Jack Burns, one of the original writers for The Muppet Show and a comedy partner to George Carlin, has died. The writer, actor and comedian was 86.
The funnyman was living in senior care for the past two years and celebrated his 31st year of sobriety in December, manager Peter Santana on Tuesday told The Hollywood Reporter. Burns died Monday of respiratory failure in Toluca Lake.
“A foundational piece of the Carlin legacy has gone to the big comedy club in the sky. Jack was one of the sharpest motherfuckers I knew. He shaped my father’s mind in unique ways. RIP Jack Burns,” Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
Kicking off his career as one half of a comedy duo with George Carlin, Burns performed with Carlin — who would go on to become the first host of Saturday Night Live and film 14 comedy specials with HBO — at The Playboy Club in Los Angeles and on The Tonight Show With Jack Paar. He met his next comedy partner, Avery Schreiber, at Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, and the pair went on to perform on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show, among other variety shows.
Burns gained further airtime when Andy Griffith hired him to fill in for the departing Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show as a new character, Deputy Sheriff Warren Ferguson. Unfortunately, his deputy was an unpopular character and he only lasted 11 episodes. Nevertheless, Burns ended up in roles on The Partridge Family, Happy Days and Getting Together after his stint on Andy Griffith. He additionally voiced Ralph on the groundbreaking primetime cartoon Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home, which preceded today’s popular animated shows for adults.
Perhaps Burns’ most well-known accomplishment was becoming the head writer and producer on the first season of The Muppet Show, and he appeared in one episode alongside Schreiber. Burns wrote for the show for three years and on 28 episodes, later returning to the franchise to write 1979’s The Muppet Movie with Jerry Juhl, 1985’s Muppet Video: Country Music With the Muppets and 1985’s Fozzie’s Muppet Scrapbook.
Like his former comedy partner Carlin, Burns hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1977. From 1980 to 1982, he became a writer and announcer on the ABC sketch comedy series Fridays, which he followed with the Showtime series Brothers. Burns later voice-acted on the animated series The Animaniacs and The Simpsons.
Burns was nominated for two Primetime Emmys, for outstanding comedy-variety or music series and outstanding writing, both for The Muppet Show in 1976, and likewise was nominated for a Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation with The Muppet Movie in 1980, but never won.