Monday evening was a night for “Cheers” among “Friends” old and new at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, where actors, directors and execs took the stage to pay tribute to director James Burrows’ 40 years in television.
Burrows sat at ease on stage on Oct. 7 as panel after panel of talent was ushered in from some of Burrows’ most celebrated shows. Jennifer Aniston, Danny DeVito, Beau Bridges, Bob Newhart, Debra Messing, Warren Littlefield, Chuck Lorre and Jay Sandrich were just a handful of the guests that regaled a packed house with tales from the set, the boardroom and even the blackjack table. And while Burrows was modest about his successes — including 10 Emmys and 4 DGA awards — his comic cheer squad were adamant about his enduring influence on TV comedy.
“There never would have been the era of must-see TV [at NBC] without this man,” former Peacock prexy Littlefield said.
“He’s the greatest director there is,” said Rhea Perlman of “Cheers.” “You always feel protected. He makes you think that you’re funny, but he’s really made you funny. He’s more excited than anybody when an actor scores. He loved the actors. We loved each other.”
After kicking off the night with an auditorium-wide karaoke rendition of the “Cheers” theme song, moderator Pete Hammond invited DeVito and Christopher Lloyd to remember their days with Burrows on the set of “Taxi,” which marked the first TV series for either actor. DeVito did the honors of opening the floodgates for impressions of the helmer.
“In television, everybody has a laugh… and Burrows was the best,” he said, standing up for full effect: “Guy’s laughing and grabbing his dick! I can’t believe it.” (He later added, “I told them not to give me a mic.”)
Burrows had no problem getting in on the roast when “Will & Grace” stars Messing, Eric McCormack and Megan Mullally joined him on the couch. “[‘Will & Grace’] was a fairy tale — both literally and figuratively,” he said. “Every Tuesday night I would grab my crotch a number of times.” McCormack added: “Sometimes laughing.”
Burrows directed every single episode of “Will & Grace’s” eight-season run. “That was maybe the first time that anyone has ever done that,” McCormack noted.
Burrows helmed 74 pilots that ultimately went to series; he named “Will & Grace” and “Friends” among the handful of those shows that he knew were bound to become beloved hits.
“I said to Les Moonves, who was then running Warner Bros., ‘Give me the plane — I want to take the six kids to Vegas to talk to them,” he remembered. “It was me and the six of them, and I said, ‘This is your last shot at anonymity.’ I knew that this show had a chance to really take off.”
Among ample standing ovations, none was as uproarious as when Bob Newhart, a surprise guest, arrived on stage wielding an Emmy statue (Newhart won his first Emmy for a guest turn on “The Big Bang Theory” last month).
“Everyone that’s been on stage has two or three of them,” he said. “I never let this out of my sight. I take it in the shower with me. It’s kind of intimidating but you get used to it.”
While jokes abound, the chief through-line of the evening was a resounding respect for a colleague and companion whom many thought of as a father figure.
“If you noticed, everybody that came out on this stage tonight, the first thing they did was give Jimmy a hug,” Billy Gardell (“Mike & Molly”) said. “Because that’s the first thing that happens to you from day one. He gives you a place where it’s safe, he gives you a place where you’re confident, he gives you a connection between you and the writers. He has dignity and grace, and every one of us … is honored to be in this fraternity.”
Sandrich gave a champagne toast to send things off following a clip from “The Millers” and an appearance by the fraternity’s latest pledges, Margo Martindale and Bridges.
“To a really wonderful friend and a great director,” he said, “I just saw the clip from your new show ‘The Millers,’ and I just hope that finally you’ve got a hit show.”