James Burrows Reveals TV Sitcom Secrets

In his 2022 memoir, Directed by James Burrows, this famous and prolific television director recalls highlights of his productive and highly successful career in directing and sometimes co-creating situation comedies, which included Taxi, Cheers, Frazier, Friends, Mike and Molly, Will and Grace, and more. The son of Abe Burrows, a prominent radio and stage director, he attended Yale Drama School in a time when we were all using grad school as a way to postpone the draft during the Vietnam war. There, he realized, by following his dad around he had picked up by osmosis a solid grounding in stage management. In his warm, humble and personal voice, Burrows describes how he branched out from there to his first television directing job, for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and ultimately reshaped TV situation comedy into its modern format.  Moreover, his readable story provides a behind-the-scenes look at this Golden Age of television sitcoms of 1975 through 2015.

As contrasted with movie making, he explains, today’s television shows much more closely resemble live theater. Burrows insisted they record before a live audience and constantly rewrite after the writers, producers, directors and actors have assessed audience reaction. The jokes must work, and the show is refined until they do.

Jams Burrows
James Burrows

Reshaping the TV Sitcom

Early television drama relied primarily on one camera, as if photographing a play. James Burrows pioneered a four-camera technique to catch the reactions of each actor to the dialogue and directed the blocking. He notes that blocking in traditional live theater refers to the actors’ movements, which attract attention and emphasize their dialogue. In his television technique the term refers to cuts from one camera to another. Sometimes he even bypassed the video director and made these cuts himself. To make full use of this technique, he trained his actors with the mantra, “always be ready, always be funny” (ABR/ABF). Each actor was recorded at every moment, so he could include their selected reactions in the final cut for the show.

His favorite shows were Cheers, which he helped to create, directing every episode; Friends, where he regretted not staying on to direct every show, and Will and Grace, which opened up the subject of gay life. The show was conceived and written by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. Burrows directed its successful pilot and every subsequent episode. He is very proud of the fact that then Vice President Joe Biden praised Will and Grace for broadening awareness of this often-ignored sector of the population.

Sharing the Credit

Burrows is generous in crediting the large number of people that made his shows, and sitcoms of that era, such a great contribution to American entertainment. He credits his fellow innovative producer-directors and writers, who frequently became his collaborators. These include the writers for several of his shows, Glen and Les Charles, whom he called “the boys.” He praises creators and producers, some of whom have been his collaborators–Norman Lear, Chuck Lorre, Larry David and the Friends team of Kevin Bright, Marta Kaufman and David Crane. This trio who took over the latter show when Burrows was drawn away by his uncanny ability to create successful pilots for new shows. His quotes from the dialogue of some of his shows are often laugh-out-loud funny. This fast-moving insider look at sitcom is a pleasure to read and should be required reading for avid sitcom watchers.

Writing Memoirs and Biography

If you’re interested in the writing of memoirs and biography, you can read the next episode of my e-zine, A Writers Journey within this site, Pub 1.2 A Reason to Care: Mainstream Your Memoir. The e-zine, as well as this article are loaded with tips and techniques I have learned. First, my long career in architecture and marketing. I first honed my skills in the craft of writing in marketing for my design firms. Later, I improved them as a published writer over the past twenty years.

 Until next time, good words to you,


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