In defense of Jack Burns, the man who had to fill Don Knotts' shoes on 'The Andy Griffith Show'

Deputy Warren Ferguson was one of the most derided characters on TV, but the actor behind him was a pioneering comedian.

Barney Fife may have weighed, oh, about 120 pounds soaking wet, but the Mayberry deputy left behind a massive uniform to fill. After five hit seasons on The Andy Griffith Show, and a few Emmy awards, Don Knotts decided to nip it in the bud and leave the sitcom. The comedic actor pursued a career on the big screen.

His Barney Fife character would return to Mayberry here and there in later seasons, earning him a couple fresh Emmy trophies, but the series was never really the same without him. That was not all due to his departure. Jim Nabors was gone by the point, too, heading his own spin-off, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. But the biggest change to The Andy Griffith Show beginning in season six was color. Mayberry went from a quaint black-and-white hamlet to a vibrant, rainbow-colored town. The character of Andy himself took a turn, as the sheriff became rather snippy with Aunt Bee.

Often overlooked in all this change — intentionally, in some cases — is Deputy Warren Ferguson. Introduced at the start of season six, Ferguson came to Mayberry as Andy's new deputy. He was the nephew of Floyd the barber, though he stuck out in rural North Carolina like a sore thumb. You see, Warren was a city slicker from Boston.

Playing the role — complete with a haaahd Boston accent — was Jack Burns. A true Boston native, Burns got his start in Chicago, as part of the esteemed Second City comedy troupe. Andy was his first big role, but audiences might have already been familiar with Burns through his stage work. He'd cut a popular comedy record (more on that later) and popped up on talk shows.

Despite his pedigree, Burns lasted a mere 11 episodes on The Andy Griffith Show. If fans remember Warren Ferguson at all, it is with derision. But Burns deserves more credit. He is a brilliant comedic mind and had a hand in some of television's most memorable moments of the 1970s and 1980s. Let's take a tour through his career.

1. He started out in a duo with George Carlin.

George Carlin remains one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. He honed his craft in the early 1960s working alongside Burns. The first met working at a radio station in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1959. A year later, the twosome recorded an album, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight, which was not released until 1963. Oh, and it was not recorded at the Playboy Club, rather in a joint called Cosmo Alley. But that's just a small taste of the sly humor Burns would ply throughout his career.

Image: ERA Records

2. His partnership with Avery Schreiber slayed, too.

By the time …at the Playboy Club Tonight was released, Burns and Carlin had amicably split to pursue separate careers. Carlin began his climb as a solo act, while Burns paired with another comedic mind, Avery Schreiber, a shaggy physical force most Boomers might remember from Doritos commercials. The two sharpened their routines on the stage at Second City in Chicago. A decade later, after numerous guest spots on variety shows, the two earned their own series, The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, which aired in the summer of 1973.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. He was a voice on a significant Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

There was just one primetime animated TV series to stay on the air for longer than a single season between The Flintstones and The Simpsons. Just one. It was not The Jetsons, nor Johnny Quest. It was the forgotten Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (1972–74), Hanna-Barbera's spoof of All in the Family. Burns voiced the pesky neighbor, Ralph, in 46 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. He was a head writer for The Muppets.

By 1977, Burns had transitioned to more of a behind-the-camera career. Notably, he landed a gig as the head writer and producer on the first season of The Muppets. He then co-wrote The Muppet Movie with Jerry Juhl, who would take over the reigns as head writer on The Muppet Show.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. He was also a head writer on Hee Haw.

Yep, Burns contributed his pen to the corn-pone humor of Hee Haw, as well. Which just goes to show that he could have done the rural comedy of Andy Griffith, given the chance. In fact, the country sketch-comedy series gave Burns the chance to return to Mayberry in a way. The show featured a recurring skit called "Goober's Garage," featuring George Lindsay playing his popular character. Burns popped up in a few of the skits as a city slicker trying to pull one over on ol' Goober.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. He "fought" Andy Kaufman in one of TV's wildest moments.

Kicking off in 1980, Fridays was ABC's answer to Saturday Night Live. The Fridays cast was stronger at the time, in hindsight, as it showcased Seinfeld talents Larry David and Michael Richards. Burns, meanwhile, was the announcer and head writer for the sketch comedy program. The late-night show is best remembered for an incident with guest host Andy Kaufman. In one scene, Kaufman breaks the fourth wall and quits on the skit, claiming he can't act stoned. This irks the cast members, and the conversation gets heated. As props are thrown, Burns jumps on the stage and yells, "Bobby, go to commercial, man!" He then charges at Kaufman. The audience gasps in shock. Of course, it was all staged, as we know now. But Kaufman was-it-real-or-not brand of comedy kept viewers guessing for years.

Image: ABC

7. He was a crash test dummy in a series of public service announcements.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Transportation informed TV  viewers, "You could learn a lot from a dummy." It was the government's campaign to get drivers and passengers to buckle up in automobiles. The ads featured two talking crash test dummies, Vince and Larry. Burns voiced Vince. Around the same time, Burns also voiced Sid the Squid on Animaniacs!

Image: YouTube

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RedSamRackham 1 month ago
* His Deputy Warren character was pretty much the same as his taxicab passenger guy with Andy Griffith replacing Avery Schreiber as his straight man. Yet it was a funny character that deserved a better chance to catch on with viewers although his replacing Barney Fife was like Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly-Joe DeRita all doing their best to replace Curly as 3rd stooge yet never getting respect from fans.
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