'Pilot Whisperer' James Burrows on Hitting a Major Milestone: Directing 1,000 Episodes

Michael Schneider
Friends - Season 1
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Cheers

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Burrows on the set of Cheers

Throughout his 40-year career, director James Burrows has kept a diary of every TV series he has worked on. Last year, Burrows took count—and realized he had directed close to 1,000 episodes. “I couldn’t believe I had done that many,” he says. “It went by so fast!” Among his credits, Burrows shot most of Taxi’s 114 episodes, cocreated Cheers (and helmed almost all of the comedy’s 11-season run), shot the Friends pilot and executive produced and directed 188 episodes of Will & Grace. We spoke with Burrows just before he was set to direct his 1,000th episode, for the upcoming NBC sitcom Crowded.

You’ve enjoyed consistent success for 40 years. What’s been your favorite part?
I enjoy shoot nights. It’s gratifying for me when [audiences] laugh. I’m a theater director. This is what I do.

What’s it like when audiences know a character so well, like a Sam Malone or Jack McFarland?
The problem is, the audience is going to laugh no matter what they say. So you get to the point where it’s easy writing jokes for them. For me, I built my career on trying to do shows on pilots and shows with unknown actors on them. If you have a known actor, when he says something, the audience is already primed to laugh. The element of surprise is gone. If you have an unknown actor or unknown character who then says something funny, you’re startled, so you laugh even harder.

You’re known as the “pilot whisperer” for your track record of turning pilots like Friends into hit series. What’s your trick?
It’s about training a new set of actors to behave as an ensemble and respect one another. You check your ego at the door no matter who you are on one of my shows, and you follow me. We’re all in a lifeboat together and we’re all rowing.

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Will & Grace

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Burrows with the Will & Grace cast

Is there a moment on a pilot when you realize things are clicking?
On every pilot, I do an audience run-through about four days into rehearsal. On Cheers, they went crazy for those characters. When Norm entered for the first time, the audience laughed when Sam asked him, “What do you know,” and he answered, “Not enough.” It was never a joke, but they went crazy. They’re not laughing at jokes. It’s the character and the line. I knew on that show, I knew on Friends and I knew on Will & Grace that we had something special. Then there are a couple of pilots I did where a lot of smoke and mirrors were involved. I can take a show that may be mediocre and make it good.

You’re famous for quick shoots.
A lot of directors do two or three passes for coverage. But I just like to keep it going. It’s like a Broadway show.

With fewer multicamera sitcoms now airing, is it harder to find shows to work on?
No. I did three pilots last year, which is fine for me. Crowded got an order for 12 episodes, and I’ve done eight of them. I’m just trying to enjoy my time now. I’ll get all the comedy pilots, and there will be two or three good ones, and I’ll try to glom on to those and see if I can make them great.

[The Big Bang Theory executive producer] Chuck Lorre, of course, is keeping the business going. I’ve worked with him for a number of years, and he’s really good, a wonderful writer. And knows what’s funny. We have a good partnership when we do shows together. I’ve been to the funeral of multi-camera comedy 12 times. And I’ve seen it resurrected.

What was the show that got away?
I was very close to [late NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff. I think he probably gave me the Seinfeld script. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.

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Do you ever watch old episodes of your old shows like Taxi, Cheers or Will & Grace?
Yeah, we have a granddaughter who’s 16 months. When we babysit and she naps, my wife and I will turn on MeTV and there’s always those Will & Grace episodes. They’re so funny. It holds up.

What drew you to Crowded?
It was written by Suzanne Martin, who I worked with on Frasier. It’s not the idea, but the execution of the idea. The idea is a simple one, but it’s how she executed the idea and the way she wrote it that I really appreciated.

Who makes you laugh?
Larry David. Bob Newhart. Richard Pryor did. Eddie Izzard. I saw one of his first concerts and just peed in my pants. So smart. The history professor telling jokes that you would never think of.

Has comedy changed?
No. You gotta make sure they hear the joke, you gotta make sure they see the joke, you gotta make sure you cover the joke, and, hopefully, the joke is funny.