He Pilots the Pilots : How to succeed in television without really trying? Call James Burrows. He’s the sitcom director with the golden touch. (Say “Cheers.”)
On a recent cloudy morning in Hollywood, director James Burrows is moving around animatedly on Stage 9 of the Sunset Gower Studios, practicing his unique specialty--trying to breathe life into a new TV sitcom.
This particular show is called “NewsRadio,” which, fittingly, is set in an all-news radio station, and its fate will be decided by its premiere on Tuesday on NBC and five subsequent episodes.
Burrows is hardly infallible--he’s had his hits and misses--but as the director of the pilot episodes of such series as “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Wings,” “Friends” and “Roc,” he is in constant demand by those hoping for a magic touch, and his clout in the power structure of television’s creative community is considerable.
Yet while he is a preeminent shaper of sitcoms--like his acknowledged mentor, Jay Sandrich, whose credits include “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Cosby Show"--Burrows admits that nothing again will probably ever match for him the awesome success of “Cheers,” which he co-created with brothers Glen and Les Charles.
“I’ll never forget that first night,” the 54-year-old Burrows says of “Cheers.” “On a pilot episode, I always run it in front of an audience like three days before I actually shoot it, just to have a sense of what we’ve got. I tell the actors, ‘It’s like New Haven--you’re out of town.’ ”
When George Wendt, as barfly Norm Peterson, made his first entrance on the show and uttered a line that seemed like a mere throwaway, Burrows recalls, “The audience went bananas. And I turned to Glen and Les and I said, ‘OK, we got something special here because they’re laughing at a character, they’re not laughing at a joke.’ They knew exactly who this guy was when he walked through that set.
“When we discussed the making of ‘Cheers’ and the (Charles) boys went off and wrote the script, I said to my wife, ‘This is unbelievable. They have brought radio to television.’ ”
Radio to television?
“Sure. Because ‘Cheers’ was: You bring ‘em in, you sit ‘em down and they talk. That’s all ‘Cheers’ was. The word is more important than the goofiness. It was all about the words--which is how I was trained, how my father (legendary Broadway writer-director Abe Burrows) was trained, how anybody who reads books is trained. It’s the word.
“You watch television, it’s the words and the action. It’s one less step with the imagination. It’s like music videos. You used to listen to records. Now suddenly you’re seeing the group’s interpretation, so you can’t imagine what your interpretation is.”
How strong is the professional lineage between Burrows and his late father, whose shows included “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and who was widely respected as a show-fixer and script doctor?
“Abe was a writer basically,” Jim Burrows says. “I think I’m more of a director. I worked for Abe for about five years as a stage manager. I started by assistant-stage managing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ which was a huge flop (on Broadway, with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain). That’s how I got to meet Mary Tyler Moore,” whose TV show he later directed.
“Then I did the road company of ‘Cactus Flower,’ and I did the Broadway production of ‘Forty Carats.’ And as the stage manager, you direct the understudies, so I got that experience. But I used to watch my father in rehearsal, and he was unbelievable. He used to listen more than he watched. I’d see him walking behind the sets. I said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m doing a straight play here, and if there’s a pause, I know I’m in trouble because nobody’s dancing.’ ”
With TV’s pilot season soon to heat up as shows vie for a place on next fall’s schedule, and with Burrows’ special status in the pilot arena, the word is that he probably sees the scripts of just about every possible new comedy project making the rounds.
“I do,” he says.
And however “NewsRadio” fares, it is clear from watching him work the set that he is in his element trying to give birth to a new series.
On this day, he is organizing the third episode, doing the trenchwork--running his four cameras through their setups and, at the same time, chatting with his actors about lines and scenes while checking out the various pieces of business on a bank of eight small TV monitors.
Bearded, he is wearing a dark checked shirt, navy blue sweater, jeans and sneakers.
“I learned from my father how to work on my feet,” he says. “He worked on his feet all the time. He’d run the scenes over and over. He created this wonderful camaraderie, which I always try to do. I love to do ensemble shows because that’s where you get the camaraderie.”
On one such series, “Taxi,” for which he directed numerous episodes, his role, he says, was “more of a wrangler than anything else. There were a lot of egos on that show. I was really a wrangler to get the ensemble nature. That was my job--check your ego at the door.”
Although he’s worked for all the major networks, Burrows has a special place in NBC’s current resurgence with his contributions to its two biggest nights--Thursdays and Tuesdays. On Thursdays, “Friends"--which Burrows says has triggered a number of possible pilot imitations--now follows “Seinfeld” in a solid one-two punch.
And with “NewsRadio,” he’ll have three consecutive Tuesday sitcoms for which he did the pilots. “Wings” leads off the night, “NewsRadio” follows, and then comes “Frasier,” a “Cheers” spinoff.
Brad Grey, who with Bernie Brillstein heads the company that produces HBO’s classic sitcom “The Larry Sanders Show” and is also putting on “NewsRadio,” says there’s a definite plus in the industry in having Burrows on your team.
“We had already sold ‘News-Radio,’ ” Grey says of the half-hour series, which was created by former “Larry Sanders” executive producer Paul Simms. “But the lines blur when Jimmy works. He serves in more than just a directorial function. He’s very helpful on the creative front. All the networks think Jim is of great value to any project.”
In recent weeks, Burrows has been alternating between directing episodes of three NBC series--"Frasier,” “Friends” and “NewsRadio.” But, during a lunch break in his office at “NewsRadio,” he says:
“Pilots are things you want to do because if somebody selects you for a pilot, that means you’re better than an episodic director. You’re now creating something. You don’t go in on a show and have these pre-existing characters. And it’s such a writer-driven medium that with these pre-existing characters, most shows are almost director-proof.
“As a fledgling director, my first show was ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ And I went in, and you had these wonderfully established characters--so what is a new director going to do? In essence, you can’t do anything.”
A prolific director who already is planning on doing four come dy pilots for next season, Burrows also had a couple of shows that eventually turned out to be flops this semester--Dabney Coleman’s “Madman of the People” on NBC and the Hal Linden-Suzanne Pleshette sitcom “The Boys Are Back” on CBS.
Among his upcoming pilots, says Burrows, are an ABC show with Tony Danza as a cop; “Caroline in the City,” an NBC entry about a cartoonist, and a comedy with David Alan Grier of “In Living Color” in a Fox project titled “The Preston Episodes.”
While he’s productive, Burrows has definite likes and dislikes of the kinds of projects that may be available:
“I don’t get a lot of--and I don’t demean them--the 8 o’clock children’s stuff because I don’t particularly want to do that. I’m interested in the more uptown, the more urbane, the more sophisticated--that kind of stuff. Occasionally, I’ll do something with a kid in it if it’s really interesting to me. And last year, I did ‘The Boys Are Back’ that had three older kids in it, not young kids.”
Urbane and sophisticated are fast-disappearing concepts on network TV as the richer, better-educated audience increasingly flees traditional prime time for the alternatives of cable, VCRs, computers and other new-age forms. The result has been a dumbing down of network TV--so how do you explain the breakthrough of a series like the urbane, sophisticated “Frasier”?
“My father,” Burrows says, “used to say, ‘If you got a hit, it doesn’t matter when you open. And if you got a flop, it doesn’t matter when you open either.’ ”
However, with the exception of such immediate hits as “ER,” “The Cosby Show” and “Frasier,” says Burrows, it can be an “enormously long process” for people to find a good TV show: “You know, ‘Cheers’ took a year and a half to get going (in popularity), and the networks don’t have that patience anymore.
“For some reason, people have to tell other people (about TV shows). There isn’t the ad campaign that there is in movies. People have to tell people in the supermarket and you have to be sitting at home and accidentally catch a glimpse of a show if somebody hasn’t yet told you about it.”
Nonetheless, says Burrows, he prefers TV to films and the lengthy process they involve:
“I’m a television person. Throw it and duck.”
Back on stage rehearsing “NewsRadio,” Burrows rapidly and subtly shapes the elements that will make or break the episode. The cast includes Dave Foley of “Kids in the Hall” as the young news director and Phil Hartman of “Saturday Night Live” as a flamboyant anchor, but at this moment Burrows is focusing on blocking out the camera positions for each shot:
“Come this way a little bit, Tommy.”
“Johnny, he’s yours.”
In one surprising moment, the swarm of activity suddenly, accidentally, takes on the look of sheer poetry as the four cameras, side by side, simultaneously shift to the left in one quick move, like a backfield in motion. Too bad the audience will never see that, you think.
Burrows is having a good time, flipping through the script in a loose-leaf book, occasionally talking with cast members as they run through dialogue, laughing when an actor delights him.
As Burrows brings his thoughts and style to the new ensemble, you think of his father’s script-doctor reputation.
“Yeah,” Burrows says. “He would be called in on a lot of shows. And he would go down and look at them, and he would say two words: ‘Close it.’ Or: ‘Maybe I can fix it.’ ”
Does he feel a similarity in his work?
“I don’t think as a doctor. Sometimes they’ll call me and ask me what I think of a show, and I’ll give them my notes, and then I would consider myself a doctor. But when I go in and work on a show, then it’s from my loins. It’s all what makes me laugh.”
But the stage lineage seems to remain.
“When I do a pilot,” says Burrows, who has won nine Emmy Awards--five as a director and four as a producer--"I consider it like I’m doing a Broadway show. Although it’s only 20 minutes long, you still have to tell the audience in those 20 minutes who these people are.”
He works fast.
“If I have a piece of material and know a scene doesn’t work, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to make it work because I know there’s no way to make it work, that it needs to be rewritten.”
One of his favorite shows was the Judd Hirsch sitcom “Dear John,” which he directed: “I loved that show. We did the pilot during the writers’ strike, so the writers couldn’t change anything. But I could. I could, on stage, do bridge lines and create funny business.
“I love to make new things happen. And people keep presenting me with the opportunity. I’m very fertile.”
E ven the most fertile directors, however, have their clunkers. Burrows’ “Monty,” with Henry Winkler as a fictional, conservative talk-show host, bombed on Fox. “Maybe people didn’t buy Henry as Rush Limbaugh,” the director says.
Then there was NBC’s “Cafe Americain,” set in Paris with Valerie Bertinelli. “Maybe the foreign setting was off-putting,” Burrows says.
As for “The Boys Are Back,” he says: “When they cast Suzy and Hal, I said OK, you got a chance for a little vaudeville act here, a little old-timer act. But the public didn’t embrace it.”
Fertile, though, is certainly an apt way to describe Burrows’ track record:
There were about 20 outings of “Phyllis,” plus gigs that included “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Rhoda,” “Fay,” “The Tony Randall Show,” “The Betty White Show,” “The Ted Knight Show,” “The Tortellis,” “The Fanelli Boys,” “Good Time Harry,” “The Stockard Channing Show,” “The Associates,” “The Hogan Family,” “Night Court,” “Pacific Station” and “Down Home.”
“I also did, believe it or not, 10 ‘Laverne & Shirleys,’ ” Burrows says with a grin. And then there were the classic comedies that bear his trademark. “I went from ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers,’ ” he notes.
The Hollywood opportunity that opened the door to all this came in the mid-1970s when Burrows was asked to join that astonishing quality-oriented production company, MTM, which, if possible, grows even more in stature as time passes.
James L. Brooks, Steven Bochco and Gary David Goldberg are just a few of the other noted alumni. And “Hill Street Blues,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant” were only a few of its stylish hits.
“The legacy, the family tree, of that company is unbelievable,” says Burrows. “I and Gary David Goldberg (“Family Ties,” “Brooklyn Bridge”) and Hugh Wilson (“Frank’s Place,” “WKRP in Cincinnati”) were brought out, kind of like interns. Grant (Tinker, head of MTM) gave us money to live on. It couldn’t have been a warmer community. There was no one looking down on me.
“They were smart enough to know that it’s better to have a director who can talk to actors rather than a director who can move cameras. You can’t really learn how to make something funny, but you can learn to move the cameras.”
Right. It’s kind of a network version of how to succeed in TV without really trying.*