"You have to achieve that moment, when it makes you laugh. You have to get to that moment and you have to work it until you get to that moment. You have to know why it's not working and you have to be able to give the actors, if they have suggestions for how to make it work, you have to listen to them, not dismiss them. It's like clay; you have to form it."
About This Interview
In his three-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, James Burrows discusses his early years working as a stage manager under his father, playwright/director Abe Burrows, and outlines his years directing for the stage in regional theater. He recalls his break into television directing, working at MTM Productions on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and describes directing Fay, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, and Phyllis. He details working with the cast and creative team behind Taxi, and directing the majority of the series' episodes. Burrows chronicles the eleven-year run of Cheers, which he co-created with Glen & Les Charles, and for which he directed nearly every episode. As one of the pre-eminent directors of sitcom pilots, Burrows shares what he looks for in selecting a pilot and explains what drew him to directing the pilot episodes of Night Court, NewsRadio, and 3rd Rock From the Sun. He talks of working on the early seasons of Frasier, Friends, and Caroline in the City, and speaks of the joy of being the sole director of the hit series, Will & Grace. Gary Rutkowski conducted the interview on December 17, 2003 in Los Angeles, CA.
James Burrows is one of the few television directors who has made the successful transition to producer. He became one of the top sitcom directors at MTM Productions, the company founded by Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker. Later, as well working as the resident director for Taxi, Burrows helped form the independent production company responsible for the long-running NBC series Cheers. His critically acclaimed directing and production talents have won numerous awards, including seven Emmies.
One of Burrow's first goals was to establish an identity separate from that of his famous father, Abe, who had written the books for a number of successful musicals, including Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Ironically, the senior Burrows had also written for the popular 1930s radio series Duffy's Tavern, which, like Cheers, was set in a bar. While this did not inspire the younger Burrows to duplicate that situation in Cheers, his father's work on a stage adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffanys, which starred Mary Tyler Moore, did lead James Burrows to an informal meeting with MTM President Grant Tinker. At that time, the younger Burrows was known simply as "Abe's kid."
In 1974, while directing theater in Florida, Burrows asked Tinker for a job at MTM and was hired him to observe other MTM sitcom directors, with his first assignment being The Bob Newhart Show. Tinker recounts in his autobiography, Tinker in Television, that as Burrows became more comfortable with his role as observer, he began drawing closer to action on the Bob Newhart set, causing Newhart to turn to his producer and demand, "Get that guy out of here. He makes me nervous."
This incident marked a significant turning point in Burrows' career, for Tinker responded by teaming Burrows with MTM's veteran director Jay Sandrich. The two hit it off immediately, and Burrows proved a quick study. Today he is considered as accomplished a director as Sandrich himself. Like Sandrich, he developed a directing style sensitive to the specific needs of the weekly sitcom format, which includes actors who already have a deep understanding of the characters they portray. Burrows' goal is to make his actors "director proof," so that subsequent directors do not erode the developed, established personae.
Burrows stayed with MTM until 1977, gaining directing experience on every sitcom they produced, including The Bob Newhart Show. He then joined MTM alumni James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed. Weinberger on the series Taxi, for which he directed 76 episodes. Because Taxi had such a large set, Burrows became one of the first directors to use four cameras simultaneously, an adaptation of the three-camera system that had been a staple of sitcom production since I Love Lucy. A testament to his talent, Burrows won Emmies in both 1980 and 1981 for his Taxi efforts.
In 1982, Burrows, along with Glen and Les Charles, formed the Charles-Burrows-Charles Company and created and produced Cheers. Lasting into the 1990s, Cheers allowed Burrows, now in the role of producer, to carry on the tradition of quality television established two decades earlier at MTM. Although the Charles-Burrows-Charles Company disbanded after Cheers voluntarily retired, Burrows has continued working as a director for such sitcoms as Wings, Flesh 'N' Blood, Friends, News Radio and Will & Grace.