Winter 2018

Single Director Pioneer

James Burrows has been the sole director of Will and Grace from the very beginning, and runs the show with an elegant economy


Dave Bjerke/NBC

Self-described "theater rat" James Burrows is never more at home than when he is directing multi-camera comedies.

His name is attached to some of the biggest hits in TV history, but few are as close to his heart as Will & Grace, which he solely directed during its entire eight-season run—as rare a feat as exists in the DGA annals—and now picks up with the season nine premiere episode "11 Years Later" with Burrows again exclusively in the director's chair.

Much has changed in America, and that's reflected in the series. But the comedy formula, especially the physical comedy, remains Will & Grace's linchpin.

"I love it. It's theater," Burrows says. "Every Wednesday night, we're filming a play and it's opening night and we've got to deliver the laughs."

If laughter is the ultimate goal, Burrows believes it is best served in front of a live audience. The audience will tell him what works and what does not.

"What I find with Jimmy and his cast is that there is such an understanding of the energy that the audience brings to the performance," says 1st AD Doug Tobin.

As for the 11-year gap since the original run of Will & Grace went off the air, Burrows found that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

"The four of them came in and it was like 11 years never happened," Burrows says of the new series. "There was the same energy, the same talents and nothing was diminished."

Certainly, after that length of time, there have been changes in their relationships—both in the show and on the set.

"I used to pace more, up and down the stage," says Burrows. "Now I sit a lot more and the cast has more suggestions. They know what they are doing. After 11 years, you acquire a shorthand—a symbiotic relationship between the five of us. The cast has learned a lot since they began and are very creative. It doesn't have the political or cultural clout it used to, but it's still the funniest show I've ever done."

Series creators David Kohan and Matt Mutchnick opted to completely discard some of the events surrounding the series finale, which wrapped everything up in a seemingly unbreakable bow.

Turns out it was all a dream, and the show reset to the previous dynamics. Karen (Megan Mullally) is still rich and didn't lose her money. Jack (Sean Hayes) is still poor and didn't inherit a fortune. Roommates Will and Grace (Eric McCormack and Debra Messing)—who became estranged and came together when their grown son and daughter meet and marry—are now childless, single and ready to mingle.

"[Kohan and Mutchnick] made a good choice not to deal with kids," says Burrows. "They wanted to get them back together and that was important. We also deal with more age-related stuff. We are more political now than we were before, that's just the nature of the climate. But we don't proselytize."

In an episode about aging and dating, Jack almost has a relationship with a twentysomething gay man until Will decides to give him a personal history lesson.

"The speech was to a younger generation of gay men who don't know what the older guys had to go through," Burrows says. "In a strange way, it was a tribute to Will & Grace, a show that was so powerful in advancing the gay rights movement."

Now, the series can take the characters on a journey that is both familiar and contemporary while staying true to its comedy roots. The episode about the death of Rosario (Shelley Morrison) treads the delicate balance between humor and loss by allowing the characters to be true to themselves.

Tobin says Burrows' technical facility allows for considerable streamlining on the set. "His vast knowledge, how calm he is, and camera blocking. I've never seen anyone who works so well with camera blocking. He can set shots in three hours."

Tobin adds that it's rare to have Burrows do more than two takes because he can get everything he needs.

"He's so self-assured and there's just such an efficiency in the way he works," Tobin says. "With a director like Jimmy, you know where you are going and there's no questions."

Tobin says just recently he's seen several examples of how Burrows can turn a scene around to make it better. It can be something simple like a scene where Jack is sitting on a chair with Molly Shannon going around him with packing tape.

"Jimmy says, 'No, spin him around,'" Tobin says. "It made the scene. He just sees the comedy and where it needs to be."

Veteran writer/producer Bob Daily—of whose Superior Donuts Burrows directed eight episodes—remembers a scene in that series' pilot when an actor comes in and says, "I don't do dairy." Burrows took the creamer and put it in front of the actor at the counter and told him to move it when the line was read.

"Jimmy realized that was what the moment needed, and it was an elegant moment that made the scene," Daily says.

Those seemingly small but significant touches translate into Burrows' ability to elevate the performances with an economy of words.

"He has a sort of quiet confidence," says Daily. "He doesn't interrupt or give a lot of notes. When I give notes, it takes seven or eight sentences for me to get across what I want. Jimmy does it in two words."

Burrows says that assurance only came after his stint on Cheers. His father, legendary stage producer and author Abe Burrows, gave him the foundation but not the confidence.

"I'm unassuming," says Burrows. "[My dad] knew how to make a suit and I learned to make a suit. You have to get out from under people's thumbs before you can blossom. With Cheers, I hit a home run and I could call the shots in my career. It gave me validation."

Burrows still prefers to process what he wants to do with the script while watching the actors rehearse.

"I see what is in front of me. I don't prepare at home," Burrows says. "In this form, it is the actor and the script and the set, and that has to come together in front of me."

In talking about performance, Burrows' tendency is to avoid taking credit. "I don't like to toot my own horn," he says. "Maybe it was the actor's idea and I refined it, but I would never say it was my idea.

"The four main characters are incredibly comfortable," he adds, "but with a guest actor I would tell them they will lull you to sleep in rehearsal. But buckle your seatbelt at the live show. You need to be at their level of volume or you'll get swept away."

It's often said about television that writers drive the medium, a perception with which Burrows takes exception.

"You have to work in collaboration, but there are moments in blocking when you can come up with creative pieces of business and contribute to the process," Burrows says. "The one trap I tell directors not to get into is to be intimidated. Create when you have time and don't be a traffic cop. And don't think about your next job, just think about the one you have in front of you."

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