Date of interview: September 28, 2020
Peter Burns has worked as an actor, writer, and overall creative based in his home city of Chicago, Illinois. He began his career as an actor at The Second City, a comedy theater that helped discover the likes of Steve Carrell, and went on to write for television shows for Nickelodeon, National Geographic, PBS, Comedy Central, and even stations abroad in Canada and France. Today, Burns is a creative director and strategist in corporate communications. To me, however, he has always been Uncle Bubba––my grandma’s kind and bubbly younger brother who has worked on episodes of my favorite childhood TV show, Spongebob Squarepants. After speaking with him, I realized that there is so much more to his life and work in the industry than I ever could have comprehended when I was younger. I’m so glad I was able to do this, as I learned so much not only by way of a niece catching up with her uncle, but as an aspiring writer talking with a veteran.
Was there a moment in your childhood where you knew you wanted to act, write, and create? Or did you figure it out more gradually as you grew up?
I read a lot of books because I enjoyed writing, and I started making movies with an eight millimeter camera. I did that with friends and I really got into it. That’s what really got me into comedy. I became a writer in my early 20s because I had a hard time as an actor getting casted in a lot of shows, so I just decided to write my own plays. So that’s how I got into writing. I really loved film growing up in the 60s and 70s, which is why I started making cheap movies myself.
Looking back, is this where you thought you would be now? Could you have ever imagined that writing for TV would be your job?
No, because it was so foreign to me. I lived on the southside of Chicago, which is an Irish, working class neighborhood. Nobody did that, my parents weren’t into that. I was very unique. With my friends, I kind of broke away––like it was a secret life doing this on the side, taking acting and writing classes. I was a history major in college and I just loved the stories, I loved writing about my thoughts on history. So that kind of influenced me, but it was never a dream of mine, probably not until I was in college.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?
I think my favorite project was a show that we did in New York called Wild Men. It was a show we wrote in the early 90s. Robert Bly was a writer at that time, and he led the men’s movement, which was all about how men needed to go back into the woods and find their fathers. So we wrote a musical parody about that. It was right when that was taking off, so we did it for two years in Chicago, and we did it for a while in New York. And that was my favorite project. One of the guys in it, there was a TV show called Cheers, George Wendt who played Norm, I got him to be in the cast, and it was a big hit having him around.
When you're writing or creating, what inspires you? And how do you deal with mental blocks?
I talk to a lot of writers in my business about this, and it takes time. The thing is, when you’re blocked, there’s something about writing and sticking with it. It will come. I always call it busting the story, or breaking an idea. And sometimes I’ll just sit on a couch and think about it, or I’ll think about it when I go to bed. I can’t tell you how often I get up at night and write something on a piece of paper and it makes no sense when I first wake up, but after a while it does. I just tell people, the biggest thing about writing to me is if you have a deadline, give yourself a couple of days before the deadline to get it done. When I first started, I used to work, and the next thing I knew something was due in a day or two, and there’s an anxiety that comes with it. That’s why I jump on everything right away when I get it.
At this point, is there anything you wish you would’ve done differently coming into this business? Is there anything you would have told your younger self?
I had success when I was younger, and I had a little arrogance back then. We had an opportunity, a big producer from New York came and saw a show that I had written. He said he was interested in producing it, and asked if I would change a couple of things. I thought I was such a genius, and there was no way I’d change anything. He’s gone on to produce some huge shows in New York and he’s still one of the biggest producers there, and I had the opportunity. When I look at it now, he would’ve been someone great to be creative with. What I’ve learned from that experience is I now welcome everyone’s ideas, and that everyone has something to add of value.
Do you have a favorite book or movie?
My favorite book is a collection of short stories by Bruce J. Friedman. He wrote films and he wrote plays, and he used to write short stories for Playboy Magazine and The New Yorker a long time ago. His stories are just very, very funny and I really enjoyed them, and they’ve inspired me. Another book I really loved is called A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Great story about that, he was a Tulane college student and he wrote this book in a writing class, and he committed suicide when he was 21. His mother had the manuscript and took it to everyone she knew to get it published. It won the Pulitzer prize, and it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. As far as movies go, I enjoy detective movies and film noir movies, because I love the writing of trying to solve a mystery, and how you can keep the viewer engaged.
Today when you watch movies, do you have a better appreciation for them?
I really do, and that’s interesting, because when I was an actor I’d watch movies, and all I could think of looking at the actors is “I would never have done that.” But now as a writer and someone who really enjoys it, I really try to lose myself in it, rather than critique it. I think there’s something about youth where you think you’re so great, and it’s not until you get older that you realize the idea of collaboration. And to enjoy a piece of art like a film is taking it in whole, rather than trying to analyze it while you watch. It makes the experience much better.