Burns and Shreiber: Together and Apart

Born today: Avery Schreiber (1925-2002). With comedy partner Jack Burns (b 1933), Schreiber was a familiar sight on television variety shows in the 1960s and ’70s.

Burns and Schreiber was a very mid-twentieth century sort of act. The portly, mustachioed Scheiber was Jewish; the fast-talking Bostonian Burns was Irish. They tended to use their ethnicities in their act. Burns’ trademark was a habit of rapidly assaulting his scene partner with “Huh? Huh? Huh?”, never waiting for, or listening to, a reply. Burns and Scheriber most frequently did sketches set in taxi cabs with Schreiber as the driver, and Burns as the clueless fare. In these sketches, Schreiber would channel Oliver Hardy as the straight man,his huge eyes rolling in response to the dumb things Burns said. Occasionally he would do a full-on true Hardy by looking directly at the camera. But Schreiber was very versatile. Often they would flip the relationship and Burns would be the straight man, with Schreiber playing someone or something very broad and outlandish, like a dog or a robot. With his extremely expressive face, Schreiber was also great in silent bits.

Believe it or not, Burns’ original comedy partner, from about 1959 through 1962 had been no less than George Carlin. In 1963 a live record album of their material was released, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight. Meanwhile in 1962, Burns had met Avery Shreiber at Second City in Chicago, and they teamed up. The pair were originally together through 1968, broke up amicably, then reunited in 1972. In 1973 they got their own tv variety show The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour as a summer replacement. I probably watched every show they aired. Teri Garr was a regular! This was just just before she broke through with Young Frankenstein. There are clips of it on Youtube.

The two comedians fared just as well on their own. Schreiber was best known for a series of Doritos commercials that played up his skills as a silent “Hardy”. He would usually play some suave “expert”, doing things like judging a food competition. His efforts would always be ruined when someone would crunch a Dorito at just the wrong time, resulting in slapstick mayhem. Then he would snatch the bag of Doritos, taste it himself, and be pleased. He continued to act on stage and screen in latter years as well, but these spots were his most visible, regular gig. In 1994 he had a heart attack, exacerbated by a diabetes problem. He worked very little after this, although he can see him in walk-on roles in two late Mel Brooks comedies, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).

Burns was hired to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show in 1965, although his character only lasted about a dozen episodes. He was a writer and briefly head-writer on Hee Haw (1969-70). He did the voice of the Archie Bunker like character Ralph on the animated sitcom Wait Til Your Father Gets Home (1974-1976). He was a writer on The Muppet Show (1976-77) and co-wrote The Muppet Movie (1979). From 1980 through 1981, he was announcer, writer, co-producer and occasional cast member on Fridays. 

Burns and Schreiber were a transitional act, much like Nichols and May. The idea of a comedy duo is very vaudeville, yet the training and orientation of the performers by Second City was the modern way, actor-based, which is pretty much how it’s done today.