Classic Television / Comedy / Directors / Interviews / Pop Culture / Television

James Burrows – Mr. Must See TV

James Burrows

James Burrows

James Burrows

Mr. Must See TV

by Jay S. Jacobs

James Burrows has arguably given America more belly laughs over the years than anyone else, and yet many people do not even know his name.

As arguably the most prolific comedy director in television over the past five decades, Burrows has shaped such classic series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, Taxi, Cheers, Friends, Will & Grace, Dharma & Greg, The Big Bang Theory, Two & a Half Men, Mike & Molly and many, many more.

In fact, with his current, upcoming series Crowded, Burrows directed his 1,000th episode of television.  Actor and producer Sean Hayes, who worked with Burrows during the eight-year run of Will & Grace, as well as on the shorter-lived series Sean Saves the World, The Millers and as a producer on Crowded, decided that it was well past time for Burrows’ career to be celebrated.

That celebration will be in the form of Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows, a two-hour special in which actors from the casts of many of Burrows’ classic series return to talk about working with the behind-the-scenes comedy legend.  The special has generated excitement for reuniting the cast of Friends (though due to scheduling problems, Matthew Perry has to appear via video), Taxi, Will & Grace and many more.

A few weeks before the special was to air, we were one of several media outlets lucky enough to take part in a discussion with the legendary director.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: "Must See TV: An All Star Tribute to James Burrows" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: “Must See TV: An All Star Tribute to James Burrows” Key Art — (Photo by: NBCUniversal)

I was reading that you first met Mary Tyler Moore when you were on the crew of the play Holly Golightly. At the time did you imagine first that she would play such a big part in your career? And second, that you’d be still doing this after all these years?

No. I had absolutely no idea. I was the assistant to the Assistant Stage Manager on the play. My father had written the play. It was actually a musical of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The two stars were Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. I was literally in charge of them, since they were Hollywood people. You know, making sure that they were okay and taken care of and coming to the Broadway stage. So I met Mary. Under the circumstances – the show was a big failure, never opened, played four previews on Broadway, was a disaster – we were in this lifeboat together. I became kind of friendly with Mary and Grant Tinker [her then-husband and business partner]. But I had no idea back then that I would ever end up in television.

You are the genius behind some of the most iconic shows. What is it like for you seeing all of the casts of many of your shows coming together to honor you and all of your extraordinary works?

Well, I’m not the sole genius behind it. And to call myself a genius… I can’t really do that. But thank you. The writing and the acting go into making a hit show along with the directing. In my speech I gave them all credit because they’re all responsible for where I am. To see those casts in the room starting with Taxi and ending with Crowded was, like as I said, a good acid trip. It was just amazing to see all those actors in one room at the same time. The comradery and the affection that they had, not only for me but for the other actors in the other shows was extraordinary.

You had a great deal of success, some of the all-time TV classics. I’m wondering if you ever think about the shows that didn’t quite work out like O.K. Crackerby! which you had a role backstage on or The Associates which just never caught on.

Well O.K. Crackerby!, that was a show my father wrote. My father Abe Burrows. I was Burl Ives’ dialogue coach on that. I didn’t have much to do on that. The Associates I did while I was doing Taxi. I did I think two episodes of it. It was a wonderful show, just never got the ratings. Back then, shows were cancelled if you had a 25 or 26 share. You were cancelled because most of hit shows were doing 40 shares. There’s only one show that I did that I thought should not have been cancelled and [should have been] extended because it was just a wonderful show. It was called The Class. It was [created by] David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. A group of people who reunited at a class reunion. I thought that was unjustifiably fast. That’s the one show I’m sad about.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: (l-r) David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, James Burrows, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: (l-r) David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, James Burrows, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

Do you have a gut feeling when you do pilots on shows, whether they’re going to succeed or not catch on in the ratings?

I do have a gut feeling. I had a gut feeling about that. I really did because the run-throughs and the show in front of the audience was just crazy. I knew from the dress rehearsal of Cheers, Friends, Frasier and Will & Grace how special those shows were. Even The Big Bang [Theory] and Two and a Half Men. I have that sense. But I was always disappointed about The Class.

Having 1,000 episodes under your belt, which episode stands out most for you?

Oh, that’s such a hard question. I have lots of children who are my favorite episodes. Just a couple of them I think… Sam and Diane kissing at the end of the first year of Cheers. Reverend Jim taking his driving test [in Taxi.] Woody’s wedding [also in Cheers.] David Schwimmer and the cat in Friends. Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all in the shower together on Will & Grace. The first episode of Third Rock from the Sun when these characters were exposed to the Earth. I mean there’s so many. The pilot of Frasier is an extraordinary pilot. So there are all these shows. I have many, many, many children who are my favorite episodes, so I can’t choose. You love all your children equally.

Is there a story that really sticks out for you from your career directing an episode?

Stories, no. I mean the first year I did five episodes [of] The Mary Tyler Moore Show, my first show. Of course that story is really how I got started. It was not a very good script. Mary had brought me out from New York to do one show, Mary and Grant Tinker. I did everything I possibly could to make that show funny and to work. I’ll never forget Mary coming to me before we shot the show and saying to me, “our investment in you has worked out.” I was blown away by that, even before the show was shot. I think that’s my one episode story because that really kicked me off.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: (l-r) Carol Kane, James Burrows, Danny DeVito -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: (l-r) Carol Kane, James Burrows, Danny DeVito — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

What would your ideal crossover be? You’ve done 1,000 episodes of all these different series.

I always thought it would be a good idea if Louie De Palma [Danny DeVito] came and sat at the Cheers bar and met Rhea [Perlman, DeVito’s real-life wife].

You’ve done multiple episodes on some of the most legendary shows on television. What was it about working on Will & Grace that kept you there for all eight seasons and directing every single episode?

To me, that was the funniest show I’ve ever done. It was a fairytale, literally and figuratively. It was not of the real world in a strange way. These were exaggerated characters. Although they were grounded with Will and Grace, there was this exaggeration that made the stuff you could do and get away with on that show so extraordinary. It made me laugh every day. Every day of the week, every day we rehearsed. It was just crazy. It made me feel young. I told my wife. I just do this show because it makes me laugh all the time. Not to say Cheers didn’t make me laugh or anything like that. If I could have I would have done every episode on Cheers. But Will & Grace was just this strange phenomenon that tickled me pink every Tuesday night that we shot the show.

Could you tell us a little bit about how the cast of Friends grew and changed from when you directed the pilot to  your last episode, four or five years later?

It didn’t change at all. It was the same six kids. The one change was the character of Joey. Joey became not so stupid and more sophisticated, although you didn’t lose that angle on Joey because that’s what made him funny a lot of times. Over the first four years they had grown into these enormous stars and had not lost their ability, or grown an ego. They still were and still are great friends. At the reunion when they did my special, it was great to see all five of them together.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt LeBlanc, James Burrows -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: (l-r) Matt LeBlanc, James Burrows — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

You have worked for a long time in the multi-cam format, almost exclusively. What draws you back to that? What do you like about filming in front of a live studio audience?

I’m a theater rat. I was born in the business. My father was Abe Burrows, who wrote Guys and Dolls. Wrote and directed How to Succeed in Business [Without Even Trying]. Wrote and directed Cactus Flower. That’s how I was brought up. He used to trundle me along to rehearsals. I would absorb, not sitting there to learn, it would sink in while I would dream and run around the theater and stuff like that. I started directing shows in summer stock and directing shows at dinner theaters and regional theaters. If you notice all these multi-camera shows, they’re all shot in front of a live audience. For me, the Tuesday or the Friday night, whichever night it is we film, that’s opening night for me. I know how to do that. I know how to handle that. That’s inbred in me. That’s how I think. That’s why I enjoy doing what I do.

With the popularity of Friends that seemingly continues as strong as ever, can you imagine ever something like what they’re doing with Gilmore Girls, reviving the series? Is that something that you think you’d like to be a part of?

I don’t think you should ever go back. I firmly believe in that. I created Cheers along with the Charles Brothers. We’re co-creators. They were gracious enough to give me that credit. They’ve talked to us about a Cheers reunion for years. We don’t want to do one. It’s just, we did that show. That was that show. I don’t think Friends… and I have no control over this, David [Crane] and Marta [Kauffman] are the creators and geniuses behind that show… I don’t think they’ll ever want to do a reunion. It’s what it was. It was a treasure in the history of television. I don’t think you want to revisit that.

Interesting. Is there anything that viewers can expect when they see the Friends cast together during the special?

No. They participated like all the other casts did. They had a question session on a couch with a host, where they talked about what it was like working with me. They do nothing other than what anybody else did in that production.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: (l-r) John Ratzenberger, Marilu Henner, George Wendt -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: (l-r) John Ratzenberger, Marilu Henner, George Wendt — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

I just wanted to get your take on people from all these shows being together in one place. I assume some know each other, but some probably hadn’t met. What was it like having them all there and are there any meetings or mingling that stand out in your mind from the evening?

Well I know that Reno Wilson [Mike & Molly] went to school with Jennifer Aniston. I found that out. I did not know they both went to Performing Arts. There were a lot of crossovers. I mean Danny DeVito knows most of the people there. Schwimmer knew a lot of people there. It just was so amazing when we went to commercial to see all these different people from these different casts going over to talk to other people in other casts. Again it was just an out-of-body experience. It went by fast. I’m so happy that Sean Hayes had this idea.

There was a picture of the Friends and The Big Bang Theory casts together. It just looked like these people had different experiences but in some ways probably some similar experiences.

Yes, absolutely. The popularity of both those shows is extraordinary. It was great to see them hanging out with one another.

What is your take on the network sitcom? Do you think it’s here to stay or do you think we’re going to see them going to streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix?

Well, there are certainly a lot more avenues now to do your shows than there were when I started. There were only three venues, the three networks. Now there are so many. You can do so many shows. However, the problem is that there’s only a certain amount of writers. Comedy writers, I’m speaking specifically about that. That doesn’t change. Usually there are 60 to 75 really great ones. Now there are so many more venues. So you have people doing shows that are not any good anymore for these particular venues. You know, I’ve been around the death of comedy for a long time. It’s always survived. I’ve been around the death of multi-camera for a while and it’s always survived. It’s a cyclical business. You need one good show to revive the business. People need product. People need to laugh. There will always be a market for comedy.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: (l-r) Lisa Kudrow, Megan Mullally -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: (l-r) Lisa Kudrow, Megan Mullally — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Do you have a favorite bottle episode?

A favorite what episode?

Bottle episode.

Bottle, B-O-T-T-L-E?

Yes. Where everything takes place in the same location.

I never heard that expression.

I listen to too many podcasts I think.

Oh, okay. Well if you watched the first year of Cheers, we never went outside the bar so…

Yes, that’s right. But do you have a favorite episode?

Wow. I’m hard pressed to think. As I said the last episode of the first season of Cheers is a bottle episode. It takes place in both in the bar and Sam and Diane finally kiss. So I think that’s my favorite. I’d have to think. I’d have to reference other shows. Right now my brain is not going to those shows.

What appealed to you about Crowded? I watched the first episode and I really liked it.

The first thing that always appeals to me is good writing. [Creator] Suzanne [Martin] has a pedigree of Frasier. She was on Frasier when I was around there. I know she’s a good writer. She’s done Hot in Cleveland and really, really good shows. She knows what she wants. To me it’s always about the writing. Then the concept comes into play, because concepts are easy to come up with. The execution of the idea, the execution of the concept, is hard. I always give the example of Cheers, a show about a bar and a Tracy-Hepburn relationship. Not the greatest ideas in a world, but it’s the execution of the idea. So Crowded appealed to me that way, with the writing and then with the casting. I did nine out of the 12 episodes. The writing was always good and the interactions with the characters were great. The ensemble feels to me is really important in a show. Most of my shows, I think 99% of my shows are always ensemble shows. That’s what appeals to me, and then the idea. I think a lot of the millennials are affected by this boomerang. There’s an expression. Somebody said to me bottle, so now I have a boomerang expression I understand: where the kids go off, go to college and move back in. I thought that was an interesting idea, but not as much as that execution of the idea.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: Patrick Warburton -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: Patrick Warburton — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

Can you talk about the chemistry between Carrie Preston and Patrick Warburton? I thought it was pretty great.

Yes. Yes. You know Patrick is a wonderful actor who has a style that we all are familiar with. But, on the show that style had to change. He had to be a bit angry. He had to be a bit loose. Not that kind of thing that he’s so good at and so funny at. So he, and Carrie’s reaction to that, and Carrie being able to play off that, [it] was great. We had a lot of fun in doing the show.

You mentioned your father a couple of times. Do you think your skill in comedy is nature or nurture?

Probably nature. Oh yes. I don’t think you can learn how to be funny. I think you have to be born with that. Then it can be nurtured from there. But you got to have the genes. I believe firmly that I got that from my dad. He then again taught me how to deal with people because I worked for him a couple of times as a stage manager. I saw how he behaved in rehearsal. That was nurture with me. But the comedy instincts, I think you got to be born with.

This question is actually sort of a variation on the last question. As a comic TV director, who were some of your inspirations and who do you feel you learned the most from? Obviously like you said, you can’t learn to be funny. Just to be a good director. I know that for example Jay Sandrich was an early mentor of yours.

Yes. Jay was a big part of my development. When I first came out here I had to observe on how multi-camera comedies were done. The theatrical part, staging, I didn’t have to learn. But I did have to learn how to move the cameras. That you can only learn by watching. So I watched a lot of directors. I watched Jay. From Jay I learned to have an opinion about something. Say what you feel. Say what you think would make the show better. Don’t just be a traffic cop; don’t just move the actors. Talk to the writers. Say this is good. This is bad. This is how I would do this. Jay was great with that. I learned so much from him. In this business, he was my main mentor.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Season: 2016 -- Pictured: (l-r) Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Carol Kane, Judd Hirsch -- (Photo by: Art Streiber/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Season: 2016 — Pictured: (l-r) Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Carol Kane, Judd Hirsch — (Photo by: Art Streiber/NBC)

You’ve directed so many beloved shows. But were there any shows out there that you really respected and would liked to have done but just never were able to work it out?

I would’ve loved to have done The Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s one of my favorite shows. I would’ve loved to have done Seinfeld. [Everybody Loves] Raymond. I respect those shows. I loved Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think those are the shows. I wish I had Norman Lear’s brain. I don’t think like Norman. But all of his shows, especially All in the Family, just groundbreaking television. That was before my time. But I respect that show and wish I was a part of it.

Every morning people wake up and watch three of the shows you worked on, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show. Those shows are still in syndication 30, 40 years later. What advice do you have for future directors for creating a show that could still last this long?

You never know when you’re directing how long they’re going to last. I have young directors always come to me and ask me questions. Sometimes, if I have time, I let them serve for a week. They always have the question: “What do I have to do?” I said the hardest thing to do was not get your foot in the door. The hardest thing to do is capitalize on the opportunity, or be ready for the opportunity when you get the shot at directing. It’s easier to get your foot in the door than it is to succeed at that moment when you’re given the opportunity. That’s the advice I give to people. Be ready for when that opportunity happens. As far as getting in the foot in the door, you got to knock on the door. I was lucky enough to have worked with Mary Tyler Moore. But you have to keep knocking on doors to try to get your foot in the door. Then if you can get your foot in the door as a PA or a gopher then you’re around the action. You express to people you want to direct. But if they give you that opportunity you got to be ready for it.

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS -- Pictured: Sean Hayes -- (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS — Pictured: Sean Hayes — (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Not only were you ready for it but you’ve obviously built a rapport. When I look at your resume you’ve done spinoffs of shows too. It’s like you did Mary and then you did all the spinoffs [Rhoda and Phyllis]. And from Cheers you had Frasier. What is your advice to keeping your foot in the door? How do you build this great rapport? The fact that Sean Hayes has used you for his Hazy Mills sitcoms and is doing this special for you. What’s your secret? I mean besides being a great director.

Oh, I think that’s the number one thing. (laughs) I had no credibility in the beginning. But I was lucky enough to be on the Mary Show. When Mary said our investment in you had worked out, she had three or four other shows on the air. She said to people, or Grant said, “Here’s a kid who knows what he’s doing. I think you should use him.” So I went to The [Bob] Newhart Show. I went to Phyllis. I went to Rhoda. And you slowly built a reputation. For that to happen, you got to be good. You got to know what you’re doing. That’s something that again you have to be born with. You have to have confidence in yourself.

Do you look back at the person you were when you first started out on some of those shows, Mary, Bob Newhart and Taxi and shows like that. What bit of advice do you wish you could impart to your younger self?

Well, I think I kind of said it in the answer to the last question. It’s just you have to have confidence in yourself. You have to bring something to the dance. There are a lot of directors working now in television sitcoms who are good directors but they don’t either put enough of themselves into the piece or create stuff or are [not] creative enough to contribute to the piece. That’s what you have to do. You have to not only translate what the writers have written and stage that, but contribute on your own. Which is one of the things I think I do. When I started out, I was not worried about my next job. I was going to do the best thing I could. [The] best show I could possibly do on this Mary Tyler Moore and let the cards fall where they may. Because I kept contributing to it, that’s why I have succeeded.

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: February 20, 2016.

Photos © 2016 Courtesy of NBC/Universal. All rights reserved.

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