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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!