Jim Burrows, Take a Bow
Colleagues from Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and more gather to honor a director of "dignity and grace."
In 1974, James Burrows, then a dinner-theater director who aspired to direct television, was hired to observe production on The Bob Newhart Show. He'd been invited by producer Grant Tinker, after writing to Tinker's then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore, with whom he'd previously worked as an assistant stage manager on Broadway.
Almost forty years later, Bob Newhart — his recently won Primetime Emmy in hand — was among twenty notables who gathered October 7 for a Television Academy tribute to Burrows, who in the intervening decades has become as much a television comedy icon as any of the stars of his many series. As Moore told him after he'd directed his first episode of her eponymous show: "I think our investment in you has paid off."
And then some. Consider the stats: Ten Primetime Emmys — evenly split for directing and producing — for sitcom classics Taxi, Cheers, Frasier and Will & Grace. Forty-two Emmy nominations. Seventy-four pilots directed that went to series, including Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls and new this season, CBS's The Millers and NBC's Sean Saves the World.
"Whatever it is in me, I just see it a certain way. Whatever the way I see it, seems to be funny," Burrows told moderator Peter Hammond, an Academy writers peer-group governor, shortly after taking the stage to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District. "I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong. I throw it open to my actors. I especially throw it to the writers. We're all in this together."
One of his comedy go-tos: "I tend to put things in, let the actors do something. It's such a writer's medium. I try to bridge the gap, to make the actors feel they are part of the creative process."
There's a synergy between those actors and the director. "He's more excited than anybody when an actor scores," noted Rhea Perlman, who played feisty waitress Carla Tortelli on the bar-set comedy Cheers; Burrows created the show in 1982 with brothers Glen and Les Charles. "He loves the actors. He's the greatest director there is. He'd give people bits. You felt protected."
And, said Perlman's husband Danny DeVito, who played irascible cab dispatcher Louie DePalma on Taxi: "He was the best laugher." In imitation, he jumped up, grabbed his crotch and emitted a sound — something like whee-eh-haw. "I was astounded," he added. Turns out the director had a nickname, according to DeVito: "We called him Beads, because by Friday, his eyes were like beads."
Burrows helped shepherd a group of six then-unknown actors in the early episodes of Friends, a show he termed, "one of the most energizing experiences to date." He took them to dinner in Las Vegas before the show began airing, telling them — accurately, as it turned out — that it would be their last chance to enjoy anonymity.
They're all still friends — as evidenced by a surprise appearance by Jennifer Aniston, who played flighty fashion maven Rachel Green. "When I got the script, I was already doing four pilots," Burrows recalled. "I said to [then-agent] Bob Broder, 'I have to do this show.' The writing was great, and then they cast it. A lot of it was luck, that those people were available."
Actually, she wasn't definitely available then, Aniston said, as she was in another pilot as well. "I was asked to step out of the [cast] photos, at the fountain, because they didn't know if I was going to play Rachel. That was a fun moment — all my girlfriends said, 'We have the [casting] sides for Rachel.'"
Friends was a part of NBC's Thursday night "Must-See TV" lineup. Neither the phrase nor the programming would have existed without Cheers, according to former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, who during Cheers's early run was, he said, "the junior kid in comedy development. I knew nothing. Jimmy gave me an education, and I was smart enough to listen." Before Cheers, "NBC had no DNA for sophisticated adult comedy," Littlefield added.
Perlman wasn't the only actor to benefit from Burrows's protective instincts. John Ratzenberger, who played know-it-all bar regular Cliff Clavin, recalled that he was hired for the first seven episodes only. Before shooting began on the eighth episode, Burrows told him, "We'll find a place for you." He appeared in all but one of the show's 275 episodes; Burrows directed 244.
When Shelley Long announced she wanted to leave the show after five years, Burrows admitted that the producers "freaked out," as the relationship between her waitress character Diane Chambers and bar owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson) had become a part of pop culture. They calmed down with the hiring of Kirstie Alley as bar manager Rebecca Howe. With the focus off Sam and Diane, "what it brought out," he said, "was how wonderful the rest of the cast was."
And speaking of drinking, Bob Newhart told the crowd that Burrows had directed a favorite episode of his show, when his character, psychologist Bob Hartley, and several friends got drunk on Thanksgiving and tried to order Chinese food. "He was the one who said to me, 'It's not staggering. It's trying to stand up straight,'" Burrows recalled, about how to play a drunk. And, Newhart added, "[The drunk person] is the only one who knows he's drunk. He's convinced no one else knows."
Newhart had been a legend to Burrows, whose father, noted Broadway playwright-director Abe Burrows, had given him the comedian's albums.
"People like this make my job easy, so easy," Burrows said. "The good shows I've done, the great shows I've done, have had great people. If you have great clay to form, it's extraordinary."
"We're like clay?" Newhart responded.
The metaphoric sculptor then was greeted by cast members from Will & Grace, for which he directed every episode. Megan Mullally, who played the colorful Karen Walker, recalled the choreographed fights and other physical bits of business. "It was so much fun doing the physical comedy," she said. "I'd never thought of myself as funny. You brought that out in me."
A current perspective came from Swoosie Kurtz, who plays Molly's mother, Joyce Flynn, on Mike & Molly. "Jimmy hears the comedy like music," she said. "He's got this amazing timing and rhythm."
And noted Burrows's newest leading lady, Margo Martindale of The Millers, who plays recently separated Carol Miller opposite on-screen estranged hubby Beau Bridges: "It's the most interesting thing to just sit there and do exactly what he tells you to do. There's a lot of freedom in that. I don't worry about a thing. I say, 'Is it funny?' He says, 'You're funny.'"
Burrows chose The Millers because, he said, "In January and February, I start getting pilot scripts. I try to pick the best writing. This one was by Greg Garcia [Fox's Raising Hope]. It was a brilliant script. Then there's the casting. You've got two people" — Martindale and Bridges, who was also at the tribute — "who haven't been seen in comedy. Humor is 90 percent surprise. If you've got a character you haven't seen before, and you're in a rhythm where they're funny, it makes you laugh harder."
Throughout the evening, Burrows attributed the success of his shows to their writing, casting and cast chemistry. "Trust me," he said near the end of the evening, when Mike & Molly cast members and executive producer Chuck Lorre joined him on stage. "It's not me. You assemble a cast, and you're so lucky if you love one another. I've been blessed with so many casts like this."
That modesty didn't sit well with Billy Gardell, who stars as Chicago police officer Mike Biggs. "You're very wrong," he said. "If you noticed, everybody that came out on this stage tonight, they came to Jimmy for a hug. Because that's the first thing that happens.
"From day one, when you start work with Jimmy, he gives you a place where it's safe. He gives you a place where you're confident. He gives you a connection between you and the writers. He has dignity and grace, and every one of us who has worked with you has been touched by you in our personal lives — you have a fatherly way about you. You bring that love to the set. You leave with love. I'm grateful that I get to say I've worked with you."
The evening was produced by Rocci Chatfield and also featured appearances by Burrows's mentor, director Jay Sandrich, actors Christopher Lloyd (Taxi), George Wendt (Cheers), Eric McCormack and Debra Messing (Will & Grace), Louis Mustillo and Nyambi Nyambi (Mike & Molly) and Burrows's former agent Bob Broder, now president of Chuck Lorre Productions.