Director James Burroughs looks back at his career in a new book

NEW YORK (Associated Press) — James Burroughs loves sitcoms, and he should. The 81-year-old has directed more than 1,000 episodes of TV sitcoms, including fan favorites like “Friends,” “Cheers,” and Will & Grace. He also directed the pilot episodes of “Frasier,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and more, to set the tone for the series in the future.

Ask him why there are so few beloved sitcoms on the air these days and Burroughs can’t answer.

“It’s not the time for a multi-cam sitcom right now. I don’t know why. People ask me and I say, I don’t know why. There are only two or three on the air.”

He thinks the next big sitcom is coming, and that will make multi-camera sitcoms popular again, but adds that he “doesn’t see that show on the horizon right now.”

Burroughs relives his famous career in a new book, Directed by James Burroughs, detailing how he got started in entertainment and became the favorite Hollywood director of sitcom pilots, preparing for the shows of success going forward.

He spoke with The Associated Press about the book, working on “Friends” and what tempts him to work these days. Notes have been modified for clarity and brevity.


AP: The company seems to prefer single-camera comedies these days. Why do you prefer multiple cameras?

Burroughs: What I do isn’t really TV. It’s really the stage that I shoot for TV, so the structure of the piece has to be the work done with the actors and writers on stage, and then you cover it up with the camera. But what makes it great is the interaction, not necessarily the action of the camera, but the characters and the situation.

AP: A touching point in the book is when you remember sitting with the cast of “Friends” when you were leaving the show, and giving them a parenting talk about how to handle future situations, like listening and learning from new directors but “if you don’t agree, say something.” I reminded them that they know their characters better than anyone else and that David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, in particular, have to pay for opportunities to do physical comedy, because it’s where they shine.

Burroughs: They were all in their twenties and I just wanted to enable them to understand how talented they all were and be able to express their opinion about the piece with the subsequent directors and writers because they were all really creative. If an actor contributes, it only makes the show better and makes the actor happier to be a part of the creative process. I tried to get them to show up there when I left the show and express themselves.

AP: You also say one of the few regrets in your career is that you didn’t commit to the show for nine seasons. Why do you think “Friends” is still so popular today?

Burroughs: There’s always a new generation of residents watching the show. My kids were too young when I was doing this to watch it, but now they watch it and their kids will watch and their kids will watch. There is something really special about this show.

AP: The actors who worked with you always express that love for you. Why do you think so?

Burroughs: It’s a comedy. This is what it should be and what rehearsals should be. I summoned my fun condition once. I was working on a show and the actors were really tough. So I said: Start my car. My car started and I was outside. I cannot work under these conditions. There has to be this feeling in the set I’m working on, that we’re all in it to make a good presentation and not to count lines or complain about writing or other actors.

AP: In the book, you can include examples of problem-solving on the job and provide insight into specific situations that may be useful to business managers or those who want to become managers. Was that intentional?

Burroughs: It’s very specific to sitcoms but there are tips out there. The main advice, which I always try to come up with in the sitcom directors community, is to die in your shoes. It’s a book-driven medium, and the writer is also the executive producer and so they sort of control it. There are a lot of sitcom directors who are just traffic cops, just ferrying people around with a parrot exactly as the book says. I’m a staunch advocate of that, once you’ve finished reading the script, you go down to the stage, rehearse, and try new things.

Associated Press: These days, how do you decide when to take something or say yes to directing a show?

Burroughs: I’m very selective. I haven’t found a show yet to relate to, as I did with “Will & Grace,” which really made me laugh and was a fountain of youth to me. The last thing I did was I did a pilot with Valerie Bertinelli not being picked up. And before that I did “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” with “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes” where we had adults playing kids, Kevin Hart, Snoop Dogg, Jane Aniston, Katharine Hahn, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, it makes me really happy because I love These people loved the challenge of making a decades-old show and doing it again.

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