Anatomy of a Joke: Dissecting a joke from comedian Adam Burke

Our writer dissects a joke from up-and-comer Adam Burke, a comedian with an intellectual streak

Adam Burke
An Irish citizen who was schooled in England with virtually no performing background, Adam Burke, 33, entered the archetypically young man’s game of American standup at the comparatively wizened age of 30. The advantage to starting late? ”I feel like at least I’m not still trying to figure out who I am offstage, in life,” says the comedian, who lives in Logan Square.

 

(a) You’d probably peg Burke more for a professor than for a comedian. His scruffy, tweedy, bespectacled affect evokes more wandering writer or poet-intellectual than Pauly Shore or Chris Farley. But poor fits and contrast are the stuff of laughter, and when Burke takes the mike, confusion dissipates. He’s all business, never dawdling or coasting with hems and haws or endless crowd interaction the way many other comics do.

(b) Burke is referring to his leonine head here, but he might also mean his intellectual bent. It shouldn’t be surprising that his hero is Steve Martin. As a standup in the 1970s, Martin injected profound artistry and explosive postmodern experimentation into insane, goofy comedy. As Burke puts it, “Martin runs the gamut between non sequitur humor and jokes based on incredibly intricate wordplay.”

© An erstwhile editor and writer, Burke taught English in Poland as a young man, and he volunteers in the author Dave Eggers’s 826 tutoring program as a writing specialist. And indeed, Burke’s scholarly ways serve him onstage. Because here’s a secret: It’s easier for a writer to learn to perform than vice versa. Great performers can fall back on charisma and skimp on writing, but a good writer can earn stage chops over time.

(d) Burke’s clear respect for the craft seems to garner him respect from an audience as he pushes his long hair out of his serious eyes and drops some of the most well-crafted, clever material in a very clever city. “My accent is weird,” he’ll say. “It’s not exactly Irish and it’s not exactly Scotch. It’s more like . . . bourbon. So the drunk people in the audience usually understand.”

GO: Adam Burke performs Dec. 10th at BEAT KITCHEN, 2100 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-281-4444.

 

Photograph: Ryan Robinson; Styling: Courtney Rust; Makeup/Hair: Ashley Bourdon; Assistant: Marc Altman; Chicken provided by Animal Rentals

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