‘Directed by James Burrows’

Legendary director reflects on life behind the camera at some of TV’s greatest sitcoms

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Will and Grace. Frasier and Niles. Alex, Louie, Elaine, Jim, and Latka. Monica, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross. Norm! Everybody knows their names because of his name--TV director James Burrows. Since the 1970s, Burrows has been delighting viewers with some of the most beloved sitcom characters of all time.

Burrows, who is Jewish, is best known as co-creator, executive producer, and director of the hit show Cheers , and he has directed more than 1,000 episodes of some of television's most successful sitcoms, including Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Frasier, Friends , and Will & Grace .  

Last year, Burrows published his memoir Directed by James Burrows (Ballantine Books), in which he reflects on his prolific TV career. These days, he's back in the director's chair, helming the new CBS reboot series of Frasier, which began taping in February. 

Jewish Chicago recently did a phone interview with L.A.-based Burrows. 

Q. Why did you choose to focus on sitcoms, rather than drama? 

A. Somebody once asked my father [legendary Broadway director Abe Burrows] why he never wrote drama and he said, 'I do write drama--it just happens to be funny.' You can't learn a sense of humor--you have to be born with it, and my dad and my mom put those genes in me. 

What's the secret sauce to making a sitcom work as a director?

[On set], we're all trying to make the best, funniest show possible. And [hopefully] we like one another…and we hope that 'like'-or dare I say 'love'-comes across the screen and embraces an audience. 

Is some of that chemistry piece between the actors just plain luck? 

It's all luck. If you're lucky enough to be able to read actors together, like we did with Sam and Diane, Mike and Molly, and Frasier and Niles, you'll be able to see the chemistry--and hopefully it transmits across the screen. 

Of all your shows, which holds the most special place in your heart?

" Cheers . My two wonderful partners, (Glen and Les Charles), were kind enough to give me creative by-credit, and so we birthed that baby. The three of us were on Taxi together, and Taxi was a show about a situation where all the characters were trying to get out of it [taxi driving]… With Cheers , we wanted to do a show where all the characters wanted to come to [the bar]. 

Did you know right away that Friends would be a hit? 

I got the script late in `94, and I already had committed to four pilots. But I told my agent that I had to do it because it was brilliantly written, with a distinctive voice.  

Will & Grace helped show the humanity of the LGBTQ community to middle America. Was that intentional? 

We never set out to do that-- Will & Grace was a really funny script that happened to have two gay characters. We never proselytized; we just tried to be as funny as possible knowing that maybe 25% of the country would probably not watch us. And if they happened to tune in by mistake, it would be so funny that they'd be charmed by the characters. 

Why did you write the memoir?  

I wrote it because my wife made me. She was tired of me telling [her] my stories. She said, 'If you don't call your agent and write a book, I will.' We did it during COVID, and I had a wonderful co-writer (Eddy Friedfeld) who listened to me talk, and I'm proud of the book. 

What role does your Jewish identity play in your life? 

I'm proud of my Jewish heritage…[and] it certainly helped with the humor.

My parents asked [if I wanted] a bar mitzvah, and you never ask a Jewish kid that because the answer will be 'no'… so I wasn't bar mitzvahed until I was 47. The Charles brothers said that 'I was the only guy they knew who was bar mitzvahed at 47-and lost his hair at 13.' 

Sitcoms have changed so much since their early days, and multi-camera sitcoms seem to be going extinct. Why? 

I've attended the funeral for the death of the sitcom for over 40 years, and each time I pulled the drape and it's never happened. But now I'm really worried-and I don't know why [they're disappearing]. 

What other changes do you see in sitcoms, particularly with streaming services? 

When I started out, there were three networks and 30 great comedy writers. Now there are 500 networks--and 30 great comedy writers.


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