LOS ANGELES (AP) — You don’t have to thank James Burrows, given that Jennifer Aniston, Ted Danson and Jim Parsons are lavishing him with praise and gratitude.
But if you’re a TV viewer who ever got a giggle or chortle or belly laugh out of “Friends” or “Cheers” or “The Big Bang Theory,” you may also want to tip your hat to the director, the acknowledged master of the three-camera sitcom.
Burrows steps into the spotlight to receive his due in NBC’s “Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows,” airing 9-11 p.m. EST Sunday.
The special features 40-plus actors from the above shows and “Taxi,” ”Frasier,” ”Will & Grace,” and “Mike & Molly” — all beneficiaries of the Burrows touch.
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The stars’ memories of working with him are punctuated by series clips, with Jane Lynch and Andy Cohen moderators for the evening taped at the Hollywood Palladium theater.
“I call Steven Spielberg the Jimmy Burrows of feature film,” said “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes, an executive producer for the special. “Bob Newhart said it best: After two hit shows, you can call it luck. After 50, it’s talent.”
There’s teamwork and alchemy in every TV success, of course, but Burrows clearly has the knack of making even the best projects better. His 10 prime-time Emmys and four Directors Guild awards attest to that.
He took a medium commonly accepted as the property of writers, one in which itinerant directors tend to bump from series to series, episode to episode, and made it his own.
A deluge of scripts still comes his way each year from producers who hope Burrows will give their pilots the edge needed to gain network acceptance. The lucky few win his services throughout the season; “Cheers” had him exclusively, and he directed the full run of “Will & Grace.”
He hit the 1,000-episode milestone on the upcoming NBC series, “Crowded.”
The soft-spoken Burrows, 75, declines to embrace the “genius” label some have tagged him with. But he acknowledges he’s a good fit with the multi-camera format taped in front of a studio audience.
“I’m a theater rat. I was born in the business,” said the son of writer-director Abe Burrows, whose Broadway credits included “Guys and Dolls,” ”How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Cactus Flower.”
His father “used to trundle me along to rehearsals. … It would sink in while I would dream and run around the theater,” Burrows told a recent teleconference.
After a start directing summer stock and dinner theater, Burrows moved to TV in the 1970s, getting his big break on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and never switching to single-camera comedies like “Modern Family.”
Every sitcom taping with an audience represents a thrilling “opening night for me,” Burrows said.
He doesn’t defer to writers by limiting himself to camera angles. He deftly improvises shtick, suggests rewrites when lines aren’t working and draws the actors into the process with a license to experiment.
Hayes said he found a generous and creative soul mate in Burrows.
“He thinks left-of-center and he thinks in a very physical way,” he said. One example: A “Will & Grace” scene in which Hayes’ character, Jack, declares he is bored.
“Jimmy said, ‘Do a headstand on the chair.’ That made no sense, and it was hilarious,” recalled Hayes.
It was a breeze bringing together almost all of the cast members of the seven shows being highlighted and other stars despite their busy schedules, said Hayes and fellow producer John Irwin.
I don’t know if there is any force of nature that these people would have come together for the way they did,” Irwin said. “It’s a testament to how much people love this guy.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/lynn-elber and she can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber