James Burrows Interview: In-Depth with an Iconic TV Director
Image attributed to James Burrows
Born on December 30, 1940, James Burrows has directed over 1,000 episodes of television, a milestone he achieved in November 2015 with the NBC sitcom Crowded. His other directorial work includes Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Frasier, Friends, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly, Taxi, Will & Grace, Caroline in the City, just to name a few. He is the son of Abe Burrows, a well-known composer, director and writer.
The legendary sitcom director has spent five decades making America laugh. In his memoir, Directed by James Burrows, out June 7, 2022, readers will find never-revealed stories behind the casting of the dozens of great sitcoms he directed, details as to how these memorable shows were created, how they got on the the air and how the cast and crew continued to develop and grow. Burrows examines his own challenges, career victories and defeats and provides advice for aspiring directors, writers and actors. All this from the man who helped launch the careers of Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Aniston, Debra Messing and Melissa McCarthy.
"I’ve never done a proselytizing show. I leave that to Norman Lear. He’s a genius at it."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jim, is Directed by James Burrows, something you’ve been working on for several years?
James Burrows: Well, I’ve been accruing stories over the years. I never wanted to write a book. Then Covid hit, and I wasn’t doing anything, so my wife needled me and said, “You have some of the best stories in the world. Why don’t you write them down?” So that’s what I did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I agree with your wife. There are some fascinating tales about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Taxi, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and many others.
James Burrows: Oh, I appreciate that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You first met Mary Tyler Moore in 1966 when she starred in the musical Holly Golightly on Broadway. What was your impression of her?
James Burrows: She was like Mary Richards. Actually, back then, she was like Laura Petrie because I was a big fan of The Dick Van Dyke Show. When I met her, I was working as an assistant to the assistant stage manager on the musical. I don’t remember if it was called Holly Golightly or Breakfast at Tiffany’s in those days. But there were three Hollywood people coming to do their first Broadway show, Dick Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman and Mary Tyler Moore. So you have Dr. Kildare and Laura Petrie. I was in charge of the three of them. I would get their lunches when they needed them. When they’d come off stage, I’d walk them to their dressing rooms. I’d make sure they made their entrances. That’s what I was doing. Mary was very sweet to me. She was just a humble woman, and we hit it off.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Then several years later, you wrote a letter to Mary and her husband, Grant Tinker, asking to work with MTM Enterprises.
James Burrows: Yeah. The musical was a disaster. We only played four previews in New York, and we were hooted off the stage. So we became kind of close because I would embrace Mary when she came off the stage because she’d be crying. It was just a horrible experience. So I had some sort of a relationship with her.
After the musical, there was summer stock and dinner theater. I saw The Mary Tyler Moore Show on television and thought that they were basically doing a play in front of a live audience and figured I could do about a 25-minute show in a week. So I wrote Mary a letter, and Grant sent me a positive response.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You said that The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode titled “Neighbors” had a terrible script. How did you get through it?
James Burrows: Well, that was my first show ever. So I wasn’t going to be rewriting anything. I had to play by the rules of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and create when I could create and try to inspire a cast who also didn’t like the script. The script kept getting changed. The last scene reminded me of Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard. But whatever I did, it seemed to work out because just before we shot that show, Mary came over to me and said, “We feel our investment in you has worked out.” So there you go.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Great words. Your dad, Abe Burrows, was a director for radio and the stage. Did you plan to follow in his footsteps?
James Burrows: I never wanted to be in show business. I lived in New York. My parents were divorced. New York was my father’s town, and I wasn’t going to compete with that. So I was a government major at Oberlin College. Then the Vietnam War was happening, and I decided to go to graduate school and was at the Yale School of Drama. That kind of opened my eyes. My dad took my sister and me to rehearsals, and I was exposed to directing there. It kind of forced me into the business. But fortunately, I got into stage managing and directing. I like to say my father taught me when I didn’t know I was learning.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did your father ever offer any advice?
James Burrows: He’d never force me into the business. Ever. He never said, “You should be in show business.” It’s just what I, in watching him in rehearsals and not necessarily paying attention when I was a kid, learned just by osmosis and sucked up some of that stuff. Then when I worked for him as a stage manager, I got to see him day in and day out, and I learned a lot more then. He laid a great foundation.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Of all the TV shows you’ve directed and/or created, which one is the closest to your heart?
James Burrows: Cheers. That’s because it’s the only show I did have “created by” credit on. The Charles brothers did most of the creation, but I was involved in it. That’s nearest and dearest to me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Some people say the idea for the show was taken from the radio sitcom Duffy’s Tavern, which was written by your father. What was the inspiration for Cheers?
James Burrows: Well, the three of us liked to drink. Again, it’s not the idea. It’s the execution of the idea. There were a number of shows about bars. Cheers was ultimately successful because we did it better than anybody else. We also had the Sam and Diane relationship. We were all fans of Fawlty Towers, so we loved that show. We sat down to do a show about a hotel, and then we said, “It should take place in a bar because we love bars! We’re sports fans, so why not do a sports bar?”
Then we thought about setting it in Barstow, California, which is halfway between LA and Vegas because you’d get all these people and entertainers. Then we said, “No. We need a city with rabid sports fans.” I think it was between Philly and Boston. We chose Boston, and then we executed the idea. So that’s where that idea came from. People have tried to sue us, and I’ve always said, “If you want to sue us, you’ve got to get in line behind my dad.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it a jump-the-shark moment when Shelley Long left Cheers?
James Burrows: Ah, yeah, I guess. But jumping-the-shark means you do something so stupid, you kill the show. I mean, we were devastated because that relationship upheld the show. But what we did was we went back to the original conception of Cheers when we first laid it out, which was that we wanted Sam working for a woman. We were definitely not going to do another waitress. So we just went back to this old idea we had, and we were successful, especially in finding the right person in Kirstie Alley.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That worked very well for the show.
James Burrows: Oh, my God. I know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Andy Kaufman (Latka Gravas on Taxi) was a fascinating guy. His brother came out a few years ago saying he faked his own death and then realized he was the victim of a hoax (laughs).
James Burrows: (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about Andy.
James Burrows: He was the brightest comedian I’ve ever seen. He never told jokes. His routines were all performance art. He’d wrestle women, which caused the audience great anxiety, but he loved that. He dressed as Foreign Man and sang the Mighty Mouse theme. He’d come out on the stage and start reading Gone with the Wind until you laughed. Andy was an amazing comic who was incredibly brave. We all still miss him. He was kind of a meek kid. He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, in a regular family and became this most wonderful comic. He was amazing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you intentionally set out to make a political statement on Will & Grace about gay rights?
James Burrows: No. I’ve never done a proselytizing show. I leave that to Norman Lear. He’s a genius at it. When Max and David started to write it, we never had a gay agenda whatsoever. It just happened to be that. We just told funny stories about four characters that you grew to love.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the first episode of the Will & Grace reboot, the show targeted Donald Trump. Did you receive responses from viewers on one side or the other?
James Burrows: I don’t remember. I think we all felt we wanted to come in with a big bang, but after that, we laid off the politics. But I don’t remember what the reaction was. The ratings were good for the reboot in the beginning, and then they slowly declined. I thought the reboot was really good and an interesting way of dealing with these characters who were 10 years older.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The chemistry between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce was great. How do you know that pairings like that will be successful?
James Burrows: You don’t. You have no idea unless you read them together. Angell, Casey and Lee cast that show. I don’t remember whether they hired David on the spot before he ever read. But with Cheers, we read Ted and Shelley together, and we knew we had magic. We read Debra and Eric together on Will & Grace, so we knew there was magic there, too. But on Friends, I’m not sure whether Jen and David ever read together. I don’t think they did. So you just have to be lucky sometimes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was Lisa Kudrow fired from Frasier because she wasn’t right for the part of Roz?
James Burrows: That’s exactly right. She was originally cast in the pilot as Roz Doyle who Peri Gilpin played. It’s unfortunate and fortunate because Roz, the producer, has to turn Frasier into realizing that sometimes things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to happen, but they happen for the best. So we needed a really strong woman to make that speech, and that’s not Lisa’s stronger suit. Phoebe is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why was Mike & Molly cancelled after season six?
James Burrows: I did the first two seasons, and I did the final episode. I wasn’t around it between the end of the second season and the final episode, but I assume it was suffering in the ratings.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Melissa McCarthy is such a super talent.
James Burrows: Yeah. She was great. She still is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were there pilots you directed that you wished had been successful after making it to series?
James Burrows: Yes. The one that made it to series that I wished had kept going was a pilot I did called The Class, which was written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. David Crane wrote and created Friends with Marta Kaufman. The Class was a great show that unfortunately died because I don’t think it was handled very well. It had Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jon Bernthal, Lizzy Caplan and Jason Ritter in it. It was a wonderful show.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What first comes to mind as the funniest scenes you’ve ever directed?
James Burrows: There are three that scream out at me. One is “What does the yellow light mean?” from Taxi. In the second year of Taxi, they were going to make Reverend Jim a driver, and he has to go take his driving test. The cabbies take him, and he’s got to go off with the other students and do the written part. The cabbies are watching him, and he says, “What does the yellow light mean?” Bobby says, “Slow down.” So Reverend Jim goes, “What does the yellow light mean?” (talking slower) Bobby says, “Slow down.” Reverend Jim goes, “What does the yellow light mean?” (talking even slower) That laugh went on for 45 seconds.
Then there’s Woody’s wedding in Cheers when he marries Kelly, which is a farce in the whole second act. Then there’s the scene when Ross is about to ask Rachel on a date. They’re out on the balcony, and he’s about to ask, but a cat lands on his shoulder. You cut inside, and Phoebe, Monica and Joey are singing “Top of the World” in the background, and you see Schwimmer going back and forth trying to get this cat off his shoulder (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Live in Front of a Studio Audience: The Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes was entertaining. Who cast Jennifer Aniston as Blair?
James Burrows: I think either Norman Lear’s right hand man, Brent Miller, or maybe Jimmy because Jimmy Kimmel’s very good friends with Jen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you enjoy the times you acted?
James Burrows: Yeah. Well, I’m not an actor. I played a surly guy. The first Phyllis I ever directed, I had to play the telephone man. So that was the first Phyllis I directed, plus I’m having to act. I have six or seven lines with Cloris Leachman, which was intimidating beyond belief. So not only did I have to worry about the shots, I’m having to interact with her. That was difficult. The other ones where I had real small roles were not hard. I’m in a Friends, in a Newhart and a Rhoda. I’m in The Comeback, and I played Jimmy the director. I had a lot of lines in that. That was hard for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who’s your current favorite television director of a sitcom?
James Burrows: I don’t really watch sitcoms anymore. I did a pilot of The Neighborhood, and sometimes, I tune in for that. But I guess it would be Pam Fryman, one of my proteges. I think she carried the mantle very well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you on social media, Jim?
James Burrows: No. I don’t do that. I don’t need to know what people are doing at any given moment.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any upcoming projects?
James Burrows: No, unless Norman wants to do another live show. Then I’m game. I’m kind of semi-retired.
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