TV director-producer James Burrows

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Multiple Emmy winner discusses his ability to bring shows to TV networks that are innovative in a business that places an incentive on shows that are imitative.

Writer-producer-director James Burrows is one of the small screen's most respected talents. He's been associated with some of the most successful sitcoms ever, including Will & Grace and Cheers—which earned him multiple Emmys. Burrows learned his trade from his dad, the celebrated writer-director Abe Burrows and, after earning a fine arts master's degree from Yale, worked as a stage manager. He directed several off-Broadway shows before shifting to TV in the '70s. His current project is as director-producer of CBS' Mike & Molly.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome James Burrows to this program. The 10-time Emmy winner is now the most successful director in television history, with a resume that includes some of TV’s most iconic shows. His latest project is the new comedy, “Mike and Molly.” The show airs Monday nights at 9:30 on CBS. Here now, a scene from “Mike and Molly.”
Tavis: I’ll get to “Mike and Molly” in just a second. So over my left shoulder there’s a TV monitor that you immediately had our floor guy turn away so you wouldn’t have to see yourself. So I’m laughing – you do this every day, shooting other people, but you don’t want to see yourself on camera.
James Burrows: I would be so self-conscious, and I was scared there would be a delay there, so I would be saying something and my mouth would not be moving. (Laughter) No, I’m usually behind; I’m not usually in this chair. I’m honored to be in this chair.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you. But to your point, given that you are not just a behind-the-scenes guy, you are, in this town, the behind-the-scenes guy, uncomfortable for you sitting in the chair?
Burrows: Not at all, not at all. I’m fine. Should I lean -?
Tavis: No, you’re fine, you’re fine. (Laughter) I’m just asking. Since you like being on the other side, I want to make sure you’re okay, first off. Can I get you anything? Are you sure you’re okay?
Burrows: No, I’m fine, I’m fine.
Tavis: Okay. So “Mike and Molly,” so with “Will and Grace” it was the gay jokes, and it survived and did quite well. “Mike and Molly,” some people are concerned about the fat jokes. About that, you have to say?
Burrows: If not on this show, then what show? I remember on the pilot of “Will and Grace” some executives from NBC saying to me, “There are too many gay jokes.” I said, “If not on this show, then what show?” The same with “Mike and Molly.” They meet at Overeaters Anonymous, they are zaftig, and you do those jokes because I think in life people do those jokes.
In the pilot there are more because I think we wanted to just – I think that was the natural thing to do in a pilot, as we’ve done. We’re in our seventh show. The fat jokes have abated and there are occasional comments from Mike’s partner, Carl, who says endearingly mean things, and from Molly’s mother comments on that.
But they’re not gratuitous anymore. I think a little bit in the beginning they were. It was incumbent upon us to do those jokes, and Mark Roberts was aware of it, who created the show, and Chuck Lorre, who was the mastermind of sitcom as we know it now.
That’s where you go for the jokes, and we got knocked in the reviews a little bit, but you love these people, so you understand why we’re doing those jokes.
Tavis: We love what about “Mike and Molly?”
Burrows: They’re kind of ordinary people, they’re not Robert Redford and Angelina Jolie, they’re not beautiful people. They’re kid of average-looking. They are – I’m sure 95 percent of America are not beautiful people, and this is a couple that we think is germane to most of America.
Tavis: And these days, 95 percent of us are a little overweight. (Laughter) Present company included – I speak for myself. Most of us can familiarize this on some level. As I said earlier, you are the master at this. You are the go-to guy in this town every year when it comes time for pilot season – that is, for those who are not in the business, when they’re shooting these new shows and trying to figure out which one’s going to work, they do what’s called a pilot and this is the guy they all go to if it’s going to be a comedy. Everybody wants this guy to do it.
So I know your desk gets overloaded every year with all of these pilots, and you have to pick and choose what you’re interested in doing, if anything. You obviously have a process that works, given all the stuff that you have done, from “Cheers” to “Friends” to “Will and Grace.” We could do this – I could be here all night just calling off your shows. What’s your process for picking these winners?
Tavis: Well, in the beginning when I started out I had to take anything that came my way, because I did not have any reputation or self-esteem, and then once “Cheers -” I did “Taxi,” which was back then a seminal show. But once “Cheers” hit, I started to get a lot of pilots.
The first thing I look for is the writing. Most of the pilots I choose do not have high-concept ideas, so for me it’s not the idea as much as the execution of the idea, and if the idea, like you take a bar in Boston, that’s not a high-concept idea. But if it’s executed well, it makes a great show.
You take six people sitting around a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, not a great idea, not a high-concept idea, but the writing was so good. So that’s what – I look for writing. That’s the first thing I look for. The second thing I hope will happen is that you can cast it well, and you have to be lucky. You have to have those people available that fit the roles at that particular time.
I always tell the story that when I did the pilot of “Friends” in ’94 it was the last pilot I read at my desk and I said to my agent, “I have to do this.” He said, “You have no time.” I said, “I’ll do it on the weekends.” So in the process of casting, those six people were available at the end of a pilot season, so that’s how – that’s where luck comes in. Totally where luck comes in.
Then the third thing that has to happen is that the network has to schedule you right. They can put a really good show on at a certain timeslot and it’s going to get killed. When “Cheers” went on the air we didn’t have a lot to prove. NBC was just coming back from – or just starting. They had been in third place for a number of years so they put on a lot of interesting shows.
But when you get a show like “Will and Grace,” which is controversial, I begged the network to put us at a slot not after “Seinfeld” or “Frasier,” where you’d have to do a number right away and there’s no reason to watch that show, put us on – say, put us on Monday night where we didn’t have a lot to prove.
Then once people started to see the show they would tell their friends because it was so funny. So those are the three things that have to happen for a show to be a success.
Tavis: You said a moment ago that when you started you had no reputation and no self-esteem. I want to pick up both of those, if I can. The reputation piece first. You didn’t have a reputation, but your father did. So I suspect in some ways you’re trying to create your own legacy while you’re in your father’s shadow, number one, and I’d love your thoughts about that.
But secondly, how does one go on to have all this success when one starts with little to no self-esteem?
Burrows: My father was Abe Burrows, who was a Broadway legend. “Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed,” “Cactus Flower,” “40 Karats,” “Can-Can,” “Happy Hunting,” “Reclining Figure,” it goes on. He was a legend, and when I was growing up I was Abe Burrows’ kid. That was my self-esteem. It took me half an hour before I mentioned it, and that was it, and that was where I got my, as we say in Yiddish (speaks in Yiddish). That’s where I got my fulfillment.
Then I went into his business, I was a stage manager on Broadway, and I didn’t quite know what my father did. I didn’t have a sense of it. So when I started working with him as stage manager I got to see what he did, and he was a playwright, but he also directed and wrote on his feet, and I saw how he treated people.
Then that led to me – as a stage manager you direct the understudies in a show, so I got into directing. But I would go out and direct dinner theater and summer stock in small communities and stuff like that, and in my mind I knew New York was not the place for me because of his reputation. I would always – at that point I had grown to see that being Abe’s kid was not going to get me the fulfillment I needed.
So I literally wrote a letter to Mary Tyler Moore, because I had known her on one of the shows I stage managed that was a disaster, and she was doing this show, the “Mary Tyler Moore” show, which was a half-hour live show, which are the kind of shows I do, which are sitcoms in front of a live audience.
She brought me out and I started in L.A. I got one show to do and the rest – that’s 36 years ago. (Laughter) Once I got to this town it took about five years before people were saying, “I didn’t realize Abe Burrows was your father.” So that was important to me in my career.
So my self-esteem started to blossom a little bit because I had a reputation of being a good director, not Abe’s kid. Then I went on the shows that I worked on initially – in the situation comedy business you go to a show that’s already established. You have to play by the rules of the show, which means you have to – all the actors know what they’re doing and therefore, you have to play by those rules.
You have to give directions that play within those rules and the actors will respond to, and so I did that for about four or five years on these shows. Then when “Cheers” hit, since I was a co-creator I had the ability to put an imprimatur on the show, and that’s when I started realizing that what I had was really valuable and what I could do was really valuable.
So that’s when my self-esteem started to blossom and it really changed my life. I became much cockier (laughs) and people started to hire me because this ability that was underneath that I had learned a lot from osmosis with my father, this ability to create and to know what’s funny and how to do jokes and stuff like that started to come out.
So I became more than a television director, I became a guy who really shaped the show.
Tavis: How do you, to your point now, or the point you made a moment ago, and I suspect you were somewhat joking but maybe a bit serious about being a little bit more cocky now, who in this town isn’t a big more cocky when they’ve found the kind of successes you’ve had?
But it raises for me a serious question – when you start with little to no self-esteem, living in somebody else’s shadow, trying to find your own authentic voice, that thumbprint on your throat, when you’re trying to figure all that out in that context and you have this success, how do you keep from becoming the exact opposite – the kind of guy that nobody wants to work with because you are as successful as you are? How do you balance those two things out?
Burrows: Well, when I started out there was ability there. There was this innate ability that –
Tavis: Well, there had to be.
Burrows: Yeah.
Tavis: Or you wouldn’t be sitting here.
Burrows: On my first show I literally – it was a “Mary Tyler Moore” script and I said to Grant Tinker after we read the script around the table, “In a sea of Danish, I get a bagel,” it was so bad. It turned out to be a C-minus show, but I went on that stage, I died with my boots on. I invoked Shakespeare, I invoked Chekov, I invoked anything I could.
I tried to put funny bits in, and they saw how much I had to contribute. So that was – I was demure in playing by the rules, but I did try to put stuff in that would be allowed under their rules.
Then when I became a success, I used my cockiness but nobody would call me cocky, and maybe that’s the wrong word. I used my – they called me an 800-pound gorilla, because my job in all these shows that I’ve done is to protect the vision of the writer, because when I read the script I saw the vision of the writer and that’s why I chose that script, because I liked it.
So it’s my job to protect that vision, and with the networks becoming more powerful and influential as to what kind of shows they want on the air and what makes things funny, I’m the guy who steps up and says to the network, “This will be fine. Leave it alone.” Sometimes if the network has a good note, I’ll say to the writers, “No.” So I am that kind of guy who transcends a number of areas. So cockiness is maybe the wrong word because I do it with a smile and I do it with a velvet hammer, but I do have this ability to transcend a lot of problems.
Tavis: How has that dance that you’ve done over the years with the networks changed? I ask that for all the obvious reasons. The networks have changed, their strategies have changed, their future is looking not as bright as it once did, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So for a guy like you, who they look to bring these hit shows to every season, your influence notwithstanding, how has that dance that you do with the networks changed over the years?
Burrows: Well, the basic point of the issue is television is an imitative business. The creation of shows are imitative. “CSI” hits, right after “CSI” hits there are 12 more procedurals on the air. “Cheers” hits, right after that there’s all these bar shows, there’s all these ensemble comedies. “Friends” hits, there’s comedies –
Tavis: Everybody has friends.
Burrows: Everybody has friends. (Laughter) So it’s an imitative business. It’s very difficult to be innovative, because innovation is something that they don’t know quite what to do – in the old days when Brandon Tartikoff was alive and Grant Tinker and they were running NBC and there were other executives, there were more – there were only three networks, so they could be a little more innovative.
Now the networks have become really, really popular and they all seem to develop the same kind of show for their network. It’s rare that you have a show like “Modern Family,” which all of a sudden is incredibly innovative.
So it’s my job with an innovative show to say to the network, “Don’t try to make it imitative. Leave us alone.” “Will and Grace,” “Mike and Molly,” “Big Bang.” There you go, “Big Bang,” Chuck Lorre’s show, characters you’ve never seen before. Don’t homogenize them. Let them be who they are, let Chuck’s vision and Bill Prady’s vision come through and your show – take a chance.
It’s called taking a chance. Networks are reluctant to take a chance. They put on shows that they know will work on some level, but to get the innovative show it’s very difficult.
Tavis: This is not your bailiwick, as you said earlier, but TV has changed so dramatically in that 36-year period when you and “Mary Tyler Moore” first hooked up, and reality TV now – easy for me to say – is all the rage these days. I’m just curious as to your thoughts, particularly a guy like you, given what you do, your thoughts about how reality TV has changed your business.
Burrows: Well, I’ve said this before and I don’t know if I’m right about this. I think that the American culture in reality shows, the American culture would rather see a peer lose weight or a peer fall down and hurt himself or a peer go on an island or a peer do this or a peer do that or a peer do that than see a fictional version of that, because if the peer trips and falls and hurts himself, the person at home feels better that they didn’t.
That somebody like them it happened to. So the fantasy of fictional characters is not as rewarding for people, and I don’t know why. But I think that that may be why reality shows are so successful. They are amazingly successful now and I think a lot of it has to do with that. I think a lot has to do with Schadenfreude, where you see somebody like you have a bad day. It’s better than seeing a character have a bad day. That’s just my opinion why.
Tavis: But if you’re right about that, that would answer – it says to me what I’ve been thinking about – it says to me that that’s why reality TV is going so well, and conversely why soap operas are getting canceled.
Burrows: Yeah.
Tavis: Because nobody needs to see a fictional character anymore.
Burrows: No.
Tavis: If you can watch a reality show, you don’t have to live vicariously through these fictional soap opera characters.
Burrows: Yeah, and comedy’s a little different, because comedy people – comedy is a release for people. They have to – you’ve got to make them laugh. So in bad times and good times, comedies always work. The procedurals and the dramas are a little tougher. I think people get occupied in the procedurals because they have to figure – it’s a mystery. But in a lot of the dramas they’re having trouble because of I think this phenomenon.
Tavis: The other question I wanted to ask relative to your success over the years is how you keep yourself motivated. That might sound strange, but once you have figured out how to do this and you can pick these winners out and everybody’s betting on you to do it every year and you come through every year, can success ever get boring?
Burrows: I’m a man who has to work, okay? And I’m a man who, if his work is no fun, I don’t do it. I literally have a fun clause in my contracts to say if I’m not having any more fun, I can leave.
I so love what I do, I so love that on “Mike and Molly” it’s Wednesday night in front of the audience. There’s nothing greater than that high of working for five days to see if these jokes work, to see if the story works. I’ve been on shows for 25, 30 years that always had good writing.
I’m not a writer, but these guys, these writers, from the Charles brothers to David Marta to Max and David on “Will and Grace” to Chuck Lorre, who I’ve done four or five pilots with and now I’m doing a show with, to Mark Roberts, to all these guys, they give me the words that make it inspirational for me to work.
If you come and watch one of my shows you’ll see me laugh, you’ll see me have a great time. I did 190 “Will and Graces” because I would laugh my ass off. The show is funny and the show is moving and the show was groundbreaking. “Mike and Molly” is a moving show too, and really funny, because the characters are kind of unlike any other characters I’ve worked with and they say – the writing is so smart on the show. So as long as I have fun and I’m having a great time I will continue to do it.
Tavis: I got a minute and 30 seconds to go. I saved this story to the very end, my staff doesn’t even know this, I haven’t told them this. But you started the show –
Burrows: (Unintelligible)
Tavis: No, no, no, sit down, you’re fine. (Laughter) You started this show by telling me how honored you were to be on the show and I responded by saying I’m honored to have you on. In the basement of my house, and it’s in the basement for a reason, in the basement of my house there’s a picture, when I first came to this town – I came to this town trying to make it and there was a period during which it appeared that I wasn’t, in fact, going to make it.
The only way I could keep myself alive was signing up with a couple of agencies around town to be an extra on a number of shows, (laughter) making a couple checks here and there. I got called one day for “Cheers.” I sat at the bar and I made the shot.
So in my basement, there’s a picture of me sitting on the set at “Cheers” when you were directing the episode.
Burrows: Wow.
Tavis: And my first time meeting you, I can tell you thank you for one of the high moments of my life.
Burrows: I appreciate that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Many, many years ago when I first came to this town, but it’s just so funny to have you on the set now.
Burrows: What show was it, do you remember?
Tavis: I can’t tell you the exact episode, but I’ll send it to you. I’m going to find it and let you know what that is. Now you’re making me think, I forgot the name of the episode. (Laughter) But for me, it didn’t matter. It was “Cheers,” and I was sitting at the bar and you caught me in one shot and you didn’t cut me out, so thank you.
Burrows: A pleasure.
Tavis: And now we finally meet. (Laughter) So thank you. His name, of course, James Burrows, the show, “Mike and Molly,” Monday nights on CBS, so be sure to check it out. Jim, good to have you on.
Burrows: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thanks for coming on.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm