'Awards Chatter' Podcast — James Burrows ('Will & Grace')

One of the most prolific and admired directors in TV history — the go-to guy for sitcom pilots — reflects on how Mary Tyler Moore helped him break into the biz, the 15 years he split between 'Taxi' and 'Cheers' (he co-created the latter) and being at the center of NBC's 'Must See TV' era with 'Frasier,' 'Friends' and 'Will & Grace.'
Photographed by Koury Angelo
James Burrows

"I like to say, 'You can go homo again,'" cracks the legendary television director James Burrows in reference to the reboot of NBC's Will & Grace — every episode of which he directed, original version (1998-2006) and reboot (2017-) — as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "It's a really important show," he says more seriously, "the funniest show I've ever done — far and away the funniest show. Jokes you can do on this show, you can't do on any other show. And it's probably the [show of mine] that has had an impact on the way we live more than anything else. [In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden, in endorsing gay marriage, said, "I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has done so far."] I'm proud of that."

Burrows, 78, has won 10 Emmys, five DGA Awards and the Television Critics Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, and has shaped the average American's TV viewing experience over the last 40 years as much as any behind-the-scenes figure. Described by The New York Times as "the most wanted man in television," Burrows is the most prolific and talented director of sitcoms in the medium's history, with more than 1,000 episodes to his name, including more than 50 pilots — the stand-alone episodes of prospective series that establish the tone and style of a show, and from which networks decide whether or not to order a full season of a show — such as Taxi, Cheers, Night Court, Wings, Friends, Will & Grace, 3rd Rock From the Sun and The Big Bang Theory. Indeed, as Glen and Les Charles, who co-created Cheers with Burrows, said when presenting him with the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, "James Burrows has made more pilots than a hooker at an airport hotel."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

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Burrows was born in Los Angeles but raised in New York, where his father, Abe, became a legendary man of the theater, winning Tonys for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the latter of which also brought him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Burrows admired his father, but wanted to make his own way in the world. "I had no aspirations to be in show business," he says. "I wanted to do anything but be in the theater." He went to Oberlin College and then, mainly to avoid the Vietnam War, the Yale School of Drama, where, for lack of a more preferable option, he focused on playwriting. ("I was a terrible playwright," Burrows insists.) After graduating in 1965, he wound up assisting his dad on the troubled Broadway musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, which starred Mary Tyler Moore. He remained with the production even after his father was replaced, and in the course of its short life — it never officially opened — bonded with Moore.

Over the ensuing few years, Burrows got directing experience in theaters across America. One day, while watching TV, he happened upon an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was just bursting onto the scene, and realized, in watching his friend acting in a multicam sitcom in front of a live audience — that it wasn't all that different from theater. He wrote Moore asking if he might be given a shot at directing her show, even though he had never directed for the screen before, and her husband, MTM Productions chief Grant Tinker, invited him out to Los Angeles. After arriving in May 1974, Burrows spent a few months observing other MTM directors at work, including the great Jay Sandrich (who "inspired" him and would become his mentor), and then got his own first opportunities to direct — The Mary Tyler Moore Show (four episodes between 1974-1976), as well as Phyllis (19 eps between 1975-1976), The Bob Newhart Show (11 eps between 1976-1977), The Tony Randall Show (4 eps, 1976-1977), Laverne & Shirley (8 eps, 1976-1977), Lou Grant (1 ep, 1977) and Rhoda (4 eps, 1977-1978).

Burrows' gifts — at comedy timing, working with actors and writers, coming up with funny bits of business and the like — quickly became apparent. "When you do multicamera shows, you have to be funnier than when you're doing single-camera shows because you have to appeal to an audience," Burrows asserts, noting that he never uses a laugh track to pad the audience response. Soon, he began directing pilots, the third or fourth of which was the Charles brothers' creation Taxi. It was Burrows' idea to use not three but four cameras on the show, since the set and the cast were both unusually large, and that has since become the norm. "That was my hardest show," Burrows reflects, as he had to juggle a wide cross-section of personalities and constantly fought against low ratings until the show was finally canceled — but it was Taxi that made possible Cheers. Burrows and the Charles brothers had bonded and decided to create together a show not about a place people wanted to get out of, like Taxi, but instead a place people wanted to get into.

Cheers, which Burrows proudly calls "my baby," wasn't immediately a ratings success, but, championed by critics and Emmys voters, it found a following that eventually exploded, making the show a staple, for 11 seasons, of what NBC branded its "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup (which came to be dominated by Burrows shows). It was so big that when it ended, it was spun off — before spinoffs were a common thing — into Frasier, which, in turn, ran for another 11 seasons. It was thanks to the phenomenal success of those two shows that Burrows became the go-to-guy for pilots. "I started to get all the comedy scripts coming my way," he says, "and I was smart enough to pick the right ones." For instance, he was the earliest believer in Friends and adjusted his packed schedule in order to be able to guide it through its first season.

Will & Grace, though, holds a special place in his heart. When the show was first getting off the ground more than two decades ago, its creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, resisted the network's idea of having Burrows direct its pilot, feeling he was too old. They met with him, however, and he won them over — to the extent that he directed all 194 episodes of the original run, and has directed all 32 episodes since it was revived for a ninth and tenth season (the latter of which is still rolling out this month). "I always felt about this show that this show is a fairy tale, literally and figuratively," Burrows says. "It's a show that plays in a hyper-reality. It's a show that you can do stuff with that you can't do on any other show because there's an innocence to this show — it's a non-threatening show that deals with issues that are threatening to a lot of people. That was my vision and the boys' [Mutchnick and Kohan's] vision."

What is Burrows' outlook, as he closes out his eight decade of life and enters his 45th year in TV, and the format with which he has always been associated seems to be endangered? "I have been at the death of multicamera comedy four or five times," he says with a chuckle, "and we always seem to come back." As for himself, Burrows says retirement is not on the table, because he not only wants but needs to keep working. "If I don't use that part of my brain, I will go sallow," he says. "I need to laugh. I need to have a good time. I need to go somewhere where people are having fun. It's not that I don't have fun at home, but I need that. It's just an essential part of my life."