do you read with an e-reader or does it have to be the real thing?
A: You know, I don't have an e-reader and I don't know if I would like it. I love the tactile feel of a book. Also, if I don't finish a book the reason is normally because I lost it. I left it at a pub or something. So if I had a Kindle, I could lose all my books in a bar. I don't know if I'm cut out for e-readers.
Q: I love your bit about your dream of hunting dinosaurs with Burt Reynolds and I don't want to pry, but what other interesting dreams have you had?
A: The problem is I remember them vividly for about ten minutes after I wake up and then I forget them. I don't know why my brain spends all this time generating stuff that I'm going to forget. I had a dream once where a friend and I went to a town called Purgatoria. I remember seeing it on the map. Purgatoria was a town in Mexico where someone had built a cathedral in a cave. I don't know if Freud or Jung or anyone else would be able to make head nor tail of that.
Q: I always forget my dreams as well. It's like they exist in a different part of your brain and then they're gone.
A: It's sort of frightening. I tend not to pay much heed to these people who say you only use 5% of your brain. When a person says that, you know that a discussion about telekinesis is marching towards you. But if dreams point out anything, it's that your own brain is unimpressed with the life that you lead. Your brain is like, "what you're bringing to the table is terrible. So while you're not using your body, I'm going to make up much better stuff that we could do together."
Q: I don't even want to ask this because I'm afraid the answer is yes, but will you be moving to L.A.?
A: I've no immediate plans to take off at the moment. My feeling is I think I'll know when it's time to go and I'm sort of beginning the exploratory work to see where to go, but you never really know with these things. I'm not so sure that a city is ever going to be the answer for you. I know that you have to go where the industry is, but I don't know if the industry is still in the two places it's supposed to be any more. Maybe that's optimistic of me or wishful thinking. But I think it's certainly more fluid than it used to be. No immediate plans. I think I have another Chicago summer in me.
Q: I'm glad to hear it. So I guess the last thing is I'm dreading Halloween and I wanted to ask if you have any advice for getting through it?
A: Why don't you like Halloween?
Q: Basically, I'm really a shy person and the fact that strangers are going to come to my door in costume in the dark and shout demands at me is really horrible. I don't want to answer the door. I'd be happier just sitting in the closet all night.
A: You know, you just made me think, the things that kids are allowed to get away with in the name of Halloween are crazy. They're things that if adults tried it they'd start a revolution. Basically, what kids are on Halloween is just sugar-addicted tax collectors. They pound on your door and demand that you tithe over all the candy that you have lying around. It's basically a juvenile Stamp Act.
You could put police tape in front of your house. Or you could confuse the hell out of people and put up Christmas decorations and then when they come to the door, say, "Oh, sorry. Halloween was months ago."
Q: That's a good idea. Is Halloween celebrated the same way in the U.K.?
A: No. It's given some lip service, but my brother was walking around mouth agape at the fact that giant inflatable pumpkins were being installed on lawns four weeks before the bloody event. I forget how bizarre it is until I have an overseas visitor over and I have to defend it.
It's the most frightening in ecological terms. For some reason, we need to have a million tons of horrible plastic crap. No one is keeping any of this stuff because otherwise you wouldn't be opening Halloween stores every year. I don't know why, but no one digs out the grease paint from last year.
And I hate fake blood. Not because it grosses me out. Because of how it smells. Like that PVC smell of Halloween masks, that ungodly chemical concoction that's supposed to look like a very shopworn werewolf. Halloween is a landfill waiting to happen. It's way more frightening than the prospect of a 4' 5" zombie.
It's a weird thing. You're not allowed to not believe in Halloween. If you're of any other faith and, say, Christmas carolers come by, you're allowed. "Oh, we don't do it." But ironically, if someone were to shoo away Halloween kids, people would think you were an actual witch. I feel for you.
Q: All good advice. I'm like, oh, no, not again. It feels more frequent than it really is. Like going to the dentist.
A: Well, there is a strong link between the need for dentists and Halloween.
Comedy At The Mette is at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 13 at the Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Central Ave. Tickets are $12. The show will be hosted by Chad Briggs and also features Peter-john Byrnes. This is a 21 and over event. For more information or for tickets, call 847-251-7424 or visit http://www.wilmettetheatre.com/events/. Adam Burke's newly released CD, Universal Squirrel Theory, will be available for sale at the Theatre on Saturday night.