Born: January 20, 1896
Death: March 09, 1996
AKA: Nathan Burnbaum
BlueMeter: Tame

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2006 EMI Comedy: Benny, Burns & Allen
2001 Best of George Burns
2000 The Golden Age of Comedy
1994 An Evening with George Burns: Live at Shubert Theate
1973 George Burns on Comedy

Specials (and other video)

No specials by this comedian.

Books (by and about)

1996 100 Years 100 Stories


"If there was a Mt. Rushmore for comedians," Bob Hope said in 1989, "Burns would be the first one on it."

George Burns became a living legend, mostly by outliving the other living legends. In the 30's, 40's and 50's the modest comedian insisted it was his partner Gracie who had all the talent. In the 60's and 70's he was really considered just another elderly vaudevillian, less obnoxious than Cantor, more amusing than Jessel, but certainly not as beloved as Jack Benny or as revered as Groucho Marx. After these and other friends passed away, Burns became the only link to the good old days. Then he became more than that, redefining the crustiness and chagrin of his straight man days with Gracie to become the drily caustic, sagely witty grand old man of comedy, performing one-man shows of songs, anecdotes and jokes and appearing before doting fans and hosts on talk shows.

Burns was seven when he joined the Pee Wee Quartette, not much older when he invaded vaudeville. "I think I loved being in vaudeville more than any other part of my career," he once wrote, "Vaudeville was that place where people who said they would do anything to be in show business, did…Whatever type of act the booking agent was looking for happened to be the type of act I did. I sang, I danced, I worked with Captain Bett's seal, I worked with a dog , I did a song and dance act with a dog, I worked alone, I worked with a partner…As long as I could put on my makeup and go out onstage I was happy."

Billy Lorraine was one of his partners, but his ultimate partner was Gracie Allen. "Burns and Allen" prospered for decades. George's style was so self-deprecating and the laughs so centered on Gracie that only lately have audiences come to realize that Burns was not only perfect as a straight man, but wryly amusing in his role as the long-suffering husband. In the 60's, after Gracie's retirement, audiences couldn't accept Burns in a sitcom on his own, or with new partners Carol Channing (on tour) and Connie Stevens (the sitcom "Wendy and Me"). The nostalgia craze of the late 60's led Burns to try an album of rock songs sung in his humorous rasp, but the "old gramps is as hip as the kids" image just didn't fit. As the years wore on, Burns developed as a raconteur but he relied mostly on the same old anecdotes about his vaudeville years, sang the same old songs (always with his trademark of cutting off the endings), and brought up the names of Cantor, Jolson and Jessel too often for younger viewers to care about.

Burns did what he could: "If I get a laugh, I'm a comedian. If I get a small laugh, I'm a humorist. If I get no laughs I'm a singer. If my singing gets big laughs, then I'm a comedian again."

Everything changed in 1975 after he won an Academy Award for his work in the hit film "The Sunshine Boys." He was a last-minute replacement for the original choice, the late Jack Benny. Burns was wonderful as the realistic, stoic, but lovable old vaudevillian dubiously about to re-team with his hyper ex-partner (Walter Matthau). He followed it with films that further explored this facet of Burns' personality. In "Oh God," George delivered dry-eyed philosophical lines, his unperterbable rasp and gentle demeanor suggesting so well that one must be hard-headed and realistic about life's miseries—but soft-hearted and humorous enough to appreciate its joys. The idea of God being loving and wise—but still insisting that mortals fend for themselves—was a very appealing vision, especially as portayed with dignity and simplicity by Burns. He recalled, "I gotnervous when I was asked to play God. We're both around the same age but we grew up in different neighborhoods."

Now, in Burns' stand-up routines, there were not only the anecdotes about vaudeville and Gracie, but pearls of wit and wisdom, observations on life. In the past he had come close to being everyone's windy grandfather, about to tell that one joke once too often. Now, with a twinkle in his eye, he triumphed year after year, delighting nervous audiences when his trademark occasional repetitive stutter kicked into gear and he effortlessly sang his songs and told his jokes. As he grew older and older, talk show audiences became obsessed with asking George about how much he missed Gracie, or what the secrets were for long life. They were able to rejoice and smile as George sailed past 80, 85, 88, 90, 95, and on, as funny, wise, and lively as ever.

Years earlier Jack Benny had said, "George Burns is so old his birth certificate is on a rock." But here was George Burns, wryly acknowledging his longevity: "Thanks for the standing ovation. I'm at the point now where I get a standing ovation just for standing." Into the 1990's, George Burns displayed something better than the crusty "indomitable spirit" that feisty old people often claim as the secret for endurance. He displayed understated humor and a disdain of sentiment. As he said in 1991, "It's great to be 95 and get out of bed and have something to do. I don't think I can make any money in bed."

Most of all, their was mutual love—George loved to sing his songs and tell his stories and be up on stage, and the audience loved to watch.