His sets are intelligent without being pompous, brainy without shying away from what Bill Hicks called “the purple-veined dick jokes,” and full of unique observations about Chicago, relationships, day-to-day life, and statutory rape. But Adam Burke insists he’s not a rare bird in the aviary of local stand-up comedy.
“I’m not a scarlet macaw,” he explains in an accent streaked by time spent in Australia and Northern Ireland. “I’m more of a shop-worn pigeon who’s missing an eye. The iridescence you notice on my plumage is from where someone spilled cooking oil on my wings.”
As influenced by English comic Spike Mulligan as he is by Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Hicks, Burke, 35, has been telling jokes for five years now. His regular gigs include cohosting the Wednesday night open mike at Cole’s Bar—opposite busy young female stand-up Cameron Esposito—and performing with Kiss Kiss Cabaret at the Greenhouse Theater on Fridays. He opened for Hannibal Buress at Zanie’s this summer.
Burke got his start while working as a freelance writer, researching an article on the stand-up scene for Chicago Social. “I decided to do an open mike just to put a cap on it,” Burke says. “And then I sort of fell in love with it.”
The article was inspired by comedian friends complaining about a lack of opportunity in Chicago, but Burke manages to get up onstage at least three nights a week. Barroom open mikes and showcases like Hug City and Speak Easy “are a great complement to known rooms such as Chicago Underground and the Lincoln Lodge,” he says. “People are getting all these chances to become really polished. I might not see someone for six months, and then when I do they’re so much stronger.”
Cohosting Cole’s open mike forces Burke to constantly develop new material. “I think it’s disingenuous—not to mention boring—to just rely on tried and tested material.”
All the shows and years of practice have shown Burke that there’s no destination in the stand-up’s journey. “You’re never done,” he says. “At around the six- or 18-month mark you start to get the feeling that you kind of know what you’re doing as a stand-up—but that’s completely illusory. Whenever you think ‘I’ve got this,’ it’s normally the prelude to bombing so hard your teeth ache for a week.”
Even after years, there are plenty of opportunities to learn humility. “Sometimes an audience is just a team of burly movers aligned at the end of a rug that’s about to be pulled out from under you. That’s why you have to keep your feet planted.”