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Review | Fans of Must See TV need this must-read memoir


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James Burrows is a man of many monikers. He has been called the Sitcom Sorcerer, the Willie Mays of Directing and the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Sitcoms, to name a few. The credit of “Directed by James Burrows” is about the surest bet there is in entertainment. He has shepherded some of television’s best series, including “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace” to iconic status. A staggering 75 of the series pilots he directed, including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” advanced to series.

It is a measure of his standing in popular culture that in 2016, NBC broadcast “An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows.” When Steven Spielberg heard that Burrows was described as the Steven Spielberg of Sitcoms, the Academy Award winner called Burrows and told him that he wanted to be known as the James Burrows of Movies.

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Burrows’s memoir, “Directed by James Burrows,” co-written with Eddy Friedfeld, makes great binge reading for comedy buffs and aficionados of Must See TV. It’s as difficult to put down as a “Friends” marathon is to turn off.

Burrows has directed more than 1,000 episodes of television, but who’s counting? He is. “Four episodes of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ” he writes, “11 episodes of ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’ eight of ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ 19 of ‘Phyllis,’ 75 of ‘Taxi,’ 243 of ‘Cheers,’ 32 of ‘Frasier,’ 15 of ‘Friends,’ 49 of ‘Mike & Molly,’ and 246 of ‘Will & Grace.’ ” Check out his IMDB page for a complete rundown of this Promethean director’s credits.

Not that they were all hits, or that some classic series didn’t get away. “I passed on both ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Designing Women,’ ” he writes. “I didn’t see the potential of either at the time. It happens.” He also moved on from “Friends” after the second season. “One of my few regrets in my career is that I didn’t stay with those six kids,” he writes.

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“Directed by James Burrows” is enlivened by script excerpts of memorable moments from Burrows’s oeuvre. The reader’s ability to visualize the scenes is a testament not only to the writers and actors who brought to life these indelible characters, but to Burrows’s genius for finding the grace notes that get what he calls “the best, smartest, character-driven laughs.”

The book is brimming with great behind-the-scenes stories about some of television’s most beloved series and the artists who created and starred in them. But it is especially valuable as a primer on what a comedy director does. “When I read a pilot script,” Burrows writes, “I want to think, ‘This is funny, I can add to this.’ ”

A case in point is the pilot episode of “Frasier,” which introduced David Hyde Pierce in his multi-Emmy Award-winning role as Frasier Crane’s even more supercilious and neurotic brother, Niles. In his first scene, he and Frasier (Kelsey Grammar) await a table at their favorite coffeehouse. The banter between them sets the series’ rarefied comic tone (“When was the last time you had an unexpressed thought?” an annoyed Frasier asks. “I’m having one now,” Niles grins to his pompous brother.)

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It’s a funny scene, but as Burrows relates, he suggested that before Niles and Frasier sit down at their table, Pierce take out his handkerchief, wipe off his seat and offer the handkerchief to his brother to do likewise. It became a character-defining trait.

The shows on which Burrows put his inimitable stamp share heart, humor and humanity. The chapter on “Will & Grace,” the Peabody Award-winning series about the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman, is a reminder, he writes, of how at its best, “television is one of the most important platforms for creating awareness and advancing understanding between people, race, gender, and culture.”

That show, in particular, benefited from the chemistry of its core ensemble. Chemistry, Burrows states, is as important as the comedy. “When I direct a television show,” he writes, “I try to reach that sweet spot where the best script meets the best performance and the best chemistry between performers.”

Sometimes this can be challenging. Of English actress Helen Baxendale, who portrayed Ross’s eventual fiancee on “Friends,” he writes, “She was nice but not particularly funny. [David] Schwimmer had no one to bounce off. It was like clapping with one hand.” (I respectfully disagree; I found her character charming and funny, proving once again that comedy is subjective and that I am a sucker for a British accent.)

Speaking of chemistry, Burrows does reveal that there was one actor he flat-out hated: Marcel, the monkey on “Friends.” “I told everyone who would listen, ‘When I come back to direct another episode, please, no monkey,’ ” he writes.

Burrows was born to the breed. His father was Abe Burrows, the celebrated comedy writer for radio and Broadway whose stage credits include “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Guys & Dolls” and “Cactus Flower.” He feels the same way about sitcoms as his father felt about his plays. Burrows relates that someone once asked his father, “Abe, why don’t you direct drama?” Abe responded, “I do direct drama — they just happen to be funny.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Burrows learned from his father about comedy was one about perspective. “He once pointed to his glasses and said to me, ‘Most people look at the world this way,’ ” he writes. “He then skewed his glasses on his face and said, ‘I look at the world this way.’ I wound up developing the same philosophy, even though I’ve never worn glasses.”

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

Directed by James Burrows

Five Decades of Stories From the Legendary Director of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and More

By James Burrows with Eddy Friedfeld

Ballantine. 368 pp. $28.99

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