Over his five-decade career, sitcom director James Burrows has helped shape some of the most iconic comedy shows on television: Laverne & Shirley (1976-1977), Taxi (1978-1982), Cheers (1982-1993), Frasier (1993-1997), Friends (1994-1998), Will & Grace (1998-2020), and The Big Bang Theory (2006-2007), to name just a few.
Now, Burrows returns with a 2023 revival Frasier, the acclaimed 1990s series of the same name, which was itself a spin-off of Burrows’ 1980s show Cheers in which Dr. Frasier Crane first appeared.
In the original Frasier, which ran for 11 seasons and won 37 Emmys, Dr. Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was a psychiatrist and radio show host who reunited with his father Martin (the late John Mahoney), and his younger brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) in Seattle. The cast also included Peri Gilpin and Jane Leeves.
The 2023 edition, which airs Thursdays on Paramount+, sees Dr. Crane moving back to Boston to reconnect with his adult son, Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott). The series also stars Toks Olagundoye, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Jess Salguero, and newcomer Anders Keith. Gilpin and Leeves will make cameo appearances.
“I don’t call it a reboot,” Burrows says. “It’s a continuing story of Frasier Crane [because] we dropped him in a new situation.”
“Frasier” (2023) official trailer. Courtesy of Paramount + via YouTube
Burrows says he directed the first two episodes of the revived series because of his 40-year relationship with Grammer.
“I’ve known the man for 40 years. I feel responsible, a little bit, for what’s become of him. And we worked so well together… it’s so easy,” he says. “Kelsey is an incredible actor. He takes this pompous, pretentious human being and makes him lovable by playing the vulnerability. You don’t see it, but that’s what he does.”
Making sitcoms for streaming
When Burrows began his career in the mid-1970s, television had three major networks: NBC, CBS, and ABC, and sitcoms reached millions of viewers largely by default. Since then, the business has changed dramatically, evolving into a crowded, specialized market disrupted by the momentum of streaming. As a result, sitcoms are now what Burrows considers “niche television.”
“I think it is niche television now because you don’t have to get the rating that you got when there were only three networks … and 30 great comedy writers. You had to do shows that appealed to a massive audience,” he says. “Now, anybody with an iPhone can make a show. … There are 300 networks and 30 great comedy writers. … Comedy writers don’t spring up exponentially.”
If the new landscape is more creatively freeing, Burrows says, it also raises an existential crisis for the role of sitcoms.
“You can do a show that just appeals to a niche audience and get a number, a small number, but [is the] number big enough to keep you on cable or on a streaming show?” he wonders.
“I never wanted to go into show business.”
Burrows grew up in show business. His father, Abe, was a renowned comic, author, radio writer, and Broadway stage director who helmed productions like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
“My dad was a legend. I was Abe’s kid and he would trundle my sister and [I] to dinner,” he recalls. “But before dinner, we would meet him in a theater where he was rehearsing and we wouldn’t quite know what was going on.”
The Los Angeles native didn’t want to be part of it, at first. “I never wanted to go into show business,” he says.
After graduation from Oberlin College, the private liberal arts institution in Ohio, Burrows attended the Yale School of Drama, where he discovered directing from professor Nikos Psacharopoulos, the co-founder of the Williamstown Theatre.
“He kind of inspired me. I knew I couldn’t write, and if you’ve ever seen The Comeback, I can’t act, so there was directing,” he says. “I would do occasional scenes in an acting class or stuff like that, or directing class, you’d stage a scene, and I kind of saw a little glimmer there.”
After Yale, Burrows returned to California where he got a job as a dialogue coach, running script lines with star Burl Ives on O.K. Crackerby!, a comedy series created by his father. That was his first brush with the TV industry and where he took lessons he used throughout his career.
“I found that my father taught me when I didn’t know I was learning,” he says. “ [when critics] asked him why he wrote comedy, he [would say], ‘No, I write drama that just happens to be funny.’”
He adds, “I’ll never forget the image of [him] once [telling] an actor reacting to a joke, ‘You don’t have to do a big reaction to the joke. You don’t have to screw up your mouse or screw up your eyes and screw up your face. Just imagine, you have three holes in the top of your head, and you have three balls rolling around, you have to get each ball in a different hole’, which meant that it was a more subtle reaction.”
O.K. Crackerby! was canceled after one season, and Burrows returned to New York where he started working in Summer stock theater, first as a driver, then as assistant to the assistant stage manager job on the Broadway show Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where he met actress Mary Tyler Moore.
“I was around the theater, so I started to soak up,” he affirms.
While Burrows continued working in theater, by the mid-70s, he wrote Moore and her then husband Grant Tinker looking for a job in their production company, MTM Enterprise. Tinker hired him to direct a few episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS.
From there, Burrows’ directorial television career took off.
Jack and Grace bond over ice skating, scene from “Will & Grace” (1999). Courtesy of “Will & Grace” on YouTube
Redefining the sitcom
Over the years, Burrows became a prolific television director, and his name synonymous with quality-direction in television – something he attributes to his ability to create a sense of community and collaboration on the set.
“I try to break down those barriers between writer and actor and director, and make everybody feel like they’re all a part [of the process]… without incurring the wrath of a writer,” he notes. “If you empower an actor… they’ll be more available to create… and you’re gonna get a better performance out of [them].”
He adds, “I just have that ability to try to form this homogeneous group of people that want to make the show better, and like one another, and hopefully, that comes across the screen.”
Burrows still considers himself a theatrical director, who incorporated a multi-camera system in front of a live audience.
“[The sitcom] is a 25 minute play every week,” he says. “So you don’t need you don’t need filmatic knowledge for this because you just point a camera at different characters, and you cover the play. So the essence of my work is making sure the play works.”