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‘Friends,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Big Bang Theory’ director James Burrows looks back at TV career in new book

By Alicia Rancilio

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.

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.

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Q: The business seems to prefer single-camera comedies these days. Why do you prefer multi-cam?

BURROWS: 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.

BURROWS: 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. I tried to enable them to out there when I left the show and express themselves.

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?

BURROWS: 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?

BURROWS: 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.

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