NEW YORK — James Burrows loves sitcoms, and he should. The 81-year-old has directed more than 1,000 episodes of TV sitcoms, including fan favorites such as “Friends,” “Cheers,” and Will & Grace.” He’s also directed the pilot episodes for “Frasier,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and more, setting the tone for the series going forward.
Ask him why there are so few of his beloved sitcoms on the air these days, and Burrows can’t answer.
“It’s not a good time for the multi-camera sitcom right now. I don’t know why. People ask me and I say, I don’t know why. There’s only two or three on the air.”
He does believe the next big sitcom will come, and that will make multi-cam sitcoms popular again, but adds he “doesn’t see that show on the horizon right now.”
Burrows looks back on his famed career in a new book called “Directed by James Burrows,” detailing how he got started in showbiz and became Hollywood’s go-to director for sitcom pilots, setting shows up for success to go forward.
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He spoke with The Associated Press about the book, working on “Friends” and what entices him to work these days. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: The business seems to prefer single-camera comedies these days. Why do you prefer multi-cam?
A: What I do is not really television. It’s really theater that I film for television, so the structure of the piece has to be the work done with the actors and the writers on stage, and then you cover it with a camera. But what makes it great is the interaction, not necessarily the camera work; it’s the characters and the situation.
Q: A touching point in the book is when you recall sitting down with the cast of “Friends” when you were leaving the show, and giving them a very fatherly talk about how to handle future situations, such as, listen and learn from new directors, but “if you disagree, say something.” You reminded them that they knew their characters better than anyone and that David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, in particular, should push for opportunities to do physical comedy, because it’s where they shined.
A: They were all in their 20s, and I just wanted to enable them to understand how gifted they all were and to be able to express what they thought about the piece with ensuing directors and the writers because they were all really creative. If an actor contributes, it only makes the show better, and it only makes the actor happier to be part of the creative process.
Q: You also say that one of the few regrets of your career is that you didn’t stick with the show throughout its nine-season run. Why do you think “Friends” is still so popular today?
A: There’s always a new generation of demographic that watches the show. My kids were too young when I was doing it to watch it, but they watch it now, and their kids are going to watch it and their kids are going to watch it. There’s something really special about that show.
Q: The actors who’ve worked with you always express such love for you. Why do you think that is?
A: It’s comedy. That’s what it should be, and what rehearsals should be. I did invoke my fun clause once. I was working on a show, and the actors were too difficult. So I said, ‘Start my car.’ And I started my car and I was off. I can’t work under those circumstances. There has to be this feeling on the set that I work that we’re all in it to make a good show and not to either count lines or complain about the writing or other actors.
Q: In the book, you include examples of problem solving on the job and provide insight into certain situations that could be helpful for working directors or those who want to become directors. Was that intentional?
A: It’s pretty specific to sitcoms, but there are tips in there. The, major tip, which I always try to get out in the community of sitcom directors, is to die with your boots on. It’s a writers-driven medium; the writer is also the executive producer, and so they kind of control it. There’s a lot of sitcom directors who are just traffic cops, who just move people around an parrot exactly what the writers say. I’m a big advocate of, once the read-through of the script is over, you go down to the stage and rehearse and try new things.
Q: These days, how do you decide when you’re going to take something on or say yes to directing a show?
A: I’m very selective. I haven’t found a show yet that I would attach myself to, like I did with “Will & Grace,’ which really made me laugh and was like a fountain of youth for me. The last thing I did was I did a pilot with Valerie Bertinelli that didn’t get 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 and Snoop Dogg and Jen Aniston and Kathryn Hahn and Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. Those make me really happy because I love those people, and I love the challenge of taking a show that’s decades old and doing it again.