Summer 2011

Surprise Attack

The legendary director of Taxi, Cheers, Will & Grace, and numerous other hits says you never know what's going to happen on the set—and that's what makes it fun.

By James Burrows

I'll tell you what I love about directing: the surprise. You never know what's going to happen with your piece until an audience weighs in. You may think you know what will be funny as shit but then a group of bused-in Middle Americans says it is shit and you're shaking your head in dismay. This surprise I find exhilarating and scary—and I love it.

James Burrows Cheers
THE FUNNY STUFF: Burrows (right), directing Ted Danson and Shelley Long
in the first incarnation of Cheers, has learned to expect the unexpected.

When we had to replace Shelley Long after her departure from Cheers, we were careful not to have another waitress in the bar, so we went for the concept of Sam working for a boss who was female. The juxtaposition seemed right. Rebecca was written as a martinet who would cut Sam no slack and also cut off his cojones. We were excited to run the show in front of an audience, and when we did, bang!—no laughs in the first scene with the two of them. The Charles brothers (who had created the show with me) and I were dumbfounded until Rebecca has to enter her office, and for some unknown and unscripted reason, the handle on the door gets stuck and she can't get the door open. She struggles fitfully with the handle and suddenly, the audience begins to titter…more fumbling, a few laughs…more stumbling, outrageous laughter. And the character emerged. A woman who thought she was in control but at the core was totally discombobulated. Brilliantly played by Kirstie Alley, she put new life into our show. There's that surprise moment with the audience that kills me.

Even before that, during the first audience run-through of Cheers, Norm Peterson, wonderfully played by George Wendt, entered the bar and dutifully said, "Afternoon everybody," to which the people in the bar reverentially responded, "Norm!" Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) chimed in, "What do you know?" to which Norm answered, "Not enough." To our surprise this simple phrase, "Not enough," intended as a straight line, got a huge laugh. And from that moment on when Norm entered it was incumbent on us to make it funny. It was a great surprise that the audience laughed, and not so great because it made his entrances harder to write.

On Taxi, I had the great fortune of directing many wonderful episodes, none more classic than Reverend Jim's driving test. It was maybe the funniest show I did. Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), a "former stoner"—yes we had to say former—is at the motor vehicle bureau taking his written drivers' exam. Some of the amazing cast—Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner and Jeff Conaway—who were helping him navigate the rigors of the test, were standing nearby. Reverend Jim gets to a question that perplexes him and he whispers to his pals, "What does the yellow light mean?" Jeff whispers back, "Slow down." So Jim repeats his question, slower. "What does a yellow light mean?" To which Jeff emphatically whispers again, "Slow down." And of course Jim repeats the question even S-L-O-W-E-R. Here is the surprise moment: I thought in rehearsal that this would be the end of the joke, but I let it go further with the same two lines and the audience continued to laugh uproariously. The actors, in spite of the endless guffawing, never broke up and embellished the moment with true character behavior. They realized they were dealing with a crazy individual in a controlled environment and reacted that way. As a director, I would like to take the credit for that wonderful energy by saying that the work we did on their characters early on led them to behave this way, but deep in my heart I know it was a combination of my work, a great scene, and terrific actors who knew where the laughs were.

Based on my experience with that surprising Taxi moment, I should have been prepared for a scene in the first season of Friends. Ross (David Schwimmer) was about to screw up the courage to ask out Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). He's on the balcony and just as he is about to utter the words, we cut to a cat perched right above him. Ross says, "Rachel, would you…." We cut to Rachel seeing the cat and going "Oooooh." Ross, not seeing the cat, thinks it's addressed to him and excited by her response, says, "Yes." At which point the cat jumps on his shoulder. He freaks out and tries to get the cat off. We immediately cut inside where the gang—Phoebe, Monica, and Joey (Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, and Matt LeBlanc)—are sitting on the couch singing "Top of the World." In the background through the window, we see a crazed Ross running back and forth across the balcony, unbeknownst to the people inside, still trying to get the cat (which we humanely replaced with a stuffed one) off his back. Now, I told David, thinking back to my experience on Taxi, that I would let the scene run for about 30 seconds. I was wrong. After 45 seconds of laughter, Schwimmer couldn't do any more, so he pulled the stuffed cat off his shoulder and threw it, inhumanely, against the wall. Again, great words, great actors, and some direction—and a surprise moment.

There have been other moments like that, such as a prop not working on the live broadcast of Will & Grace; or Danny DeVito, revealing his true stature, emerging from his cage for the first time on Taxi; or Kelsey Grammer shifting from su pporting actor on Cheers to leading man on Frasier without the slightest hiccup. In fact, they never stop, which is why I will never stop. This excitement and panic at the same time gives me a thrill and the perspective that maybe I don't know it all—and that comedy is surprise.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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