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May 16, 2016

A Thousand in One

James Burrows, director of TV's most beloved comedies, recently clocked his 1,000th show — then, of course, kept on working.

Curt Schleier
  • Chris Watson/NBC
  • Chris Watson/NBC
  • Art Streiber/NBC

James Burrows didn't really have a plan B.

In many respects, it was TV or not to be. There was no question.

Burrows, of course, is the director of many of television's iconic comedies, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, where he got his start, to Taxi, Cheers and Friends, where he became the go-to sitcom guy. His newest creation, NBC's Crowded, brought him a milestone — directing his 1,000th show.

His training started with his father, Pulitzer-and Tony-Award winning playwright and director Abe Burrows (How to Succeed in Business, Guys and Dolls). "Dad used to trundle me off to rehearsals. I was 12 or 13, and I used to sit there and watch. I was in the Metropolitan Opera's boys' chorus, so [that world] was familiar to me. I also worked for my father from 1965 to 1969, as a stage manager."

During that period, he met Mary Tyler Moore and her then-husband Grant Tinker, who set him on the course that would eventually bring him ten Emmys as well as a passel of DGA Awards, Burrows recently spoke with emmy contributor Curt Schleier about his career, his favorite shows and working with difficult actors.

Tell us about how you met Mary Tyler Moore during an ill-fated production of your father's musical, Holly Golightly.

It was not one of my father's best efforts. Because it starred Laura Petrie [as Moore was known on The Dick Van Dyke Show] and Dr. Kildare [Richard Chamberlain], it had a $2 million advance. It did well in Philadelphia. However, before we went to Boston, [producer] David Merrick fired my father and hired a man well known for musical comedy, Edward Albee.

My dad asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to stay with the show.

I was kind of a gofer. My job was to go down [to Albee's office] and pick up pages, and I was in charge of [Moore and Chamberlain]. I had to make sure they were where they were supposed to be.

We opened in New York on a Monday night and were hooted and booed off the stage. So David decided to close in previews. Mary wasn't used to getting booed. She was America's sweetheart. We became really close friends.

That was 1966. But it would be more than seven years until you and Mary reunited.

I was directing Joan Fontaine in Forty Carats at a [regional] theater in Wallingford, Connecticut, and I turned on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For some reason, it had never registered with me that it was filmed in front of a live audience.

Here I was doing two-hour plays in a week, so I thought maybe I could contribute something [to a half-hour sitcom]. I contacted them in 1973 or 74, and about a month later they said they'd like to bring me out.

The first episode you were asked to direct did not, by your own account, have a great script.

It was a C-minus script, and I turned it into maybe a C show. I did everything I could to make it work, I invoked Chekhov and Stanislavsky, and the cast responded. Mary came to me about five minutes before we shot and said, "I think our investment in you has paid off." I was blown away by that.

Chuck Lorre has said: "Good comedy has rhythm and pitch, tempo, rests, dynamics — all the things you associate with music. Jimmy hears those things. He hears the music." Is that nature or nurture?

I don't think you can learn how to be funny — you've got to be born with it. It can be nurtured from there, but you've got to have that gene. I firmly believe that I got that from my dad. But he also taught me how to deal with people. I worked with him a couple of times, so I saw how he behaved in rehearsal. I learned kindness from my father, and not to be a martinet.

Given occasional super-sized egos, was kindness difficult at times?

Look, actors will test you. I always tell them that 50 percent of what I say is great and 50 percent is shit, and it's their job to figure out which is which. Certainly in the beginning I had to accommodate myself to the actors because I had no cojones and no reputation. Since Cheers, that's not been a problem for me.

More than 1,000 episodes. Are there any favorites?

I have lots. To name just a few: Sam and Diane kissing at the end of the first year of Cheers; Reverend Jim taking his driving test [in Taxi]; Woody's wedding [in Cheers]; David Schwimmer and the cat in Friends; Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all in the shower together [in Will & Grace]; the first episode of Third Rock from the Sun, when the characters were first exposed to Earth. The pilot of Frasier is extraordinary.

Those shows were all major hits. Were there some that you felt were canceled too soon?

The Associates on ABC. I think I did two episodes of it while I was doing Taxi. It was a wonderful show. It just never got the ratings. Back then, shows were canceled if you had a 25, 26 share; most hits were doing a 40 share,.

There's only one show that I did [all the episodes on] that I thought should not have been canceled, because it was just wonderful. It was The Class on CBS, [created by] David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. That's the one show I'm sad about.

Have you ever thought of doing something other than TV comedies?

I did a film in 1981 that turned out not to be that good, Partners, with Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt. I'm not a cinematic guy. I'm a theater guy. For what I do, I need a live audience.

A lot of your former stars reunited for the recent tribute special on NBC. Any thoughts of rebooting their series?

I don't think you should go back. I created Cheers along with the Charles brothers [Glen and Les] They were gracious enough to give me that credit. They've talked to us about a Cheers reunion for years, and we don't want to do one.

I have no control over Friends — David [Crane] and Marta [Kauffman] are the creators and geniuses behind that show. I don't think they'll ever want to do a reunion. It's what it was. It was a treasure in the history of television, and I don't think you want to revisit that.

Looking back over your many shows, do you see any crossover opportunities that might have been missed?

I always thought it would be a good idea if Taxi's Louis De Palma [Danny DeVito] came and sat at the Cheers bar and met Rhea [Perlman, who played Carla Tortelli, and in real life, is married to DeVito].

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