Making A Comedy Pilot? You Might Want To Call James Burrows | KERA News

Making A Comedy Pilot? You Might Want To Call James Burrows

Sep 24, 2012
Originally published on November 6, 2013 2:41 pm

"It's staggering."

That's Warren Littlefield, the former president of NBC, talking about the track record of sitcom director James Burrows. Tonight's premiere of Partners is his latest effort, but he's also directed more than 50 other pilots, including Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Taxi, Night Court, 2 Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory and 3rd Rock From The Sun. As Littlefield puts it, "That's unheard of." Not emphatic enough? "There's no one on the planet that has had that level of success," Littlefield says.

He knows whereof he speaks. Back when he was developing Will & Grace, he told the creators, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, to meet with Burrows, and although they originally figured they were taking the meeting as "a courtesy" to the "old man," they eventually did pick him to direct their pilot, not to mention every other episode of Will & Grace that ever was. He knows the difference between slap fights, they say — why it was funnier for Jack and Karen to slap each other slap-slap and then look at each other, as opposed to doing it one slap at a time.

It's the little things, really.

Burrows grew up surrounded by comic timing — his dad, Abe Burrows, co-wrote the script for Guys and Dolls. "When I went for jobs and stuff like that," he says, "I made sure that they knew who my dad was. And when I was dating girls, especially if they were from Broadway."

He worked for his dad for a while, and ultimately became the assistant stage manager on a new musical of Breakfast at Tiffany's that was apparently so awful that the star fled the stage in tears after every performance. Fortunately for Burrows, he bonded with her, and she was Mary Tyler Moore, who then let him direct an episode of her show. Although he says it wasn't a very good script, it led to more directing, and then to his first pilot: Taxi.

Burrows says Taxi was his hardest show, because "the actors were not from the same planet," but the four-camera approach was great for capturing spontaneity. The show produced what he calls "one of the biggest laughs [he] ever heard," during the infamous episode in which Reverend Jim tries to get his driver's license. (There's no real way to do justice to the laugh if you haven't heard it, so do yourself a favor and check out the audio at the top of the post.)

That Taxi script was written by two brothers, Glen and Les Charles. Together with Burrows, they created a show about a Boston bar, and that one did pretty well, too. Cheers, Burrows says, is his baby — his "fifth daughter," in addition to his four more conventional ones.

Despite that success, Burrows says he's not actually all that interested in creating shows. What he loves is directing. On the set of Partners — a show Mutchnick and Kohan also created — he ignores the monitors that are set up to let the audience watch scenes that take place away from the set. In fact, he doesn't even look at the stage. In fact, he's famous for directing with his eyes closed.

"I don't worry about it anymore," he says. "And I know when I block it and when I do it and when I plan it, I know I'm going to get the shot. So I just listen to the music the cast makes." He says it's a little like directing radio, more than television.

Partners premieres tonight on CBS at 8:30 p.m.

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A sit-com premiering tonight called "Partners" has a major advantage over other new shows this season. "Partners" was directed by James Burrows, which is a name with particular residence in Hollywood. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, when Burrows directs a TV pilot, it's more or less a given the show will be picked up for a full season.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Don't just take my word for it. Ask the former president of NBC Entertainment.

WARREN LITTLEFIELD: It's staggering.

ULABY: Warren Littlefield says James Burrows directed the pilots of "Cheers," "Friends," "Frazier," "Taxi," "Night Court," "Two Broke Girls"...

LITTLEFIELD: That's unheard of.

ULABY: And over 50 other pilots, including "The Big Bang Theory" and "3rd Rock from the Sun."

LITTLEFIELD: There's no one on the planet that has had that level of success.

INSKEEP: So when Littlefield was developing a promising new series called "Will and Grace" about a decade ago, he told its creators to meet with James Burrows. But David Kohan and Max Mutchnick were secretly unimpressed by the chance to work with a legend. They quietly decided they would do better with someone younger and fresher.

DAVID KOHAN: We thought, well, we'll do the old man a courtesy. We'll take a breakfast meeting with him.

ULABY: But Burrows won them over. He ended up directing the pilot and every single episode of "Will and Grace" ever aired. Kohan and Mutchnick say Burrows' speed and precision elevate comic moments already written as funny, like when the characters Jack and Karen get into a slap fight.


MEGAN MULLALLY: (as Karen) Get a grip on yourself.

SEAN HAYES: (as Jack) You get a grip on yourself.

MAX MUTCHNICK: It was written as slap.

ULABY: This, says Mutchnick, is where Burrows makes a slap fight sublime.

MUTCHNICK: Jimmy made it slap, slap, slap.

JAMES BURROWS: It wasn't slap, then look and be outraged and slap back. It was slap, slap and then look at each other and be outraged.



ULABY: Burrows was weaned on terrific comic timing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Yes, sir, when you see a guy reach for stars in the sky...

ULABY: He grew up backstage on Broadway. His dad was Abe Burrows, who co-wrote the script for "Guys and Dolls."

BURROWS: You know, and for jobs and stuff like that, I made sure that they know who my dad was, and when I was dating girls, especially if they're from Broadway.

ULABY: They'd learn his dad was Abe Burrows, and Burrows, Sr. hired his son as an assistant stage manager for a new musical.

BURROWS: "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which was a huge flop.

ULABY: It was so awful, the star, Mary Tyler Moore, fled the stage in tears after every performance. She bonded with the assistant stage manager, and later let him direct on TV for the first time.


MARY TYLER MOORE: (as Mary Richards) Newsroom.

BURROWS: I did an episode called "Neighbors." It was not a very good script.

ULABY: But Mary Tyler Moore was pleased. That led to more directing, and then James Burrows' first pilot for the show "Taxi."


ULABY: "Taxi" was about a grab bag group of drivers at a New York City cab company.

BURROWS: The actors were not from the same planet. So that was the hardest show I ever did.

ULABY: Also, because the set was so enormous, Burrows decided to use four cameras, not the usual three. Multiple cameras means you get multiple takes all at the same time. And that meant the actors just had to nail a joke once. That changed the look of contemporary sitcoms, but for Burrows, it also meant he could capture the live audience's genuine, spontaneous response. One of his favorite moments was during an episode when an aspiring cabby has to take a written driving test.

BURROWS: And the rest of the drivers, they are giving him support. And he gets the first question and he says to the rest of the drivers: What does a yellow light mean?

ULABY: The answer is...



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK. What does a yellow light mean?

ULABY: They repeat that joke not one, but three times.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) What...

BURROWS: That's one of the biggest laughs I've ever heard. That laugh goes on for 45 seconds.

ULABY: That particular "Taxi" script was written by brothers Glen and Les Charles. They teamed up with James Burrows to create a brand new show.

GLEN CHARLES: We love "Faulty Towers." We wanted to do a show about a hotel. And then we said all the stuff will take place in a bar. And then we decided, no, we're going to do a sports bar. And we found a city, Boston. "Cheers" has always been my baby, and that's my child. I have four daughters. That's my fifth daughter.


GARY PORTNOY: (Singing) Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.

ULABY: Burrows says he's not really into creating shows. He prefers the hands-on work of directing. Right now, he's getting ready to film an episode of the new comedy, "Partners," and stomping around backstage.

BURROWS: Gursky, stop tinkering, will you?

GURSKY: I'm sorry, Mr. Burrows.

ULABY: It looks like a regular theater - not too big, but with a long corridor, with the sets of different rooms sitting one after the other. The camera and crew can travel back and forth, but the audience is fixed in front of the main set. They need overhead monitors to watch the scenes in other rooms. That makes James Burrows a little crazy.

BURROWS: Back in the old days, when we did "Cheers" there was no monitors, so the audience had to watch the action. Therefore, we had to have all the sets in front of the audience. It was never a problem.

ULABY: James Burrows is so against monitors, he ignores them when he directs. He doesn't even look at the stage. He's famous for directing with his eyes closed.

BURROWS: I don't worry about it anymore. And I know when I block it and when I do it and when I plan it, I know I'm going to get the shot. So I just listen to the music with the cast mates.

ULABY: It's almost not like directing television, he says, so much as radio. "Partners" is actually his second show with the "Will and Grace" guys, and the third time he's directed something called "Partners." One was another sitcom back in 1990s, and the other was the only feature film James Burrows ever directed. He didn't like the experience, he says. He's a sitcom guy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.