This past week, OHSOGRAY had the honor of being on hand at NBC studios as legendary director James Burrows filmed his 1000th episode of television. Even a casual television viewer has undoubtedly watched one of Burrows’ shows, which include Will & Grace, Friends, Cheers, Frazier, and many many more. Burrows is currently working on the NBC comedy Crowded, starring Patrick Warburton and Carrie Preston, but took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his career.
You’ve had a long and successful career directing and are filming your 1000th episode, what is it you look for in a project?
First thing is the writing. Thats the most important thing to me. If the writing is good and smart, that appeals to me. It’s not the idea; I don’t do a lot of high concept shows. The only high concept show I’ve really done was 3rd Rock from the Sun, where aliens come down. What’s important to me is the execution of the idea.
Do you think that the multi-cam comedy is going to go away any time soon?
I’ve been to more deaths of multi-camera comedy over my 40 years than I care to admit. It dies and then it comes back and it dies. All you need is one big one. Big Bang helped it a lot, 8-9 years ago. Somebody’s going to come along with another show that’s going to hit it out of the park. It’s more difficult now because there’s so many venues, so many places where you can do shows and dilution of the comedy writing pool is terrible. But I think it’ll happen again.
How do you feel reality TV has influenced the way comedies are written or shot now?
Well, I’m not…there was always reality television [like] Candid Camera. Candid Camera was reality television. I think what’s happened now is the internet is the problem, because you can see anything on the internet and you don’t have to go to a television to see it. So you see everything on the internet and now television is imitating the internet with the kind of shows their doing. You can have a show about an Asian chef who likes to motorboat and likes to climb mountains. That specific lifestyle… You’ve seen those shows and so that’s why the ratings are so disparate. I think another fact of reality television is that people would like to see their…there’s a lot of schadenfreude going on. People would rather see ordinary people fall down and hurt themselves rather than an actor do it because it makes them feel better than their peers. So I think that’s what happens with a lot of reality television.
What makes it not a job now that you’re up to your 1000th episode?
Tuesday nights. When you’ve worked on show four days and it’s the fifth day and you’re going to throw it up in front of an audience. It’s a little scary – not as scary as it used to be – but it’s scary and you want to make sure that you get the laughs. You’re judge – I’ve been a judge, I’ve been judged a thousand times – and it’s still scary. You know, if they don’t laugh, you get depressed really quickly and you have to go find another joke to make that work. I like the living on the edge a bit.
Would you like to do more live television?
I did two live Will & Grace’s, where I controlled the dial of America. Back in the early 2000s. I had a great time, I was really nervous, but I had a great time. No, I’m fine with this process. I did enjoy the live, but I’m fine with this.
You shot the infamous episode of Friends where Ross and Rachel take a break. Do you have any memories of that one?
That was the only show I’ve ever used six cameras on. Tonight, I’ll use five cameras in a couple scene cause there’s so many people, but that was so crazily…you know, I had to have three cameras in one room and three cameras in the other room. I had a great time on that show. Again, the writing was so fucking good. It’s such a shame it took nine years for people in the Academy to realize how good the writing was on that show. Because it was overshadowed by how handsome and beautiful the people on that show were, and you failed to see they were telling three stories every week. And they were clever stories and they were funny stories. Finally, in the ninth year it won the Emmy, which it deserved a lot earlier.
Friends was an ensemble that did a great job of making sure everyone got a storyline and face time. As a director, is that something you have any influence on or does it have to all come from the writers?
It has to come from the writers. You have to be able to have the horses to be able to pull that off. You have to have actors who can carry a story. We did it on Cheers all the time. When Shelley was there, with Sam and Diane driving the show…when Shelley left there was so Sam/Rebecca relationship, so we resorted to the other characters and you got to see how good all of them were. You need good writing, but you also need actors who can pull that off.
We’re now in a world where show’s come back. Is there a show you’d like to see come back that you’d also want to be involved in?
Yeah, The Class, which was a great show on CBS that was canceled way too soon. It’s my one regret show. David Crane and Jeffrey [Klarik] wrote this wonderful show, wonderful ensemble cast, wonderful pilot, and did all eighteen episodes. We never had a bad episode, we had a great time…. But CBS canceled it.
Do you feel like it’s tough now for comedies to survive because networks want ratings so quickly?
Yeah, I’m not sure it’s for the ratings, they’re probably not good. That’s an important thing, they’ve gotta be. I don’t think they’re yanked off the network as fast as they used to be. They give them more time now. CBS has given Life in Pieces a long time; it’s numbers are not great. That’s going to change – CBS is going to start streaming shows and everything like that. In the 80s, they used to yank them off really fast.
Were there any shows you turned down that you look back and wish you hadn’t?
My memory’s vague, but I was incredibly friendly with Brandon Tartikoff. Our wives were friendly, and I was friendly. He was nurturing Cheers and everything. He might have given me The Seinfeld Chronicles, it was called, but I don’t really remember. That would be the one show…I thought that was a really well done show. And Breaking Bad. But there’s no shot that I’d get Breaking Bad. That show was, to me, just genius. Genius.
You’re filming you’re 1000th episode on Crowded. What was it about Crowded that drew you in and what do you think people will like about the show?
What drew me in was [creator] Suzanne Martin, who I worked with on Frazier. Her script, the execution of the concept of two kids moving home to live with their parents again – which again is not a high concept, it’s certain a propos and de rigeur now – it’s not a high concept, but she executed it so well. That’s why I did it.