Roll the Credits

REVIEW: 'Directed by James Burrows'

James Burrows / Getty Images
July 31, 2022

Sitcom directors are humble figures in Hollywood's hierarchy. When promoting a new show, networks may tell you the producers' previous hits, cite the creators' other work, and throw in the name of a star or two, but they never mention who's directing the thing. Viewers watch a sitcom for the characters and the jokes, not the camera angles and reaction shots. Besides, a single season of a sitcom often has several directors—how important could they be?

If the director is James Burrows, the answer is very. Burrows directed some of the most successful multi-camera comedies on American television: nearly every episode of Taxi, 240 episodes of Cheers, and all 246 episodes of Will & Grace, as well as 32 of Frasier and more than a dozen of Friends. The winner of 11 Emmy awards, he's directed more than 1,000 episodes in all, including countless pilots and episodes of underappreciated greats (Wings and NewsRadio), obnoxious mediocrities (2 Broke Girls), neglected coulda-beens (The Class), and plain old duds (Chicago Sons). You could write a parody of "We Didn't Start the Fire" with nothing but titles of his shows.

In Directed by James Burrows, the prolific director tells the story of his remarkable career, provides lessons in the craft of directing, and offers a history of one of America's most popular, if not most respected, forms of entertainment. Burrows was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and grew up in Manhattan. His father, Abe Burrows, was a successful and well-connected writer, director, and producer, as well as an attentive mentor to his son. Burrows the Younger initially followed in his father's footsteps. As a student at Oberlin College, he spent his summers working at rural theaters and then, on his father's advice, attended the Yale School of Drama in part to avoid being drafted. There, he fell in love with directing.

After Yale, Burrows dabbled in television but focused on theater, including on Broadway as the stage manager for the musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's, written and directed by none other than Abe Burrows. The production was a disaster, but it gave Burrows the opportunity to work closely with Mary Tyler Moore, who starred as Holly Golightly. The relationship he built with her would pay off eight years later, when he saw an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and realized that the multi-camera sitcom format played to the skills he'd been sharpening in theater. He wrote a letter to the star and asked for a job. He got one.

In the 1970s, Burrows directed episodes of sitcoms like The Bob Newhart Show and Laverne & Shirley before catching the attention of the legendary writer James L. Brooks, who asked him to join a new show he was developing: Taxi. That project gave Burrows the chance to work with a talented group of writers—led by Glen and Les Charles—and a remarkable ensemble cast that included Andy Kaufman, Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Lloyd. After four seasons there, Burrows and the Brothers Charles decided to concoct a classic of their own. The 11-year run of Cheers cemented Burrows's reputation as a director who worked well with writers and actors and could contribute valuable ideas of his own. And the show's ability to thrive even after its female lead (Shelley Long as Diane Chambers) departed is a testament to the creative talent's adaptability. The fact that Burrows says Long went on to have a successful film career is a testament to his generosity.

Although Burrows is partly to blame for the first attempt at a Cheers spinoff, the short-lived The Tortellis, he made up for it with his work on Frasier, which debuted only months after Cheers closed its doors in 1993. The next year, he directed much of the first season of Friends and then, in 1998, he started work on Will & Grace. In short, he was a major force in shaping three of the most successful shows of the 1990s after spending most of the 1980s shaping that decade's best sitcom. But what Adam Smith said of nations is true of a career in sitcoms: There's a lot of ruin in it, even for someone as successful as Burrows. Does the Henry Winkler show Monty ring any bells? What's your favorite episode of The Marshall Chronicles? Where were you when NBC canceled The Fanelli Boys? The book's accounts of some of the shows that failed are nearly as compelling as the successes.

Burrows shares many juicy tales from behind the scenes. There's the time Andy Kaufman demanded that a character from his stand-up act be allowed to audition for a role on Taxi. It's a funny story, but Burrows is perhaps too nice about Kaufman's eccentricity, which led to one of the show's dumber plotlines, when the meek mechanic Latka becomes a Lothario named Vic Ferrari. And he barely mentions the Taxi character John Burns, played by Randall Carver, who lasted only one season. It's rare for a successful show with an ensemble cast to goof so egregiously on a character. What happened? On the other hand, he's happy to explain why Jay Thomas's character was killed off in Cheers. Lesson: If you have a recurring role on a major sitcom, don't mock anyone with higher billing. Other villains include Rob Schneider, the star of Men Behaving Badly, who "was neither sweet nor did he know how to play a sweet character, so it became a show about a malevolent guy doing malevolent things."

The most interesting parts of this book are Burrows's insights into the craft of directing: how to make jokes hit, how to coax the best performance out of actors, where to position the cameras, what makes a character a great "center" for a sitcom, how his job differs from a movie director's. "Sitcoms are a writer-driven medium," he tells us. "Directors are there to help them and make it better in every way they can." In an especially entertaining chapter on screwball comedy, Burrows explains why he liked to have Sam and Diane on Cheers, and Jack and Karen on Will & Grace, slap each other. Rewatching Cheers a few years ago, I was struck by how dated this routine was, and Burrows himself acknowledges, "I'm not sure whether slapping would be acceptable today, as a form of affection or anything else." (Burrows did not direct any episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so don't blame him for Will Smith’s recent behavior.)

Thanks to his training in theater, Burrows delights in details of set design. The duct tape on Marty Crane's old recliner? That was Burrows's idea. I had always wondered why the post and beam between the kitchen and living room in Monica’s apartment during the first season of Friends disappeared in the second. Burrows explains that he liked this touch because "it gives dimension to the apartment"; but when he left the show after the first season (they were on a break), the post and beam were removed because other directors found them obtrusive. Fortunately, Monica's ceiling never fell.

It won't surprise you that Burrows is liberal and proud of the social change he believes his sitcoms have helped inspire, and especially how Will & Grace influenced Americans' attitudes toward same-sex relationships. He quotes then-vice president Joe Biden's assessment that the show "did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far." Burrows insists that he never tried to be overtly political, but that strikes me as a bit disingenuous. In an episode of Cheers he directed in 1987, the final shot is a closeup of a Ronald Reagan picture falling off a wall, perhaps wishful thinking about the president's fate in the year of Iran-Contra hearings.

Burrows occasionally gilds the lily. He says that he "was producing four sitcoms on NBC" for its prestigious Thursday night lineup in 1998, yet one of them (Conrad Bloom) lasted only 15 episodes, another (Union Square) didn't make it out of January, and a third (Caroline in the City) was actually on Monday nights that year. He mentions his cleverness in creating the effect of a helicopter taking away characters in 2 Broke Girls and the Will & Grace revival, but that gag had been used 20 years before in an episode of Friends that he didn't direct.

Sitcoms have changed significantly since Burrows's first turn behind the camera. No comedy in the multi-camera format—the kind that announces it was filmed live in front of a studio audience—has won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series since the final season of Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005. Since then, super producer Chuck Lorre has enjoyed enormous popular acclaim for shows like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory (Burrows directed episodes of both), but most critical attention and awards have gone to single-camera shows like The Office, Veep, Modern Family, and Ted Lasso. A point that Burrows makes throughout—that the sitcoms he directed were basically plays for television—highlights an important feature of the older style: long scenes that showcased quality acting and required more sustained attention from viewers. Burrows's book explains some of the luck, work, and craft behind how these shows entertained generations of Americans.

Directed by James Burrows: Five Decades of Stories from the Legendary Director of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, and More
by James Burrows with Eddy Friedfeld
Ballantine Books, 368 pp., $28.99

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.