“You can’t learn how to be funny,” James Burrows said. “That has to be instinctual in you.”
Burrows, 82, a celebrated director of the multicamera sitcom, has more of that instinct than most. The son of the playwright and director Abe Burrows (“Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), he never intended a career in show business. But to defer his draft eligibility, he enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. Yale taught him that he wasn’t a playwright. Or an actor. But he became curious about directing.
After graduation he worked as a stage manager, once assisting Mary Tyler Moore on a disastrous musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (“It was a horrible experience,” he said. “Mary would come offstage and collapse in my arms and start crying.”) He segued into directing, eventually running a theater in San Diego. One night, while watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” he realized that directing a sitcom in front of a live studio audience wasn’t so different from his theater work. He wrote to Moore. Her husband, the producer Grant Tinker, invited him to the set.
In 1974, he directed his first episode of the show. Over nearly five decades, he would go on to help create “Cheers” and direct a thousand more sitcom episodes, including the pilots for “Taxi,” “NewsRadio,” “Friends,” “Third Rock From the Sun” and “Will & Grace.” In 1993, he directed the pilot of “Frasier,” a “Cheers” spinoff that followed Kelsey Grammer’s psychiatrist character, Frasier Crane, as he relocated to Seattle from Boston. That show ended in 2004. But Burrows has kept on. In February, he directed another pilot, a “Frasier” reboot (though Burrows doesn’t like to think of it that way) that begins Oct. 12 on Paramount+. The show finds Frasier back in Boston, trying to reconnect with his son. Besides Grammer, none of the other original cast star, but several make guest appearances.
On a recent Monday (morning in Los Angeles, where Burrows lives, afternoon in New York), Burrows appeared on a video call screen, spiffy in a New York Giants jersey. A practiced entertainer, he kept the jokes and the Yiddish — naches, mishpachah, kop — coming as he discussed the decline of the sitcom and the pleasure of getting behind the camera again. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you learn to direct for television?
I observed on “The Bob Newhart Show.” I knew how to talk to actors. I knew what was funny. But I didn’t know the situation with the cameras. Then I watched my dear mentor, Jay Sandrich, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And after about four months, they gave me a show to do.
You say that you knew what was funny? How?
How do you know when something’s hot?
You touch it and it burns you?
It’s an instinctual reaction. I know what’s the best way to say a joke or what’s the best position onstage. I also have a multitude of ideas of what’s wrong with the script and what’s not wrong.
I’m staggered by the list of shows that you’ve brought into being. How do you know if a show is for you?
I try to only do multicamera sitcoms. For me, the camera is not a character. I don’t think of it that way. If there’s two people talking, I want you laughing at what they’re saying, not admiring the beautiful cinematic camera moves. When I first started, I did anything anybody would throw my way. “Taxi,” that was my first big break. Then there was “Cheers,” which I created with Glen and Les Charles. I look at those scripts. “Cheers” was a workplace comedy. “Taxi” was a workplace comedy. But they were about families. In “Taxi,” it’s a family that wants to get out. In “Cheers,” it’s a family that wants to come in. I guess I have a gift for creating families. My job is to mold a disparate group of actors into a family that likes one another.
How do you know if a show is going to work?
Well, it comes in pieces. The first thing I do is read the script. Then I’ll meet the writers. There has to be this compromise between writer and director, that’s the second thing. The third thing is the casting. You have to get lucky. You have to have the right actor available.
I do my work in rehearsal. I don’t have any preconceptions. I take the best bolts of electricity and stick with that. And if there is no electricity, my job is to try to make electricity, change the batteries. Then I put in pieces of business that make the scene funnier. When the audience comes in on the fifth day, we do the first scene. And if a couple of jokes don’t work, we change the jokes, because the audience is the ultimate barometer.
Frasier Crane was first introduced on “Cheers.” Who was he?
Glen and Les created the character. He was a device to get Diane Chambers [the waitress played by Shelley Long] back into the bar. She was in a loony bin. Her doctor there was Dr. Frasier Crane, and he recommended that she go back and confront her demons. We hired Kelsey Grammer for four shows. In the first show, he was sitting at the bar, and he opened his mouth and the audience laughed. The three of us looked at one another and went, “Oh my God, this guy’s great.” We hired him for the rest of the series. If you watch Frasier on “Cheers,” you can see he’s a buffoon, but you love him. He’s pretentious, but you love him. Kelsey played him with such vulnerability.
What made this character worthy of a spinoff?
David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee [the creators and executive producers, who were then writers on “Cheers”] came to us and said they wanted to spin off the character of Frasier. They were smart enough to know that Kelsey was a skilled enough actor to go from playing a buffoon on “Cheers” to playing a leading man on “Frasier.” So that was their genius and also Kelsey’s genius.
Where did the inspiration come from to do a revival?
I was not involved in that. I don’t even call it a revival. I call it a continuation, because it’s not really a reboot. It’s a character moving on, and he’s surrounded by a whole new set of characters, so it’s not really a reboot.
Are there maybe too many revivals, reboots, continuations these days?
I have no idea. I don’t like them. But I enjoyed going back with Kelsey and revisiting the character.
If the magic of the original “Frasier” was the interaction among the characters and the actors playing them, is it enough to do it with just Kelsey?
Well, the audience will be the judge of that. I know that. When Kelsey called me and said, “Would you do it?” I said, “I’ll read a script.” I read the script. I liked the script. And I agreed to do it just to make sure we protect the character.
Has Frasier changed? Can characters change in a multi-cam format?
Frasier is dealing with new emotions with his kid that weren’t emotions he dealt with before. He’s still a pompous ass. He always is and will always be. That’s what makes him funny. But I think there is growth.
This “Frasier” is on a streamer. It doesn’t need to adhere to a 21-minute time limit or pause for commercial breaks. Does that change anything?
You can go up to 30 minutes with a comedy. After that, it gets taxing. I do love a joke a page. Sometimes two jokes. That doesn’t happen often now.
Why is that?
There are a lot of single-camera comedies that get chuckles. They don’t get guffaws. I have friends at CBS and they say [of multicamera sitcoms], “Don’t worry, don’t worry. They’re going to come back.” I’ve been hearing that for years.
How have you seen sitcoms evolve during your career?
The one evolution I’ve seen is that a lot of them aren’t funny anymore. The prime requirement of a multicamera sitcom is you’d better be funny.
When a great pilot script comes your way, do you still enjoy the process?
I had a ball on this, with my dear friend. That laughter behind me is so rewarding for my soul. If somebody sent me a great script, I would almost do it for free. It’s better than sitting around in the house, reading novels and watching sports. And it’s nice to be able to go back to what happened to me 50 years ago and still have this feeling of creativity. When pilot season comes this year, I hope there is a pilot that I like.