James Burrows Shares His Secrets From Four Decades of TV Directing

It’s often said in television that nobody knows what makes a hit. But that’s not entirely true. James Burrows has a test that has rarely failed him in his 40-plus years of directing multicamera comedy series.

When working on pilots, Burrows likes to bring in an audience to watch a bare-bones run-through after a few days of rehearsal. No amount of focus-group testing of the finished product can tell him more than the first impression of an impartial crowd.

“For most of my hits, those run-throughs have been through the roof,” Burrows says. “That’s how I gauge the show. I see if they like the characters and the actors they don’t know. That’s how you know what you have.”

Burrows’ track record speaks for itself — from his start as a director in 1974 on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Cheers,” “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory,” as well as countless hits in between. But others will do the talking about his skill during NBC’s Feb. 21 special “Must See TV: An All Star Salute to James Burrows.” The special coincides with the 10-time Emmy winner notching his 1,000th sitcom episode, an iron-man milestone he reached Nov. 24 while working on the upcoming NBC sitcom “Crowded,” starring Carrie Preston, Patrick Warburton and Stacy Keach.

“It was so lovely to come in there when I was so intimidated, and discover this warm, smart, generous man.”
Pam Fryman

A gaggle of stars from his shows over the years gathered at the Jan. 24 taping of the tribute at the Palladium in Hollywood to sing his praises. Who else but the helmer simply known as Jimmy could bring Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, Tony Danza, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Melissa McCarthy, Sean Hayes, Debra Messing, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen under one roof for a common goal: saluting the man who was crucial in launching or furthering their careers — and in many cases fattening their bank accounts with a steady stream of syndication payments.

“It was a great acid flashback,” Burrows says. “Forget about honoring me. To see all those kids together — it was just an extraordinary experience.”

The fact that NBC is devoting two hours of Sunday real estate to saluting a director reinforces Burrows’ unique status in the industry. His influence extends from the style he brought to his shows to the mentoring he’s offered a generation of helmers.

“I feel like I have (him) to thank for just about everything,” says director-producer Pam Fryman, who like Burrows is one of TV’s most sought-after pilot directors.

Burrows was the first director Fryman observed at work when she got the chance to make the leap from soap operas to sitcoms. At the time, he was working on the Valerie Bertinelli starrer “Cafe Americain,” which aired on NBC in the 1993-94 season. Fryman was friendly with showrunner Peter Noah, who gave her the chance to direct an episode. With the introduction from Noah, Burrows took Fryman under his wing. The friendship endured long after “Cafe Americain” was history.

“I benefited so much from his graciousness,” Fryman says. “It was so lovely to come in there when I was so intimidated, and discover this warm, smart, generous man.”

Burrows’ mentoring of Fryman lasted for years, in part because they travel in the same circles.

“He would be working on a show, and I would come in to prepare for doing an episode,” she recalls. “I’d be just visiting the set to get my bearings, and he would go out of his way to take me over to Bob Newhart or anyone else that he might be working with and say, ‘She knows what she’s doing.’ You can only imagine what that did for me.”

To Burrows, offering a helping hand to promising newcomers like Fryman is an echo of the mentoring he received from famed “Mary Tyler Moore” director Jay Sandrich.

Burrows has spent many years working with the Directors Guild of America to expand the realm of responsibility for TV directors, who often feel as much like underappreciated hired guns as screenwriters do in the film realm. Burrows has pushed for showrunners and studio executives to offer directors more flexibility to put their stamp on the final product. Fryman’s success has made her one of a handful of comedy directors who have the clout to become a hands-on executive producer, notably during her long tenure as staff director of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.”

“I learned from Jay to make sure you speak your piece,” Burrows says. “Make sure you’re not intimidated by the writers and the medium. In television, the writers are the bosses — they run the show. You can, as a director, become a traffic cop. In blocking and working with the actors alone, you have to create what you want to create.”

Burrows is troubled by the fact that less established directors are often afraid to speak their minds on the set, lest they have trouble finding work at other networks and studios.

“You can’t build (chemistry). It’s
like when you fall in love. The styles just have to mesh. It’s got to be there from day one.”
James Burrows

“I fight for directors to contribute as much as possible, and I tell them, ‘Please do not worry about your next job.’ Just worry about making the best piece possible,” he says. “We have things to contribute even in a writer’s medium.”

Burrows’ signature as a director is working at a speedy pace and collaborating with actors — another reason NBC had no trouble filling the room with stars for the tribute special.

“He’s always pacing back and forth on the stage,” Fryman says. “He’s never staring at the monitors. He’s staring at the entire stage. He pays attention to the rhythms of (the material) — like music. I always marveled at his ability to look at the big picture and see how one scene helps another and how you just add to it with your choices. He calls it ‘adding leaves to the tree.’ ”

Another lesson from Burrows’ long time in the trenches: Every successful sitcom needs to be grounded by at least one great relationship — Sam and Diane on “Cheers”; Charlie and Alan on “Two and a Half Men”; Sheldon, Penny and Leonard on “The Big Bang Theory”; and an entire coffee klatch on “Friends.” But it can’t only be great on the page. The actors have to come to that first reading with instant chemistry — an elusive form of magic that can’t be forced.

“You can’t build it,” Burrows says. “It’s like when you fall in love. The styles just have to mesh. It’s got to be there from day one.”

Burrows has an innate understanding of the tensions in the creative process. He grew up steeped in the world of Broadway playwrights, composers, actors and dramaturges as the son of famed multihyphenate Abe Burrows. Having a father with credits like Broadway’s “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and the influential radio comedy “Duffy’s Tavern” made him want to avoid comparisons. But the subconscious pull was too strong.

“My father was a legend in New York City, where I grew up, so there was no way I was going to go into show business,” Burrows says. “When I graduated from college, there was the Vietnam War, and I didn’t want to go in the Army, so I went to Yale School of Drama and got a dose of that. All the stuff I had learned from watching my father started to kick in.”

Burrows was fortunate early on to have teamed with writers Glen and Les Charles in the creation of “Cheers,” the defining sitcom of its era. He met the brothers when they were all working together on the “Mary Tyler Show” spin-off “Phyllis.” They crossed paths again on “Taxi,” and by that time their mutual agent, Bob Broder, suggested the trio develop a show of their own. The three spent many hours hashing out ideas for a show set among a group of lovable misfits who populate a local bar. When the brothers came back with a completed pilot script, Burrows was floored when he saw his name listed as series co-creator.

“I am forever indebted that they gave me co-creator credit,” Burrows says. Although nearly 25 years have passed since it went off the air in a blaze of boozy glory, “Cheers” is one of the shows that remains closest to his heart. “That was our baby; that will always be our baby,” Burrows says. “We love that show.”

And what about the ones that got away? Burrows is quick to cite the 2006-07 CBS comedy “The Class” — stacked with budding stars including Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jon Bernthal, Lizzy Caplan, Jason Ritter and Andrea Anders. More recently, the demise of CBS’ “Mike & Molly” and “The Millers” are head-scratchers to him.

One-thousand is a nice round number. Yet Burrows has no intention of folding his director’s chair anytime soon. Yes, the business is much tougher than it once was, and yes, his multicamera milieu has been challenged for a decade by the mania for single-camera laffers. But no matter.

“I need to work,” Burrows says. “If I don’t work, I don’t appreciate my time off. If I don’t work and get those endorphins on a Tuesday or Friday night or whenever we shoot, there would be a huge void in my life.”

Diane Gordon contributed to this report.

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