Meet Dave Burkey, the Columbus comedian behind one of the first viral pandemic jokes

Andy Downing
Natalie, Dave and Rio Burkey

In late June, Dave Burkey, as he often does, logged in to social media to post a stray thought that doubled as a joke. “I just dumped a package of fruit snacks into my mask at work and am just slowly eating them like a horse,” he wrote. “I love the pandemic.”

Unlike most of the comedian's posts, however, this one took on a life of its own, generating hundreds of Facebook andTwitter shares. Eventually, uncredited screen caps andaltered versions of the joke started to circulate, unknowingly introducing hundreds of thousands to Burkey’s surreal sense of humor. “I know it happens, and I know it’s part of social media, so I wasn’t even mad about it,” said Burkey, who will co-host“A Virtual Evening With the Burkeys” alongside wife and fellow comic Natalie and a panel of comedians beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19. “Honestly, my main feeling about it was that I couldn’t believe it had gotten so big, because it’s not even that good of a joke.”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

“I’ll probably never have that many eyes on a joke of mine again,” Burkey continued. “But it gave me a little window into what things can be like [if you reach that level], because so many strange people started reaching out and following me, changing their relationship status on Facebook to be with me. It was just like, ‘This has gotten so far out of hand.’”

Adding to the sense of confusion around the situation, after the initial Facebook post had amassed hundreds of shares, Burkey went back and edited it, replacing the entirety of his eating-like-a-horse joke witha straightforward, pro-Black lives matter message. This meant that hundreds of users ended up inadvertently broadcasting a desire to “not rest until there is justice for Breonna Taylor” to friends, family and followers, which is also perfectly Burkey.

In recent weeks, the comedian has made posts addressing social injustices including the police killing of Casey Goodson and the pending Cleveland Indians name change, in addition to sharing the usual stream of bizarrely hilarious accumulated thoughts. “Girl, are you the keto diet?” he wrote in one post. “Because I don't understand you and I can’t wait to argue with my friends about if you're good for me long term.”

Increasingly, Burkey has also leaned into his experiences as a father, building material around his interactions with son Rio, such as in this recent Facebook post:

Rio: I wish Fievel could be alive forever!

Me: I don't think he would like immortality.

Rio: Why?

Me: Imagine it's the year 3047 and Fievel is still unable to die, but the Earth exploded like a grape in a microwave and he is just hurtling through space trying to eat little bits of stardust and silently barking at every piece of space trash that flies by...

Natalie: Why can't you ever just give him a normal answer?

“Typically my material is based on my day-to-day experiences, so, honestly, my son has become more of a focal point,” said Burkey, who noted that leaning into the ins and outs of home life have helped him uncover his own comedic voice. These more domestic jokes will make up a bulk of this weekend’s virtual show, which will double as a virtual baby shower for Natalie Burkey, a purposely comic twist on the Zoom events that have become a pandemic-era stand-in for traditional showers.

“Everybody on the show is a parent … and we want them to tell more stories about parenthood and crazy things about their kids,” Burkey said.

While Burkey has increasingly explored family life in his material, the ongoing pandemic has also forced a more internal excavation, as well. “We’re all in a weird ‘Cast Away’ situation where we’re kind of stuck with ourselves,” he said. “So you can either hide it all away in a hole or you can really explore it, and I’ve been exploring it.”

As a result, the comedian has started more openly addressing mental health issues like anxiety and depression, not because he wasn’t comfortable with it previously, but because left with more time to stew, the thoughts have naturally moved to the fore. “The isolation brings a lot of it out. … It’s just more in my face, you know?” he said. “I guess it’s also one of those things where more people are [experiencing those feelings] right now, which makes it more relatable, where before there might have been more of a stigma to it."

Burkey traced his initial interest in comedy to early childhood trauma, describing humor as something he first embraced as a coping mechanism. Beginning at a young age, he started watching standup specials on Comedy Central, drawn toward comics such as Dave Attell, whom Burkey modeled himself after early on. “I was 100 percent Dave Attell for three years,” he said. “I wanted those quick, shocking [punchlines], though I feel like I’ve grown out of that a little bit.”

But it wasn’t until age 25 that Burkey, who was born and raised on the East Side, set foot onstage for the first time, appearing at a Funny Bone open mic. At the time, the venue hosted a pre-show workshop, and if it was your first time performing, you were required to get up and audition a joke or two in front of the club’s veteran comedians, who would then offer a critique of your material. “And as I remember, I was reading from my notebook, and I just hammered through a whole five-minute bit” rather than offering up the required punchline or two, Burkey said, and laughed. “And one of the comics just looks at me and goes, ‘You’re never going to remember all of that,’ and it was the most defeating thing ever, and it made me so much more nervous.

“That was my first taste of that pre-show fear, which is something important to have, because that nervousness helps me quite a bit. But then there was also that great feeling of just getting up there and not dying. … I’ve been addicted ever since.”