Whether or not you remember it, if you’ve owned a television for any part of the last fifty years you’ve definitely seen the name James Burrows on your screen. Burrows is the acknowledged master of the four-camera sitcom, a format whose heyday may be in the past but whose death has been prematurely reported for decades. Burrows got his start when the sitcom was king, and he started at the top. Leveraging a connection he had made with the star, Burrows directed his first TV show with an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. From there it was on to Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and more, earning him a place in television history.
Directed by James Burrows starts with his early life as the son of legendary theater writer and director Abe Burrows. Uncertain about spending time in his father’s shadow, the younger Burrows nevertheless goes to the Yale School of Drama and discovers a love for directing instead of acting or writing. Starting at the bottom, he worked in regional theaters across the country as a stage manager and occasional director before working on his father’s Broadway musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a legendary flop and the show where Burrows first met Mary Tyler Moore.
Once his television career starts, Burrows’s memoir becomes a combination repository of great behind-the-scenes stories and a beginner’s course on how to direct a four-camera sitcom. Burrows has worked with everyone, and has mostly complimentary things to say about everyone, though he does detail what it was like to work with Taxi star Andy Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton.
Burrows is probably best known to the public for his work on Cheers. In addition to directing nearly every episode, he was also a producer alongside the Charles Brothers, Glen and Les. Since he was involved right from the beginning, Burrows can take the reader all the way through from casting the pilot to the difficulty in wrapping things up on the finale. For any fan of Cheers (and for my money it’s the best television show ever made) this part of the book is worth the money alone.
Though he wasn’t as thoroughly involved, Burrows did direct several episodes of Frasier (a Cheers spinoff) and Friends and has entertaining stories about each, including his trip to Vegas with the six stars of Friends before the first episode aired, giving them money to gamble with so they could enjoy their last shot at anonymity before becoming the big stars he was sure they would be. Burrows has also developed a particular specialty for directing pilots, and though plenty of those shows came and went without fanfare, he did direct the pilots for long-running shows like The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. Burrows also returned to more consistent involvement with Will & Grace, serving as the director for all 246 episodes. He takes obvious pride in the show’s role in the gay rights movement, citing the words of Joe Biden himself, who praised Will & Grace for “normalizing” seeing gay people on television.
Though his lessons will never be applicable for the vast majority of readers, it is still fascinating to read Burrows’s tips for directing comedy and getting the most out of actors. In easy to understand language, he runs through the importance of camera blocking, the value of the four-camera setup, and the best way to indulge actors who want input on their character’s lines.
For any fan of situation comedy, Directed by James Burrows is both a worthwhile history lesson and a fascinating look behind the scenes of some of the best TV ever made.