The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 11, 2012

Funny and flexible: Richland grad turns talents into show biz career

Tom Lavis
tlavis@tribdem.com

— Jonathan Burns describes himself as a comedian who happens to be able to do weird things with his body and do strange things with everyday objects.

“Try fitting that on a business card,” he said.

Burns has been making a quite a splash since jumping into the deep end of the show business pool.

Burns, 30, is the son of Barry and Jean Burns of Geistown Borough. He is a

2000 graduate of Richland High School who has found a niche in presenting interactive comedy while performing feats of flexibility and unusual stunts.

One of his more famous stunts occurred on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.

Burns removed his underwear without taking off his pants.

Before Burns attempted his stunt, Leno quipped: “I assume then you were a shy kid in gym class.”

Someone recommended Burns for the show when producers were searching for people with unique talents.

“They called me, and I brought up the underwear idea to them,” Burns said. “I was on a plane to Los Angeles a few days later; you’re welcome, America.”

The comedian is a 2004 graduate of Millersville University with an arts education degree. He and his wife, the former Lauren Kerekes, also of Johnstown, live in Lancaster.

“After college, I was trying to figure out what to do with myself and decided to try being a full-time performer,” he said.

“Since 2004, I’ve been lucky enough to never have a ‘real’ job.”

He said it’s difficult to explain his flexibility, which allows him to pack himself in a suitcase and zip it shut.

“‘I’ve always been bendy,” he said. “As a kid I was always able to do weird tricks like putting my leg over my head and hyperextending my knees and shoulders to impress friends and family and gross out girls.”

His talent is paying dividends.

Burns along with fellow comedian Mark Hayward created “Stunt Lab,” a science-themed show that has played to sold-out crowds at New York City’s Canal Park Playhouse.

“We never dreamed that we’d sell out four weeks of shows and get reviewed by the New York Times,” he said. “It was great experience and we’ve been asked back to do it again in 2013.”

During each show they attempt to break a Guinness World Record.

They are considered the best when it comes to telling the most jokes in a minute, fastest time to pass through a toilet seat in one minute and fastest time to butter 10 slices of bread.

Local audiences will have a chance to see “Stunt Lab” when the comedians present shows at 4 and 8 p.m. June 23 at the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center at 413 Third Ave. in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.

Burns said the shows will give people an opportunity to see world yo-yo champion Hayward do his signature trick of using a blowgun and a mouse trap to eat a marshmallow.

He said the team saves its most amazing feat for the finale.

“It involves me holding a book of matches in my teeth while Mark uses a spinning yo-yo to light the matches,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Defining his own talent is a little more difficult for Burns.

When people ask him what he does for a living, he is cautious.

“If I say ‘comedian’ they think of a guy behind a microphone complaining about airline food,” he said. ‘If I say ‘magician,’ it is followed up with ‘show me a trick.’ If I say ‘contortionist,’ I will invariably have my leg over my head because they either don’t know what that is or they challenge me to prove it.”

Local magician Brian Foshee operated a magic shop in a little pizzeria in Windber.

“I used to go the shop every week and come home with a few tricks to impress whomever would watch,” Burns said.

“Brian was the one who encouraged me to take a chance and make this a full-time career.”

Foshee, owner of B.Happy Entertainment, said Burns has paid his dues in achieving his success.

“Jonathan is a naturally funny guy, but he had the perseverance to keep trying until developing a quality career,” Foshee said.

From kids’ birthday parties to local events, Burns would perform whenever and wherever he could to hone his skills.

“I even once played Twinkie the Kid for a Hostess promotion at the Point Stadium,” he quipped. “It was probably my most important role to date.”

While in college, he started to break away from traditional magic tricks and began experimenting with juggling, unicycling and sideshow stunts such as eating fire, walking on broken glass and pounding nails up his nose.

He later added some of his old flexibility tricks into the act.

“On my summer breaks, most of my friends would get jobs at the mall or find an internship,” he said. “I’d be performing at birthday parties and camps throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Some people who see Burns describe his looks as nerdy.

“I’m definitely a nerd, but I wouldn’t say I’m the stereotypical nerd,” he said. “I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, and I’m married, so I didn’t have trouble with the ladies. I do get overly nerdy about comedy and electronics, I have big teeth and I wear glasses, so if that makes me a nerd, so be it.”

Over the past few years, he has been trying stand-up comedy.

“I’ve loved stand-up comedy since my dad used to play Bill Cosby tapes for us on road trips,” he said.

He was nervous about trying stand-up, but he gave it a shot.

“Now that I’ve done it, I’m addicted to it, and I feel like I have to do it as much as possible,” he said.

No matter what he attempts on stage, his goal is making people laugh.

“When I’m doing some of my contortion skills, I get a wide range of responses,” he said. “Everything from clapping to people covering their eyes in discomfort. To me, any response is a good response ... it means they aren’t bored.”

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