Jennifer Aniston, Bob Newhart, Debra Messing Pay Tribute to James Burrows

James Burrows (left) sat down with Bob Newhart at the TV Academy.
James Burrows (left) sat down with Bob Newhart at the TV Academy.
 

Hundreds gathered at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences on Monday night to honor television comedy legend James Burrows.

Winner of 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, four DGA Awards and a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame, Burrows has directed such hit shows as Taxi, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and the new CBS series The Millers -- along with more than 50 pilots.

Burrows sat next to moderator Pete Hammond as various castmembers from Burrows’ iconic shows came onstage at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood to share candid stories of their work together.

Guests Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Beau Bridges, Margo Martindale, Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Warren Littlefield, Billy Gardell, Chuck Lorre and Jay Sandrich, to name a few, reminisced with the director.

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Called a comedic genius throughout the night, Burrows also had a chance to share some of his most treasured memories. He even revealed one of his secrets to success: “Humor is 90 percent surprise,” he said.

What the 72-year old director didn’t know is that he was in for a few surprises of his own, with special appearances by Friends alum Jennifer Aniston and television icon Bob Newhart.

Newhart walked onstage carrying his recently won (and first ever) Emmy trophy, won for his guest role on The Big Bang Theory. “I never let it out of my sight,” he joked. “I take it in the shower with me.”

It was a night of laughs as actors, directors and executives looked back on their funniest and fondest moments with their beloved colleague and friend.

“He’s the greatest director there is,” said Cheers star Rhea Perlman. “He makes you think that you’re funny, but really, he made you funny.”

How does Burrows want to be remembered? “That every night forever you could tune in and find a show that I did,” he said in a line from his interview with the Archive of American Television that Hammond recounted during his introduction.

Here are six things about Burrows, revealed during the evening, that you might have not known.

1. He was born with comic timing.

As the son of playwright and stage director Abe Burrows, co-writer of the scripts for Guys & Dolls and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Burrows has comedy in his DNA. However, he originally didn’t want to enter his father’s line of work. “He was a legend in the city,” he confessed. “I didn’t think I could live up to that.”

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The younger Burrows ended up attending the Yale School of Drama and working as a theater director in summer stock and in places like the Framingham Dinner Theater in Massachusetts. “People came for the chandelier in the lobby, not the production,” he quipped.

His father got him a job as an assistant stage manager on the Broadway musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where he met Mary Tyler Moore, who played Holly Golightly. It wasn’t until 1974 that Moore brought Burrows on for her eponymous sitcom, which launched his prolific career.

2. He’s a modest man.

Despite his success, Burrows remains humble. “Whatever it is in me, I just see it a certain way, and the way I see it just seems to be the funny way,” he said.

He’s not afraid to admit that sometimes he’s wrong. He says to his writers and actors, “If you don’t like what I’ve done, just tell me and we’ll change it.”

Attempting to step out of the spotlight again, Burrows emphasized that creating television comedy is a team effort: “We’re all here to make the best show possible. It’s a very collaborative medium.”

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While some of the hilarious bits flashed onscreen to open the night were the product of Burrows’ comedic mind, others were a combination of his ideas and the writers’ -- or just the writers’ alone. Hammond praised the director for his protection of scribes throughout the years. “My job is to maintain the vision of the writer,” Burrows noted.

3. He knows what he’s doing (this you probably knew).

“He’s a master at what he does,” Messing told THR. “The thing that is most fascinating to me was seeing how he would walk back and forth during a scene and listen to the music of the comedy. He would know the second that the music was off … he didn’t even have to see it with his eyes.”

“He didn’t want the audience to hear the joke if it wasn’t exactly right,” added McCormack, Messing’s co-star on Will & Grace. Burrows directed each one of the NBC series’ 188 episodes.

“He’s fantastic to have at the helm,” Millers star Bridges told THR. “When you have someone like that leading you, you can kind of relax. I just do what he tells me to do.”

John Ratzenberger of Cheers summed up Burrows’ career in seven words: ”Best director in comedy television, probably ever.”

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4. He has a favorite show.

Co-created with the Charles brothers, Cheers was Burrows’ favorite series on which to work. “We grew up together,” he told THR. His most cherished memory was the last night of the show after 11 years and 275 episodes. “We were a family. There were 50 babies born on that show,” he said, describing the end as a sad occasion.

When it comes to his other shows, he said Will & Grace was the funniest -- “just outrageously funny,” he said -- and Taxi the hardest because of its diverse elements. He’s already on to making lasting memories on his new series The Millers: “I have a new, happy family again,” he said.

5. He knows a hit show when he sees one.

With Aniston at his side, Burrows recalled a time just after the third episode of Friends. “I just had a feeling about the show. I went to Les Moonves, who was then running Warner Bros. TV, and I said, ‘Give me the plane. I’d like to take the kids to Vegas just for dinner, just to talk to them.’”

At Caesars Palace, Burrows said to the young cast, “This is your last shot at anonymity … once the show goes on the air, you guys won’t be able to go anywhere without being hounded.”

While Burrows and Aniston remembered the details of the night differently, both agreed that Aniston won Burrows money at the craps table at some point.

6. The best is yet to come.

“He just gets better,” Ratzenberger said. “What I love about watching these television shows that he directs is hearing his laugh in the background. It’s like his stamp, his brand.”

Burrows’ current project is the CBS comedy The Millers, starring Bridges, Martindale and Will Arnett.

The celebration on Monday night ended with an entertaining clip from the show, followed by a toast by Sandrich.

“To a really wonderful, wonderful friend and a great director,” said Sandrich. “I just saw the clip from your new show, The Millers, and I think what I want to do is just hope that finally you’ve got a hit show.”

As the series debuted solidly last week, Burrows told THR that he loves working on The Millers. “The show is really funny,” he said.

From Burrows, the audience would expect nothing less.

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