'Must See TV' Special "Was Like a High School Reunion" for 'Friends,' 'Cheers' Casts, EP Says

"I don’t know that something like this could ever come together again in our lifetime because there's only one Jimmy Burrows," EP John Irwin tells THR.
 Chris Haston/NBC

Reuniting the cast of Friends — or least five out of six — is no small feat. Bringing together the casts of Friends, Cheers, Will & Grace, Frasier, Taxi, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly on the same night, in the same room? TV producer John Irwin calls it an "epic undertaking."

But lo and behold, stars like Jennifer Aniston, Ted Danson, Debra Messing, Danny DeVito, Melissa McCarthy and many more will share the screen Sunday on NBC for a new two-hour primetime special. The occasion? Paying tribute to longtime TV director James Burrows as he hits his 1,000th episode, on the upcoming sitcom Crowded.

"When we first started reaching out to talent, it was just so clear that everybody was on board to participate, which truly is a testament to Jimmy and how much people just love him," Irwin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I have to say, I don’t know that something like this could ever come together again in our lifetime because there's only one Jimmy Burrows. … People literally just dropped whatever they had scheduled for that day and made it a point to participate."

In addition to bringing this long list of talent together, Irwin and fellow executive producers Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner went to great efforts in other ways to make the event feel like a true celebration. "We didn’t want this to feel too technical," says Irwin of the Golden Globes-style seating arrangement that put various castmembers together at round tables to enjoy food and drink. "That kind of setup creates a much looser, more relaxed kind of vibe than if you're in a theater. Because then during our commercial breaks, people are talking and sitting at other people's tables; it just creates a better energy and I think that really comes through in the show."

Also upping the energy is the show's "ambitious" cold open, Irwin says, featuring Woody Harrelson, Eric McCormack, Matt LeBlanc and Charlie Sheen, among others. "It just helps to break it up," he says. "The cast was totally down to participate."

The special also features two hosts — Watch What Happens Live's Andy Cohen and Hollywood Game Night's Jane Lynch — who take turns moderating cast reunions when it's their turn to take the stage. "It really was an embarrassment of riches and you definitely got the sense that, for a lot of these big casts, this was like a high school reunion in a good way because everybody obviously gets busy and goes their own way and when they're up on stage — even the guys of Big Bang who still see each other everyday — they were all just super engaged," Irwin says. "We had to make tough decisions in the edit because there was so much great stuff."

But beyond just reuniting these star-studded casts and getting fun anecdotes from their respective shows, the creative team behind the special always kept its focus on the reason for the evening. "The thing that came across for me that was so powerful was that you got all of these casts that span all these decades and generations and they all have such reverence for him. I can't count how many times I heard people say that Jimmy was like their surrogate father," Irwin says. "It really is the ultimate celebration of one's career and life to a certain extent."

In addition to seeing their favorite casts together again, even if briefly, Irwin hopes viewers walk away with a newfound appreciation for the shows themselves. "I think there will be a little bit of discovery from some young people that may not have grown up with Taxi or Cheers," he says. "They're going to go, 'Oh, my God, I want to watch that show.'"

Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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