Director James Burrows reflects on his career in new book
NEW YORK — James Burrows loves sitcoms, and he should. The 81-year-old has directed more than 1,000 episodes of TV sitcoms, including fan favorites such as ‘Friends’, ‘Cheers’ and Will & Grace.” He also directed the pilot episodes of “Frasier,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and more, setting the tone for the series to come.
Ask him why there are so few of his beloved sitcoms on the air these days and Burrows can’t answer.
“It’s not a good time for the multi-camera sitcom right now. I don’t know why. People ask me and I say, I don’t know why. There’s only two or three to the antenna.
He thinks the next big sitcom is coming, and it will make multi-camera sitcoms popular again, but adds that he “doesn’t see that show on the horizon just yet.”
Burrows looks back on his famous career in a new book titled ‘Directed by James Burrows’, detailing how he got his start in showbiz and became Hollywood’s go-to director for sitcom pilots, setting up shows for success to go from the front.
He spoke with The Associated Press about the book, working on “Friends” and what drives him to work these days. Notes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: The industry seems to prefer single-camera comedies these days. Why do you prefer multi-cam?
BURROWS: What I do isn’t really television. It’s really theater that I shoot for television, so the structure of the play has to be the work done with the actors and scriptwriters on stage, and then you cover it with a camera. But what makes it great is the interaction, not necessarily the camerawork, it’s the characters and the situation.
AP: A touching point in the book is when you remember sitting down with the cast of “Friends” when you were leaving the show and giving them a very fatherly talk about how to handle future situations, like listening and learn new directors, but “if you don’t agree, say something”. You reminded them that they know their characters better than anyone and that David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, in particular, should be pushing for opportunities to do physical comedy because that’s where they’ve shone.
BURROWS: They were all in their twenties and I just wanted to allow them to understand how good they all were and to be able to express what they thought of the play with the following directors and writers, because they were all really creative. If an actor contributes, it only makes the show better and it only makes the actor happier to be part of the creative process. I tried to allow them to come out when I left the show and express themselves.
AP: You also say that one of the rare regrets of your career is not having followed the series throughout its nine seasons. Why do you think “Friends” is still so popular today?
BURROWS: There’s always a new demographic watching the show. My kids were too young when I was doing it to watch it, but they’re watching it now and their kids are going to watch it and their kids are going to watch it. There is something really special about this show.
AP: The actors who have worked with you always express such love for you. Why do you think that is?
BURROWS: It’s comedy. That’s what it should be and what the rehearsals should be. I invoked my fun clause once. I was working on a show and the actors were too difficult. So I said, ‘Start my car.’ And I started my car and drove off. I cannot work under these circumstances. There has to be this feeling on set that I work, that we’re all here to put on a good show and not to count lines or complain about the writing or the other actors.
AP: In the book, you include examples of problem solving at work and provide insight into some situations that might be helpful to practicing administrators or those aspiring to become administrators. Was it intentional?
BURROWS: It’s pretty specific to sitcoms but there’s some advice in there. The major piece of advice, which I always try to pass on to the sitcom director community, is to die with your boots on. It’s a writer-driven medium, the writer is also the executive producer and so they sort of control it. There are plenty of sitcom directors who are just traffic cops, moving people around a parrot exactly as the scriptwriters say. I’m a big proponent of the fact that once you’re done reading the script, you go down on stage, rehearse, and try new things.
AP: These days, how do you decide when you’re going to take on something or say yes to making a show?
BURROWS: I’m very selective. I haven’t yet found a show that I would bond with, like I did with “Will & Grace”, which really made me laugh and was like a fountain of youth for me. The last thing I did was that I did a pilot with Valérie Bertinelli which was not selected. And before that, I did “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” with “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” where we had adults playing with kids, Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg and Jen Aniston and Kathryn Hahn and Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, it makes me really happy because I love those people and I love the challenge of taking a decades-old show and remaking it.