By Leigh Fleighton
He's been described as "a young Bea Arthur" and "a sickly Chris Penn." He's performed as a crack-smoking Scarecrow in an hilarious version of The Wizard of Oz, and as the diva herself in a (very) politically incorrect singing group, Diana Ross and the White Supremacists. And now, Stephen Burrows has conquered the Valley as the actor-writer-director of Chump Change, the film that won Best Screenplay and the Audience Award at the inaugural Phoenix Film Festival. But Burrows' budding success is a long time coming.
"I learned onstage with Del Close," the Wisconsin native says of his comedic education, which began in Chicago with Close's improv group - Baron's Barracudas. "Del was a guru who had all these brilliant things going on. The main thing I got from him was truth in comedy."
And that truth is helping to launch Burrows' career. Chump Change, a film he made for less than $1 million, has also landed him the Best Comedy and Best Screenplay awards at Slamdunk!, a branch of the Sundance Film Festival, the Audience Award at this year's Aspen Comedy Festival, and a national distribution deal with Miramax. Not bad for a guy who, Burrows admits, was "lacking in self-confidence" when he "just showed up" in L.A. in 1989 with "no prospects."
"Within one hour," he recalls of his and his wife's arrival in the City of Angels, "there was a 5.9 earthquake."
But a little trembler couldn't deter Burrows. In L.A., he joined the legendary group The Groundlings, where he discovered writing.
"When I learned how to write and make an audience laugh," he recalls, "there was nothing better." He had help from his Groundlings co-stars, including former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri and Mad TV's Mike McDonald. His newfound love of writing prompted a fateful rendezvous with confidence - a trait that led to his recent role of actor, writer, and director. In 1991, Burrows made Soldier of Fortune, a short film based upon his experience as a contestant of Wheel of Fortune.
"I was the only player who ever tried to buy five vowels," Burrows recalls. "It was horrible." The film, which was a hit in 10 festivals, was thwarted in its 11th appearance by a cease-and-desist injunction of Wheel's creator, Merv Griffin's, attorney.
So, how did Burrows, who's been searching for truth in comedy for more than a decade now, manage to get so far?
"Over the years you get confident," he admits, and if the success of Chump Change - which will be in theaters this winter - is any indication of where its multi-hyphenate is headed, we're all in for years of hilarity at the movies.
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