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James Burrows on Directing: ‘Don’t Be a Traffic Cop’

Veteran helmer shares insights on TV development, changes in biz in conversation with Lisa Kudrow

After winning 10 Emmys, four Directors Guild Awards and a spot in the TV Academy Hall of Fame, James Burrows has earned the right to have a unique clause inserted to his contract when he signs on to a new project.

“I have a fun clause in my contract,” he said. “If I’m not having fun, I can leave.”

Burrows shared stories from his long career and insights into smallscreen directing during a conversation with Lisa Kudrow held as part of USC’s two-day Comedy@SCA fest. Burrows was feted with the school’s Jack Oakie and Victoria Horn Oakie Masters Award for Comedy.

The long and winding Q&A with Burrows and thesp he helped make a star as the director of the “Friends” pilot ranged from Burrows’ longevity, how he directed his numerous teams, the differences between broadcast and premium cable nets, and his unusal path to becoming the biz’s preeminent TV comedy director.

His “fun” maxim has served him well as Burrows has amassed a mile-long list of credits that include co-creating “Cheers” and directing pilots for a slew of hits including “Frasier,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Will & Grace” and “Two and a Half Men.”

His informal college of comedy has also served as a training ground for many actors, as Kudrow confirmed. And even after all his success, Burrows still has his love of the game, directing three to four pilots a year.

But as a kid, he never intended to be in showbiz, after growing up in the shadow of his father, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning scribe Abe Burrows (“Guys and Dolls”).

“I didn’t have the drive, I never wanted to be in show business,” he said. “I went into my father’s business because of osmosis.”

Political events of the day also played a part. After graduating from Oberlin College as a government major, Burrows matriculated to Yale’s school of drama rather than face the prospect of being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.

At Yale, Burrows said he caught “the bug,” later hopping aboard what he called the “Titanic” — an “awful” Broadway production of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that his father was fired from. But it was there that he met Mary Tyler Moore, someone who would give him his first shot as a director in Hollywood.

Now a revered captain of comedy, Burrows said he came to Hollywood with not much experience — but great instincts. He conceded that he was initially intimidated by the cast and crew of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“You have to play by their rules,” Burrows said. “I was a transient director, so I had to play by the rules of the show. You have to play by those rules, but there are many opportunities to put your own imprimatur on a piece.”

He said one of the most important things he learned in at that stage was not to be scared of putting in your two cents — no matter whose names are decorating the opening and end credits.

“Don’t be a traffic cop, get in there and say what you wanna say,” he said, of talking to scribes. “It’ll only make things better.”

Kudrow noted that although Burrows’ career took off fast, his shows weren’t always instant hits. Case in point: “Cheers.”

Burrows said that that’s still the case with many heavyweight shows; he highlighted “Breaking Bad,” which he cited as his favorite recent show.

Kudrow wondered if the 18-34 or the 18-49 is still the most important demographic to bag. Burrows said that it definitely was for “Cheers,” and that since the late-’70s and early-’80s, it seems to have become the “all-important” slot.

But in the formula for success in television, writing is always the most important.

“Script comes first, then the actors, then you gotta be lucky enough to get the right time slot,” he said. “Then people have to watch.”

Burrows even went as far as to say that it’s his job as a director to protect the writers’ vision. And with the clout that he’s amassed over the years, he’s garnered a unique perspective on the TV development process that he tries to impart to writers he works with.

At times that even means counseling a writer to adhere to a network note or two. “You do the notes that, as a writer, will improve the show.”

He noted a generational change in the nature of TV writers since he got his start that has had an impact on the medium.

“The TV business has changed in the fact that the people who were doing shows in the ’70s were weaned on books, and now, the people who are doing shows have been weaned on TV, so there’s a little bit of dissipation,” he said.

Burrows identified the problem of working in network television today as being imitative in a time when creators should be free to be innovative.

“Could you imagine what ‘Breaking Bad’ would’ve been on a network?” he quipped.

He said he thinks the business, as a whole, is really going to change now, with a higher concentration on alternate creative outlets, as well as lighter episode loads per season for shows — 13 instead of 22, for example.

Another component to a successful show Burrows cited was chemistry among cast and producers, something that needs to be fostered behind-the-scenes. It’s imperative to make your actors feel like they know one another, as well as making them feel like part of the creative process.

“If actors are creating, their performance will only be better; if they’re part of the creative process, they’ll only be richer, and the show will only be funnier,” he said.

His first words to his cast members are: Check your ego at the door — because he puts such a heavy emphasis on family, flexibility and workability.

He and Kudrow recalled an early “Friends” trip to Las Vegas, where the six young leads gambled in Sin City at his expense. This was before the pilot even aired.

“He gave up his dressing room so we could play poker, too,” Kudrow said. “Thank you for that and for the money you fronted us when we went to gamble.”

The Q&A was capped with the announcement of two new USC scholarship awards from the Oakie Foundation. the “Humor is 90 Percent Surprise” comedy award in honor of James Burrows and the “Just Stay With It and Keep Working” comedy award in honor of Lisa Kudrow.

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