Spring 2015

Lifetime Achievement Award in Television Direction - James Burrows

With 1,000 episodes of TV, including pilots for such iconic comedies as Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory, Jimmy Burrows has helped directors define the genre. Three colleagues talk about his far-reaching influence.


How did Jim Burrows change the sitcom?

MARK CENDROWSKI: I wasn't around in the beginning but his stamp is on every great comedy of the last 30 years. If he didn't do the pilot, he probably did some episodes. He has created what every director in town wants to emulate.

JAMES WIDDOES: I'm not sure he has changed it. He's just done it better and more successfully than anybody. He's actually helped keep it alive almost more than anybody. Those of us working in half-hours now are doing it so either so we can turn the lights out when it's over or hold the banner up until reinforcements come and the genre becomes popular again. When the networks say, we're not going to do any more multi-camera pilots, Jimmy's gonna do a couple and keep the form alive. Jimmy's been a constant through it all to keep it alive.

PAMELA FRYMAN: For me, he invented it. He has a body of work so extensive and overwhelmingly successful. He figured out what works. He's changed it in every way possible. That's all that he's done. I always felt that way.

Do you see his influence on other directors and other shows?

CENDROWSKI: Any ensemble show owes a lot to Jimmy. Think of Cheers, Taxi, and any show nowadays. On Big Bang Theory, he did the pilot and I carried on from there. Having that balance of characters and jokes bouncing back and forth, the pace and tone. We owe a lot to what he's done to ensemble comedy. He's always been a master at it.

WIDDOES: He's influenced a lot of directors who observed him. Pam Fryman. Andy Ackerman was his editor. They clearly were influenced by him. It goes back to how prolific he's been. He's worked on so many shows where he directed the pilots, so those series become opportunities for other people to come in and continue what he started. Many directors had been on Two and a Half Men, but it was the first time I had worked on a Jim Burrows-created series.

FRYMAN: I keep everything he's said in my head—always in the front, never in the back. His shows are educational videos for directors. And the guy's not slowing down.

What makes 'a Jimmy show' a Jimmy show?

FRYMAN: He works on the stuff that counts. When he walks on the stage, he'll close his eyes and listen. He doesn't get caught up in what other people get caught up in. His concentration is on the actors and the staging and making it funny. Today, so many people crowd around the monitor that you can get lost in the shots and not take care of the funny. He taught me to look at what's important.

CENDROWSKI: What I've tried to take from his work is the rhythm of the comedy. He can hear the comedy and plays the actors like an orchestra. It's like jazz musicians playing off one another—he knows what chord to strike, he knows what syncopation to use.

WIDDOES: Jimmy's shows have been by and large the highest profile pilots being made in any given year. Therefore they usually have very strong casts and get the most serious consideration from the networks.

Jimmy Burrows: Fearless and funny (Photo: NBCU Photo Bank)

What impact has Jim personally had on your career?

FRYMAN: When I was talked into directing my first episode of a sitcom, kicking and screaming, I was told to observe Jimmy Burrows. I was slotted to do a show called Café Americain with Valerie Bertinelli, and, having never done the show, I sat in the audience bleachers and watched Jimmy [at work]. The man moves with such ease and grace and is so damn funny. He knew I was coming from soaps, so he said, 'You've been here,' and put his hands together as if mimicking a close-up. He brought his hands farther apart, and said, 'Widen up to see the funny.' Observing him was a master class in funny. The next time I saw him, I got an episode of Friends. He had done the first few. I won the lottery that day. He said I should wear comfortable shoes and told me it was the greatest job I'd ever have. He was warm and helpful to me and I can't tell you why.

WIDDOES: I actually first met him when I was an actor and auditioned for the pilot of Taxi. At that point Jimmy was a rising star, the next Jay Sandrich. He has always been 10 years ahead of me and, as such, he's been one of the people that I was always aware of. As a director, the biggest way he affected me was when I saw him get his first executive producer credit [on Cheers]. That's when [I realized how] a director can be the most impactful on a show, when they're responsible for the first cut and the last cut, in partnership with the writers. That's when I thought, I'd like to do that.

CENDROWSKI: We don't get to work with other directors, but years ago, when I was starting out, there were these breakfast chats sponsored by the DGA, where you could sit with other directors and bullshit and grouse about producers and actors. He always had great advice about dealing with cranky producers and actors who didn't want to do things. Here I was as a young director, sitting with the greats, including Jim Burrows. Practically every pilot went through him, and it turns out he says he has the same problems I do. That was so encouraging—if it happens to Jim Burrows, it happens to everybody.

Do you have a favorite Burrows moment?

CENDROWSKI: One of my favorite moments was the advice he gave at one DGA breakfast. He said, 'As a director, you can't be afraid to be fired. If you have ideas, stand up for yourself. Put yourself out there and if you're fired because the network doesn't like you, that's OK, because if you're good, you'll work.' He was advising young directors to not kowtow and do what producers or actors want, to stand up for your ideals. In his work, one of my favorite moments was one of the last episodes of Cheers ['Loathe and Marriage,' in which Carla's daughter gets married]. It was almost like Noises Off. There were two sets with a lot of characters passing through, and the timing was brilliant and impeccable. This was not just funny but something unexpected. We were used to Cheers being set in the bar, but this was just another level, with everyone performing at another height. The speed was just fabulous.

WIDDOES: This goes back to my audition for Taxi. He has this habit where he stops looking at you and just closes his eyes and listens; he wants to hear the music. It can either be disconcerting or incredibly empowering to know you're physically doing it. He's listening to my voice; he's still laughing, but not looking at me. He's a legend and I very much honor the legend.

FRYMAN: On Taxi, the driving test ['Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey']. It's just so brilliant. But show me any episode and [I can] pick a favorite moment. The idea that he was given a [Lifetime Achievement] award is, like, of course! I would've created an award just for him. I say, give him one every year until he gets tired of it.

(Top Photo: Michael Kelley)

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