It’s a measure of his standing in popular culture that in 2016, NBC aired “An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows.” When Steven Spielberg learned that Burrows was described as the Steven Spielberg of sitcoms, the Oscar winner called Burrows and told him he wanted to be known as the James Burrows of movies.
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Burrows’ memoir, “Directed by James Burrows”, co-written with Eddy Friedfeld, is a great read for comedy lovers and Must See TV aficionados. It’s as hard to let go as a “Friends” marathon to put out.
Burrows has directed over 1,000 television episodes, but who’s counting? He is. “Four episodes of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show'”, he writes, “11 episodes of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’, 8 of ‘Laverne & Shirley’, 19 of ‘Phyllis’, 75 of ‘Taxi’, 243 of ‘ Cheers, ’32 from ‘Frasier’, 15 from ‘Friends’, 49 from ‘Mike & Molly’ and 246 from ‘Will & Grace’.” Check out his IMDB page for a full rundown of this Promethean director’s credits.
Not that they were all hits, or that some classic series didn’t slip away. “I passed on both ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Designing Women’,” he wrote. “I didn’t see the potential of either at the time. It happens.” He also left “Friends” after the second season. “One of my few career regrets is that I didn’t stay with those six kids,” he wrote.
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“Directed by James Burrows” is brought to life with script excerpts of memorable moments from Burrows’ work. The reader’s ability to visualize the scenes is a testament not only to the writers and actors who brought these indelible characters to life, but also to Burrows’ genius for finding the notes of grace that get what he calls “the best laughs, the smart ones and the characters. ”
The book is packed with great behind-the-scenes stories from some of TV’s most beloved series and the artists who created and starred in them. But it’s particularly useful as an introduction to what a comedy director does. “When I read a pilot script,” Burrows writes, “I want to think, ‘That’s funny, I can add to that.’ ”
A case in point is the pilot episode of “Frasier,” which featured David Hyde Pierce in his multi-Emmy award-winning role as Frasier Crane’s even more haughty and neurotic brother, Niles. In his first scene, he and Frasier (Kelsey Grammar) are waiting for a table at their favorite cafe. The banter between them sets the show’s rarefied comedic tone (“When’s the last time you had an unspoken thought?” asks an annoyed Frasier. “I have one now,” Niles smiles at his pompous brother.)
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It’s a funny scene, but as Burrows recounts, he suggested that before Niles and Frasier sat down at their table, Pierce pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his seat, and offered the handkerchief to his brother to take. do the same. It has become a character trait.
The shows on which Burrows left his inimitable mark share heart, humor and humanity. The chapter on “Will & Grace,” the Peabody Award-winning series about the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman, is a reminder, he writes, of how, at its best, “television is one of the most most important in creating awareness and advancing understanding between people, race, gender and culture.
This show, in particular, benefited from the chemistry of its core set. The chemistry, says Burrows, is as important as the comedy. “When I direct a TV show,” he writes, “I try to hit that sweet spot where the best script meets the best performance and the best chemistry between the performers.”
Sometimes it can be difficult. Of English actress Helen Baxendale, who played Ross’ eventual fiancée in ‘Friends’, he writes: “She was sweet but not particularly funny. [David] Schwimmer had no one to bounce on. It was like clapping with one hand. (I respectfully disagree; I found his character charming and funny, proving once again that comedy is subjective and that I’m a sucker for a British accent.)
Speaking of chemistry, Burrows reveals there was one actor he hated: Marcel, the monkey from “Friends.” “I said to anyone who wanted to listen, ‘When I come back to direct another episode, please no monkey’,” he wrote.
Burrows was born into the breed. Her father was Abe Burrows, the famous radio and Broadway comedy writer whose stage credits include “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, “Guys & Dolls” and “Cactus Flower”. He feels the same about sitcoms as his father felt about his plays. Burrows says someone once asked his father, “Abe, why don’t you direct a drama?” Abe replied, “I do straight drama – they just happen to be funny.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson Burrows learned from his father about acting was that of perspective. “He once pointed his glasses and said to me, ‘Most people look at the world that way,'” he wrote. “He then tilted his glasses up to his face and said, ‘I look at the world that way. I ended up developing the same philosophy, even though I never wore glasses.
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com, and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.
Directed by James Burrows
Five decades of stories from the legendary director of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and more
By James Burrows with Eddy Friedfeld
Ballantine. 368 pages. $28.99
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