Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's James Burrows Night on NBC

Tonight NBC is running a two-hour salute to sitcom director, James Burrows, featuring reunions from some of the greatest casts of television (CHEERS, TAXI, FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE, FRASIER, TWO AND HALF MEN, etc.).  Jimmy directed the pilot and multiple episodes of all these classic series.  Recently he directed his 1000th episode (which is a staggering number). 

You may be wondering -- so who is this guy and what makes him so special?  A reader essentially asked me that very question six years ago.  I thought with this being the night he's saluted on NBC, I'd re-post my thoughts on why Jimmy Burrows is the all-time best at what he does. 

This week’s query comes from Stephen.

What is it about James Burrows that makes him such a popular director? Obviously at this point he has a great track-record with directing popular shows but in your experience of working with him, what makes him *so* good?

In baseball we talk about a “5 tool player”. That’s a player who can do it all (hit for average, hit for power, great speed, great defense, great arm). We’re talking Willie Mays here, and as you can imagine, there are very few.

James Burrows is the Willie Mays of directing. If a multi-camera director is proficient in two of the facets I’m about to list he’s considered a good director. Jimmy is the best at all of them.

Primary of course, is his ability to work with actors. Jim speaks their language, he understands their needs and concerns. He also realizes that each actor has his own process and timetable for getting to where he needs to be. Jim works with them individually and establishes the optimum creative environment. Bottom line: actors trust Jim Burrows. And he always justifies that trust.

He also “adds” things to the production. He has a keen sense of what’s funny (his father was the great Abe Burrows so it must be in his DNA) and he’s not afraid to add to some physical business or find little ways to improve any scene he directs. Most directors are traffic cops.

Jimmy appreciates the importance of story and the script. After runthroughs he goes back to the writers room and is involved in the rewrite discussions. I can still hear Jimmy in my head saying, “This is weeeeeird.” He knows dramatic structure and is a great help in shaping the script. Quite a few directors come from a technical background, not dramatic, and are intimidated by the writers. They feel very uneasy coming back to the room. Not Jimmy.

As for technical aspects, Jimmy is a marvel. No one camera blocks a show faster. I sit at the quad-split and carefully instruct each camera operator. I’ve spent the weekend preparing my shot list. Jimmy does it on the fly… without even LOOKING at monitors. Even complicated scenes (say a big wedding) he knows just what he needs and gets it. His shows always edit together perfectly. You never say “Geez, why don’t we have a two-shot here?” when Jimmy is directing. He knows the jokes and knows how they will best play on camera. And just as he adds business to the performances, he finds interesting creative shots. Watch the first year of CHEERS. You’ll see fabulous shots looking down hallways or shot from unusual angles. He really sold the bar as a character.

Most directors take all day to camera block a show. He can do it in about 90 minutes.

Like all good directors, he pays great attention to the details. Wardrobe, props – nothing escapes his eagle eye.

And then there’s show night. Hopefully you’ll be in the audience of a Jim Burrows show one time. He’s a trip. As the scene is playing he’s gently pushing cameras over to get better shots. He never watches the monitors. He paces the floor and doesn’t even watch the show. He LISTENS to it – listens for the flow, the pace, the delivery.

Of the many things I’ve learned from Jimmy, these two stand out. I once asked him about certain camera angles and he said if the story is right you can place one camera in front of the stage, shoot a wide master for the whole show and it’ll work. But if the story is wrong than all the technical wizardry in the world isn’t going to save it.

Second, I can usually tell a Jim Burrows’ directed show just by watching it. How? A lot of the camera angles aren’t perfect. In some cases there are shots that look downright sloppy. But Jim understands that performance and energy are more important than precision. So if an actor doesn’t exactly hit his mark, so what? The payoff is that the scenes have more energy and the actors seem looser, more natural… funnier.

There’s no one in his league. And just imagine how many more home runs and more MVP awards Willie Mays would have had had he been able to play for 35 years. Say hey, Jimmy!

28 comments:

Stephen Marks said...

1000 episodes holy crap! James has said "yes" to more scripts then Michael Caine. Imagine being the director in charge of this guys special, you'd pretty much have to pull off May's over the shoulder catch to impress Burrows.

Peter said...

As a kid watching Taxi and Cheers in the 80s, James Burrows was one of the first names I became familiar with through TV. In movies the first name I knew was Steven Spielberg. In TV it was James Burrows and a little later Leonard Katzman (I was a huge Dallas fan). A weird thing happens as a kid that certain names regularly seen end up imprinted on your mind, so to this day I still get that sense of comfort when I see Directed by James Burrows on the screen.

Mazel tov on his much deserved salute tonight.

Igor said...

The way you say Burrows blocks cameras reminds me of a great scene in one of the Bourne movies (#3?) - in which he talks a guy through a crowded train station, as if he's seeing the station from the guy's POV. As if Bourne has a 3D image in his head of the entire place and can put himself anywhere in it. Oh, to have that ability.

Howard Hoffman said...

I'm notorious for promising friends that I'll be in the audience when they achieve their dreams. One such friend is Pat Allee who sold her first script to TAXI - "The Ten Percent Solution" in season 3. James Burrows directed, and it was wonderful to watch. There's a method to everything, even the "sloppiness" Ken refers to. You can see it - there was one scene when Banta leaves Bobby's apartment. After a long perfect take, Tony utterly blows the last word of the last line before exiting. Danza fell to the ground outside the door and threw his prop script in the air from frustration. Burrows left it in and just redubbed the line from the audio of a previous take. The result looked like he simply took a clumsy spill just before the fade to black...and it somehow seemed totally natural. He knows the characters better then the actors do.

Roseann said...

My whole film career was in NYC. Occasionally we'd have an LA director come to shoot a few scenes with actors. i.e. NYPD Blue and a few other series. I was always amazed how the director could be reading the Hollywood Reporter, look up say action and nail it every time. Some of those LA guys were brilliant. I learned so much from them and I was the Wardrobe Supervisor....

John Jackson Miller said...

Looking forward to seeing this, Ken.

Coincidentally, prompted by your recent post on Richard Rosenstock, on Friday night I got out and transferred my MARSHALL CHRONICLES episodes from VHS. (Interesting to hear my son say the show summarizes his teenage life, since that's what I thought myself when it was first on.) I had known Burrows directed the pilot, as he has of so many shows, but until this viewing I had never realized he directed the episode you and David wrote and acted in. That seems like a fun and special connection.

Matt said...

Friday question:

You have stated that actors have a proprietary interest in how their character is portrayed. However, it is very clear that the writer of an episode and even more so the creator of the character would have a proprietary interest in the character. How is that balanced. If an actor simply refuses to do something does it simply come down to who has a bigger fan base? Is this when characters get killed off?

thirteen said...

I knew James Burrows was a genius. I didn't know his dad was Abe Burrows. Just ... wow. I'm in awe of both of them.

Another Ken said...

TWO AND A HALF MEN is considered a "classic" now? Okay, then.

VP81955 said...

It's too bad tonight's tribute probably will be viewed through the prism of the terribly overrated "Friends."

J Lee said...

Ken, looking at Burrows' credits, one of his earliest directing jobs was on "The Tony Rnadall Show", including one episode, "Franklin vs. McClellan" written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs. Is there anything you remember about that episode, so early in everyone's career, that James added to it though his direction, or anything that, if done a few years later, might have been staged differently?

opimus said...

Was there a reason why Jim never directed a MASH episode?

Johnny Walker said...

There's a great interview with Burrows on the NPR Bullseye podcast.

mmryan314 said...

Popcorn made, beer cracked open, 5 4 3 2 1. Can`t wait.

Anonymous said...

They should've had the Newsradio cast there. He directed more episodes of that than The Big Bang Theory or Wings.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

GREAT QUESTION @JLEE!
Ken, looking at Burrows' credits, one of his earliest directing jobs was on "The Tony Rnadall Show", including one episode, "Franklin vs. McClellan" written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs. Is there anything you remember about that episode, so early in everyone's career, that James added to it though his direction, or anything that, if done a few years later, might have been staged differently?



Jim said...

Absolutely everything I read about that show discussed it as a FRIENDS reunion special, with barely a word said about James Burrows. Likewise, water cooler discussion I've heard about it this morning has been highly critical of it because it wasn't the FRIENDS reunion special people were led to believe they were going to see.

JB said...

Did you attend, Ken? If so (friday question) can you tell us one insane thing Andy Dick did?

Andy Rose said...

Back when Burrows started, it wasn't practical to put video assist on a film camera, so directors had to watch the live performance in front of them and hope it played properly to the camera. They couldn't know for sure until the film was developed and the dailies came in.

Do you think modern directors are overreliant on the monitor? I've seen some who almost disappear after the scene is blocked. They seem afraid to leave the village once the picture is up.

Ken Levine said...

I did not attend.

i could be a bob said...

Ken Tucker had this to say: This was no way to honor James Burrows. He looked happy enough, sitting in the audience on Sunday, smiling broadly — though at what, we could not know for sure, because as I said, the editing of the All-Star Salute was so devious, it was impossible to be sure any reaction matched what had just been said. Anyone who was a fan of any of these shows would have known the anecdotes that were told this night — no new light was shed.

I had to turn it off because it was so hacked up and not interesting.

Dan Reese said...

I had the privilege of attending a Newsradio filming directed by James Burroughs. As soon as I settled in my seat I recognized him and spent more time watching him than the actors. (The show hadn't premiered yet so Phil Hartman was the only one I recognized.) I remember being amazed that, as Ken said, he didn't watch, just paced looking at the floor, listening. But I remember he stopped one take in the middle to move a camera and he pointed out a specific line and position he wouldn't have coverage for. Which he knew without looking. He didn't need to-- he was seeing everything in his head. I may have been the only one in the audience who knew who he was or saw what he was doing, but 20+ years later I'm thrilled that I got to see him at work.

Tom said...

I didn't pay attention to how the show was advertised, but there have been people here, too, complaining because it wasn't the FRIENDS reunion they apparently had been led to expect.

Honestly, I wasn't too thrilled with it, but then it can't be easy to put together a tribute -- one that will draw viewers -- to someone whose job is, to most people, either invisible or undervalued. (I've heard more than one person say about TV directors, "If they were REAL directors, they'd be making movies.")

sanford said...

Here is the Ken Tucker review that was mentioned above
https://www.yahoo.com/tv/james-burrows-cheers-taxi-big-bang-theory-140845884.html

Gary said...

At the 57 minute, 7 second mark, Judd Hirsch is seen in an audience shot while he was up on the stage. What gives?

Brett said...

It can only mean that Judd Hirsch's evil twin has escaped from the asylum and is on the loose again.

Andy Rose said...

@Gary One of my favorite editing bloopers in a tribute show was in the Dean Martin roast for Johnny Carson. Those shows were infamous for choppy editing and throwing in routines from people who weren't there for the original taping. For some reason, they brought in Ruth Buzzi to roast Johnny as her spinster character Gladys, but it was painfully obvious from the beginning she wasn't really there in the same room with Johnny. Making it even more clear, there were some reaction shots of Johnny edited in where the hand resting on the speaker's dais is clearly that of a black man (presumably reused from the Redd Foxx routine earlier). I thought it was hilarious that not only did they use a cutaway with a different person's hand visible, they couldn't even be bothered to match the appropriate race and sex.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ken, one of the key things you said in this post was about imperfection. I think many of us have lost sight of what is true perfection and what is not.

A flawlessly executed movie with perfect special effects and no seams can be awful. You could see strings in The Wizard of Oz but it's a work of art.

Sometimes I pour my heart and soul into a piece and the only thing that is noticed is a typo, an omission, or an error that is a semantic issue. True, we much be as precise as possible with words, but too many times I see people getting so hung up on what they see as a glaring error that they stop reading. Or they see a typo and think the writing itself is lacking. Jack Klugman said "I don't need people who can spell. I need writers who can write."

But now that computer graphics and autotune can smooth out all the rough edges, what emerges can be no better than polyester.

Listen to the music in this classic scene from The Band Wagon. Master trumpeter Uan Rasey hits a sour note, but they left it in because the performance was so heartfelt and ultimately iconic:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duLFwcsc6Nc

"I AM NORAD. I AM PERFECT. YOU ARE NOT PERFECT. MUST ELIMINATE."