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An Interview with TV’s Most Accomplished Comedy Director James Burrows

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James Burrows needs no introduction.  He is one of the co-creators of Cheers and has directed many classic sitcoms including: The Mary Tyler Moore ShowTaxi, Will & GraceFriends, Mike and Molly, The Big Bang Theory and the upcoming series, Crowded which premieres on NBC March 20th.

Fresh off of directing his 1,000th episode on Crowded (he’s also an Executive Producer), I was privileged to participate in a conference call with the Emmy Award winning Director whose career will be honored on NBC ‘s upcoming ‘MUST SEE TV: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE TO JAMES BURROWS which airs on February 21 at 9pm EST.

What would your ideal crossover be? You’ve done 1000 episodes and all these different series.

Well I always thought it would be a good idea if Louie De Palma came and sat at the Cheers bar and met Rhea.

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. And it was actually a musical of Holly Golightly – of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And the two stars, there were Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. And I was literally in charge of them since they were Hollywood people of, you know, making sure that they were okay and taken care of and coming to the Broadway stage.

And so I met Mary and under the circumstances the show was a big failure, never opened, played four previews on Broadway. Was a disaster and we were in this lifeboat together. And I became kind of friendly with Mary and Grant Tinker. But I had no idea back then that I would ever end up in television.

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. But so I – in my speech I gave them all credit because they’re all responsible for where I am.

But 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 and in one room and at the same time and 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, you know, backstage on or The Associates which just never caught on, if you reflect on those and what they’ve taught you.

Well “O.K. Crackerby!” I was – that was a show my father wrote and my father Abe Burrows. And I was Burl Ives’ dialogue coach on that. So 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, you know, shows were cancelled with 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 extended because it was just a wonderful show. It was called “The Class”. It was David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, a group of people who reunited at a class reunion. I thought that was unjustifiably cast. And that’s the one show I’m sad about.

I’m just curious. I mean you’ve taken so many jobs. Do you have a gut feeling when you do pilots of shows, whether they’re going to succeed or not catch on in the ratings?

I do have a gut feeling. And 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. You know, I knew from the dress rehearsal of “Cheers” and “Friends” and “Frasier”, “Will and Grace” how special those shows were and even – and “The Big Bang” and “Two and a Half Men”.

But I have that sense. But I’m always – I was always disappointed about “The Class”.

Having 1000 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, Woody’s wedding, David Schwimmer and the cast in “Friends”, Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all in the shower together on “Will and Grace”, the first episode of “Third Rock from the Sun” when these characters were exposed to the – to Earth, I mean there’s so many. The pilot of “Frasier” is an extraordinary pilot.

So there are, you know, all these shows. I have many, many, many children of – who are my favorite episodes so I can’t choose. You love all your children equally.

And you had some really amazing children.

Thank you.

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

Stories, no. I mean the first year I did five episodes. I did the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”, was my first show. And of course that story is really how I got started. I – you know it was not a very good script. Mary had brought me out from New York to do one show, Mary and Grant Tinker.

And I did everything I possibly could to make that show funny and to work. And I’ll never forget Mary coming to me before we shot the show and saying to me our investment in you has worked out.

So I was blown away by that even before the show was shot. You know and I think that’s my one episode story because that really kicked me off.

You’ve done multiple episodes on some of the most legendary shows on television. What was it about working on “Will and 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 fairy tale literally and figuratively. The – it was not of the real world in a strange kind of 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.

And it made me laugh every day, every day of the week, every day we rehearsed. It was just crazy.

And I just – it made me feel young. And 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. But I’m sure if I wasn’t – if I could’ve because I would’ve done every episode on “Cheers”.

But “Will and Grace” was just this strange kind of phenomenon that it tickled me pink every Tuesday night that we shot the show.

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how the cast of Friends grew and changed from when you directed the pilot to about four or five years later, your last episode.

It didn’t change at all. It was the same six kids. They – though the one change was the character of Joey. I think 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.

But they – over the first four years they had grown into these enormous stars and had not lost their ability or not grown an ego. So that they still were and still are great friends. And at the reunion when I was doing – and they did my special, it was great to see all five of them together.

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

Well 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, wrote and directed Cactus Flower.

And he was – that’s how I was brought up. He used to trundle me along to rehearsals. And I would absorb not sitting there to learn, I just would – it would sink in while I would, you know, dream and run around the theater and stuff like that.

So I’m a theater rat. And I started as directing shows in Summer Stock and directing shows at dinner theaters and regional theaters.

So if you notice all these multi-camera shows, they’re all shot in front of a live audience. So for me the Tuesday or the Friday night was every night, whichever night it is we film, that’s opening night for me.

And I know how to do that. I know how to handle that and that’s in bred in me and that’s how I think and that’s why I enjoy doing what I do.

With the popularity of Friends that seemingly continues as strong as ever, can you imagine there ever being sort of the way they’re doing with Gilmore Girls like a kind of reviving of the series or is that something that you think would – you’d like to be a part of?

I don’t think you should ever go back. I firmly believe in that. You know 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. And we don’t want to do one. It’s just, we did that show. That was that show.

And I don’t think the “Friends “and I have no control over this. David and Marta are the creators and geniuses behind that show. I don’t think they’ll ever want to do a reunion again. It’s what it was. And it was a treasure in the history of television. And I don’t think you want to revisit that.

Interesting. And what – 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. And that’s – they do nothing other than what anybody else did in that production.

I just wanted to get your take on people from all these shows being together in one place. And any observations on 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, you know, mingling’s that stand out in your mind from the evening?

Well I know that Rena Wilson went to school with Jennifer Aniston. I found that out.

I did not know they both went to performing arts. But there were a lot of crossovers. I mean Danny knows – Danny DeVito knows most of the people there. And Schwimmer knew a lot of people there.

And it just was – it 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. It was – again it was just an out of body experience. And it was, you know, it went by fast. And I’m so happy that Sean Hayes had this idea.

Okay, great.  There was a picture of the Friends and The Big Bang cast together. And it just looked like, you know, these people had different experiences but in some ways probably some similar experiences.

Yes, absolutely. I mean the popularity of both those shows is extraordinary. And it was, you know, 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 a mix of – with streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix? Do you think we’re going to see a trend to – for sitcoms going more towards them? What’s your take on that? I’m kind of curious.

Well, you know, there are certainly a lot more avenues now to do your shows than there was 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. And that doesn’t change. Usually there are, you know, 60 to 75 really great ones. And now there are so many more venues. So you have people doing shows that are not any good anymore for these particular venues.

But as far as the – you know I’ve been around the death of comedy for a long time. And it’s always survived. And I’ve been around the death of multi-camera for a while and it’s always survived.

So it’s a cyclical business. And you need one good show to revive the business. And I think we’ll – I think people need a product. People need to laugh. And there will always be a market for comedy.

Do you have a favorite bottle episode?

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

Oh no. I – yes, that’s right. But do you have a favorite episode?

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

No problem. I understand you have to be fair amongst your children so.

Yes.

What appealed to you about Crowded?

Well the first thing that always appeals to me is good writing. And Suzanne is a pedigree of Frasier. She was on Frasier when I was around there.

And I know she’s a good writer. And she’s done “Hot in Cleveland” and really, really good shows. And she knows what she wants. So it’s always – to me it’s always about the writing.

And 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. That, you know, I always give, you know, the example of “Cheers”, is a show about a bar and a Tracy-Hepburn relationship which is 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.

And then, you know, I did 9 out of the 12 episodes and the writing was always good and the interactions with the characters were great. The ensemble feel to me is really important in a show. Most of my shows, I think 99% of my shows are always ensemble shows.

And so that’s what appeals to me and then the idea. I think a lot of the Millennials are affected by this boomerang. There’s 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.

So I thought that was an interesting idea but not as much as that execution of the idea.

And can you talk about the chemistry between Carrie Preston and Patrick Warburton?

Yes. Yes. You know Patrick is – he’s a wonderful actor who has a style that we all are familiar with. But, you know, on the show that style had to change. He had to be a bit angry. He had to be a bit loose and 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, was great. And 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. I don’t think you can learn how to be funny. I think you got to be born with that. You got to be born with that. And then it can be nurtured from there but you got to have the gene.

And I believe firmly that I got that from my dad. But he then again taught me how to deal with people because I would – I worked for him a couple of times as a stage manager. So I saw how he behaved in rehearsal.And that was nurture with me. But the comedy instincts, I think you got to be born with.

As a Comic Director, 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. But 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. I – when I first came out here I had to observe on how multi-camera comedies were done because the theatrical part, staging, I didn’t have to learn. But I did have to learn how to move the cameras.

And that’s – you know that you can only learn by watching. But so I watched a lot of Directors. And I watched Jay.

But 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.

And Jay was great with that. So I learned so much from him. And he was – in this business he was my main mentor.

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

Well I would’ve loved to have done the Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s one of my favorite shows. I think I would’ve loved to have done Seinfeld, Raymond. I respect those shows. I loved Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Yes.

I think those are the shows I wished – well, you know, I wished 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. You know I – that was before my time. But I respect that show and wished I was a part of it.

You know every Monday morning I wake up and watch three of the shows you worked on, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show. And those shows are still in syndication 30, 40 years later. What advice do you have for future Directors for creating, you know, for directing a show that could still last this long?

Well you never know when you’re directing how long they’re going to last.

But, you know, I have young Directors always come to me and ask me questions. And sometimes if I have time I let them serve for a week and they always have the question what do I have to do.

And 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 – you know it’s easier to get your foot in the door than it is to succeed at that moment when you’re given the opportunity. So 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. And then if you can get your foot in the door as a PA or a gopher then you’re around the action and you express to people you want to direct.

But if they give you that opportunity you got to be ready for it.

Not only were you ready for it but you’ve obviously built a rapport. Like when I look at your resume you’ve done spinoffs of shows too. It’s like you did Mary and then you did a spin – you did all the spinoffs. And, you know, Cheers, Frasier and so on.  So what is your advice to keeping your foot in the door? And like how do you build this great rapport? I mean 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. You’ve got to – you know when I had, you know, I had no credibility in the beginning. But I was lucky enough to be on the Mary Show. So when Mary said our investment in you have worked out, she had three or four other shows on the air.

So that she said to people or Grant said to people here’s a kid who kind of knows what he’s doing. I think you should use him.

So I went to the Newhart Show. I went to the Phyllis Show. I went to the Rhoda Show. And you slowly built a reputation.

But for that to happen, you got to be good. You got to know what you’re doing. And, you know that’s something that again you have to be born with and you have to have confidence in yourself.

I’m wondering if you looked back at the person you were when you first started out on some of those shows, you know Mary and Bob Newhart and Taxi and shows like that. And you think of what you’ve learned since then. Like 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.

I mean there are a lot of Directors working now in television and sitcoms who are good Directors but, you know, they don’t either put enough of themselves into the piece or create stuff or are creative enough to make – contribute to the piece and 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. And that’s you can’t – you know when I started out I was not worried about my next job. I was going to do the best thing I could – best show I could possibly do on this Mary Tyler Moore and let the cards fall where they may. And because I was so – I kept contributing to it that’s why I have succeeded.

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