James Burrows has directed 1,000 episodes of television’s greatest sitcoms. Get to know the man behind the camera who sparked a star-studded night.
“Sometimes it’s nice to go were everybody knows your name.” So begins one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Cheers. Ironically, not many people know the name of the man who not only stood behind the camera for 237 episodes of the series’ run, but also co-created it. James Burrows has had a hand in over 45 pilots, bringing together some of televisions most legendary ensembles, including Friends, Two and a Half Men, The Bing Bang Theory, and Fraiser.
The writers provide a bump before Burrows steps in to set a series in the perfect position for the actors to deliver the scoring spike on taping night. On a conference call ahead of the special Burrows commented on what draws him to a show, what he finds appealing in comedy, and how he knows a series has that special something.
“I do have a gut feeling,” said Burrows about knowing when a show premieres before a live audience. “I knew from the dress rehearsal of Cheers and Friends and Frasier, Will and Grace how special those shows were.”
But before these series can spark a feeling in Burrows’ gut, the show has to find roots somewhere else. Burrows noted, “To me it’s always about the writing. And then the concept comes into play because concepts are easy to come up with. Cheers is a show about a bar and a Tracy-Hepburn relationship, which is not the greatest idea in the world, but it’s the execution of the idea.”
Once the writing, the setting, and the cameras are in place, the movement of camera A, B, and C is less important than the music of the show. In fact, watch James Burrows on the night of a taping and you’ll notice that he doesn’t look at the stage very often. He paces, listening to the comedy play out before the audience. He trusts the cameras will be where they need to be, the actors will hit their marks, but if they do not, it’s not the end of the world. It’s all about the chemistry. “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,” Burrows said.
Out of 1000 episodes, Burrows commented on a few of his most memorable moments, though he did mention that it is impossible to choose favorites among his children. Burrows said, “Sam and Diane kissing at the end of the first year of Cheers, Reverend Jim taking his driving test [Taxi], Woody’s wedding [Cheers], David Schwimmer and the cat 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 Earth, the pilot of Frasier is an extraordinary pilot.”
X-Files, Twin Peaks, Fuller House, everywhere you turn a revival is happening. But Burrows does not want to see any of his shows brought back to life. He said, “I don’t think you should ever go back. I firmly believe in that.” Sorry Friends fans, but Burrows’ let us know his opinion on a reunion: “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.”
Comedy and Burrows go hand-in-hand and neither are going anywhere any time soon. Burrows commented, “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…I think people need product. People need to laugh. And there will always be a market for comedy.”
I personally owe Burrows a large token of gratitude. My own love for television was shaped by a single series. Will and Grace lured me in with reruns airing just before dinner every night. Two episodes would play and then, by some chance of cable confusion, the same two episodes would air on another channel immediately following the conclusion of the first hour. I studied every inch of apartment 9C, watched Jack and Karen grow from strangers into a legendary comedic duo, and continued to watch for years after to catch the thousands of jokes that soared over my head. There was always one name that stuck with Will and Grace as much as Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally — James Burrows.
The humor and joy that permeated from my screen was no happy accident. When I asked Burrows what it was about Will and Grace that made him stick around, he said, “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 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 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 Will and Grace was just this strange kind of phenomenon that it tickled me pink every Tuesday night that we shot the show.”
It all started with Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, but Burrows’ seal of approval transformed the series. He put the step in Will’s kitchen, he helped usher Debra Messing and Megan Mullally on board, he added a healthy dose of the physical comedy that heightened the scripted comedy, and he directed every single episode of the beloved series I welcome into my home for hours at a time. Far beyond the realm of Will and Grace, Burrows is the man whose name you whisper in halls of network studios hoping to summon him to direct an episode or two. If you’re lucky, he’ll pick up your pilot and make it the best it can be.
So no, the James Burrows tribute that aired on NBC on February 21 is not about a Friends reunion. But rather about the only man in the business who could bring together television’s best for an evening of reminiscing and celebration. Here’s to you, Jimmy.
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