The Man Behind the Sitcom
The director James Burrows is being honored this week with a career tribute at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Burrows made his name with classic TV sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. After helping to create Cheers, Burrows directed episodes of many other hit sitcoms, including Night Court, Frasier, Friends and Will and Grace.
Other segments from the episode on March 9, 2006
DATE March 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Director and producer James Burrows honored at US
Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Will & Grace" have something in common, James
Burrows, who's played a key role in each of them. He will be honored with a
career tribute this Saturday at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, which is
sponsored by HBO. Burrows has earned 10 Emmys and four Director's Guild
Awards. He got his start directing MTM productions like "The Mary Tyler Moore
Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show." From there he became the resident director
of "Taxi," then he co-founded the production company that created "Cheers" and
directed the pilot and many of the subsequent episodes. Here is one of his
scenes from episode three of "Cheers" with Ted Danson and Shelley Long.
(Soundbite of "Cheers")
Ms. SHELLEY LONG: Why are you so upset?
Mr. TED DANSON: You know, this week I have gone out with all the women I
know, I mean, all the women I really enjoyed. And all of a sudden all I can
think about is how stupid they are. I mean, my life isn't fun anymore, and
it's because of you.
Ms. LONG: Because of me?
Mr. DANSON: Yeah. You're a snob.
Ms. LONG: A snob?
Mr. DANSON: Yeah, that's right.
Ms. LONG: Well, you're a rapidly aging adolescent.
Mr. DANSON: Well, I would rather be that than a snob.
Ms. LONG: And I would rather be a snob.
Mr. DANSON: Well, good, because you are.
Ms. LONG: Sam, do yourself a favor, go back to your tootsies and
your...(unintellgible). I'd hate to see the bowling alleys close on my
Mr. DANSON: Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are you saying that I'm too
dumb to date smart women?
Ms. LONG: I'm saying that it would be very difficult for you. A really
intelligent woman would see your line of BS a mile away.
Mr. DANSON: You think so, huh?
Ms. LONG: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
Mr. DANSON: Yeah, well, you know, I've never met an intelligent woman that
I'd want to date.
Ms. LONG: On behalf of the intelligent women around the world, may I just
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: After "Cheers" ended and the character of Frasier got his own series,
Burrows directed the pilot and many episodes. He's directed "Will & Grace"
for the past eight seasons. Even Burrows family resume is impressive. His
father, Abe Burrows, wrote the books for the musicals "Guys and Dolls," "How
to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "Cactus Flower." At the very
start of James Burrows career, he worked on some of his father's musicals.
Mr. JAMES BURROWS: I was an assistant stage manager or an assistant to the
assistant on an ill-fated musical called "Breakfast at Tiffany's," where I met
Mary Tyler Moore and--Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain were the stars.
And I went on subsequently to stage manage for my father on "Cactus Flower,"
on the production on the road, and then in New York City in "40 Carats." So I
got to see my father, who really wrote on his feet because he would write a
scene, and then when he would get in rehearsal, he would change the scene just
on his feet and you'd begin to see how fascinating he was. And that's when I,
you know, I kind of have his style of directing. I'm a listener. I'm not
necessarily a watcher. And Abe would always--he would say to me when he went
to a run-through one of his shows or went to see one of his shows in the
theater, he would always walk behind the set. He wouldn't watch because he
wanted to know that there was always noise happening on stage. He listened
for the noise. He knew if there was no noise that he was in trouble. So I do
that when I direct my shows. So that, you know, that is the essence of the
experience of my father. In subsequent years, a lot of his gift and a lot of
his skills seemed to come out of me at the strangest times. It's not like I
learned them as much as, you know, they were like osmosis. I absorbed them,
and they kind of seep out of my skin in certain situations.
GROSS: So when you're directing a TV show, you're sometimes backstage and not
looking at the action or at the monitor?
Mr. BURROWS: Well, I don't--I never look at the monitor because it's
about--the shows I do are in front of a live audience. So it's about the
play, it's about what's happening there. I've been doing it long enough to
know that I don't have to worry about the camera shots because I know they'll
all be there.
So I listen and watch, you know, I'll walk behind the cameras not watching the
action, necessarily. But, a lot, you know, most of the time I watch the play
because--and I make my writers watch the play or they can watch the cut on the
screen. But they don't watch the quad split. A quad split is a television
screen that has the four cameras that I use to shoot the show on that. And if
they watch the quad split they're always worried about mikes and shots and
shots not matching. So I make all the writers watch the play because that's
eventually what makes a hit show.
GROSS: So what made you realize that you wanted to switch from the stage to
Mr. BURROWS: In the course of doing "Cactus Flower" and "40 Carats" around
the country, I worked a lot of dinner theaters, a lot of reg--well, not
regional theaters--dinner theaters, summer stock theaters. I would do these,
not situation comedies, comedies, "Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park," even
"Blithe Spirit" I did. I'm trying to think, "Never Too Late." All these
plays, the comedies that have been Broadway, and I'd do them with stars. And
I had about eight days to stage the whole thing, and I could get it done. I
was good at that. And then one night I was at home after rehearsal, and I
turned on the television, and there was the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," and they
were doing 20 minutes a week in front of a live audience. And here I was
doing 120 minutes a week to get ready for a live audience. And I thought I
could do that. I thought I could translate my skills on stage to the skills
required to do that television show because it was like filming a theatrical
So I wrote a letter to Mary Tyler Moore and, as I said before, I had the
connection because I was a stage manager on her first Broadway show, so she
kind of knew me. And Grant Tinker called me, and he said, `We're interested
in theatrical directors at MTM. Would you come out and do one show?' And I
don't know what's faster than a New York second, but whatever it was, I said
yes. And I was--the rest is history.
GROSS: So you got started directing MTM productions like "The Bob Newhart
Show," "Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Phyllis." Yes?
Mr. BURROWS: Yes.
Mr. BURROWS: Yes.
GROSS: Now, were you at first like understudying other directors, or did they
let you just go at it?
Mr. BURROWS: Well, the first thing you have to do is you have to learn the
technical stuff. So they brought me out here and you kind of have to observe.
Being an observer is you sit in the stands and you watch a week of rehearsals.
And the first three days are with the actors and writers alone. And the
fourth day the cameras come in, and the fifth day you shoot the show.
And, for with, with actors and writers, I kind of got that. It was when the
cameras come in it became daunting. So I watched for maybe two months
straight. I watched "The Newhart Show." Then I went over to "The Mary Tyler
Show," and I watched Jay Sandrich who, to me, is the true genius of this
medium. I watched him and became very good friend with him. And so I kind of
started to get a knowledge of what to do with cameras, had to figure them out.
And then they assigned me to a show called "Friends and Lovers," which was the
Paul Sand show. And I would coach--I was Paul Sand's dialogue coach. I would
help him run lines. But in the times when I wasn't doing that, I would watch
cameras. And eventually they called me, and they said, `We're going to give
you a shot.' And I figured it would be on the Paul Sand Show, and all of a
sudden it was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
GROSS: Do you remember that show that you did?
Mr. BURROWS: I do, vividly.
GROSS: How did it go? What sticks out in your mind?
Mr. BURROWS: I do. Oh, my God. Well, we read the script. It was the show
where Lou Grant moves into Rhoda's apartment. So he's living above Mary,
which means that they work together and they live together, which wasn't good
for the relationship. And so we read the script around a table, and it was a
D-minus. It was awful. And I said to Grant, I said, `In a sea of danish, I
get a bagel.' And it was literally just--the show was awful. I mean, the
initial reading, they made it better because you would rewrite--the writers
would rewrite all the time. And so I had to go down--back in those days you
rehearsed immediately after you read. You just went down and started running
scenes. And so I was dealing with a cast who hated the script, too, and yet I
had to run these scenes. And so I would do it, and I can't tell you--I
invoked Chekhov. I invoked Strinberg. I invoked Kaufman and Hart. I did
anything to try to ease it for them, to try to come up with some comic
business, anything that would help them get through this process.
And so I was working the first three days with the actors and cameras. And I
guess we finally got the show in some sort of semblance. And then the cameras
came in, and that was daunting enough for me. It was very difficult. I did
it on my own. I didn't want any help. And on the fifth day, just before we
shot, Mary Tyler Moore came over to me and they said, `We feel our investment
in you has worked out.' And that was ever before I shot the show, and I
couldn't have been higher figuratively.
And we shot the show, and it turned out all right. And Jay Sandrich was there
and helped me a little bit. And the minute that show was over, I got two
"Newharts" and I got a Bob Crane and a Paul Sand. And next year I was on the
"Phyllis" show, so I was on my way.
GROSS: Was the show as bad after it was shot as it was when you were doing
Mr. BURROWS: It was--it's a C-plus show. It's not a very good show. You
know, I, in fact, the script after me won an Emmy, so I, by the luck of the
draw, by the luck of the draw, I didn't get the Emmy show. I got an OK show.
And it might have helped me because of the amount of work I had to do and the
amount of talking and inspiring I had to do might have, in hindsight, might
have really helped me succeed in there and impressed the actors.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Burrows. And he's
probably the leading director of sitcoms on television. Some of the ones he's
done include "Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier," "Friends," "Will & Grace." And the
US Comedy Arts Festival is about to give him a career tribute.
OK. So you start off at MTM in television, and then you do "Taxi." And about
how many episodes would you estimate you did of "Taxi"?
Mr. BURROWS: I think I did 75.
GROSS: And you were there right from the beginning with "Taxi," right?
Mr. BURROWS: I was there. It was--after--I kind of left MTM after about
three or four years and started to go other places. I went on "Laverne &
Shirley," where I had a ball. Although that was a tough show. And then I did
a show with Ned Beatty. I was all a hired hand. I didn't do many pilots or
anything like that. And then the boys from MTM--Ed Weinberger, Jim Brooks,
Stan Daniels and Dave Davis--had created a show called "Taxi," and they called
me to direct it. And probably the most difficult show I ever did because the
cast was so divergent, the writing was so outrageous, the set was so gigantic,
and it was my first really big show where I was in charge from the beginning.
But it was like getting all these egos in the same room, there wasn't a room
big enough. And it was a struggle. And yet, I was heard. I got out there,
and I said what I wanted to say and I was heard. It was tough at times to be
heard, but I fought. And the great thing about that show was that the
producers of that show and head writers were Glen Charles and Les Charles, who
I'd first met on "Phyllis," and then they were brought in on "Taxi." So we
struck up a friendship. We were both handled by the same agent, and he
thought it would be good for us to do a show together, so I think about the
third year of "Taxi" we started to think about a show.
But "Taxi," if you go back and watch that show, there is some of the funniest
television, I think, I've ever done. In the retrospect of--I think they're
going to show a clip package at Aspen. And the standard out of that show is
Reverend Jim, "What does the yellow light mean?" "Slow down." And that is to
me one of the biggest laughs I had ever done on "Taxi." And so I have fond
memory of that show. It was also a great learning experience.
GROSS: My guest is TV director James Burrows. Here's the clip from "Taxi"
where Reverend Jim, played by Christopher Lloyd, is taking a written driver's
license test. Some of his friends from the taxi company are with him.
(Soundbite of "Taxi")
Mr. CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: What does the yellow light mean?
Unidentified Actor #1: Slow down.
Mr. LLOYD: OK. What (pause) does (pause) the (pause) yellow (pause) light
Unidentified Actor #2: Slow down.
Mr. LLOYD: OK. What (long pause) does (long pause) the (long pause) yellow
(long pause) light (long pause) mean?
Unidentified Actor #3: Slow down!
Mr. LLOYD: What (longer pause) does (longer pause) the (longer pause) yellow
(longer pause) light (longer pause) mean?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We'll talk more with director James Burrows after a break. This is
GROSS: My guest is James Burrows. He's being honored with a career tribute
Saturday at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen for his work directing such
sitcoms as "Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Will & Grace." When we left off,
we were talking about "Taxi."
You mentioned the egos that were in the room when you were doing that show.
And one of the actors was Andy Kaufman...
Mr. BURROWS: Right.
GROSS: ...who has to be one of the oddest personalities in comedy. What was
it like to work with him? I mean, and did he...
Mr. BURROWS: You know, people...
GROSS: ...know who he was? Because you always wonder about Andy Kaufman, is
he a collection of personas or is there--who is the real person there?
Mr. BURROWS: Andy? Andy Kaufman was a rich kid from Great Neck, Long
Island. I met his parents. They were a very straight-laced couple from
there. Andy was, to me, the smartest comedian I've ever met. He knew exactly
what he was doing at every time, at every moment. He also had the guts to be
able to go on stage and do something until you laughed. He didn't care
whether he didn't get laughs. He was going to commit to the material and
eventually you would laugh.
He went out once and I saw him read "Gone With the Wind." He opened the book
and started reading. And there's two minutes of silence until people started
to get what the routine is. Any other comic would have fled. He was amazing.
He was an amazing guy. He created that character of Foreign Man, which the
boys saw and loved and put into "Taxi." And he was--he had a photographic
memory. He had day-night reversal, which meant he would come in after lunch
and rehearse his scenes. He wouldn't come in in the morning. And, you know,
on that show, what indelibly sticks in my mind is the episode with Tony
Clifton, who was Andy Kaufman's alter ego.
Mr. BURROWS: And for those of you who have seen the film "A Man in the
Moon," they know what I'm talking about. But it was a marvelous day to be on
the "Taxi" stage when Tony Clifton arrived.
GROSS: Now, after "Taxi" you left with a couple of the creators of "Taxi,"
Glen Charles and Les Charles, and started "Cheers." And on "Cheers" and on
"Taxi," you had a chance to direct characters from the very start and
therefore to shape them, to help shape them through your direction, as opposed
to inheriting characters on an already existing series. Can you talk a little
bit about what it's like to actually create a character from scratch, a
character that you hope will endure for years in a series?
Mr. BURROWS: Well, the first thing that has to happen, it has to be on the
page. So I am very careful when I select scripts. And when we talked
about--Glen, Les and I talked about doing "Cheers," we spent two months
talking about these characters. And then the boys went off and wrote the
script. And a month later, when I read it, I said to the boys, `You have
brought radio back to television,' which is what they did. They wrote a
really smart show that literally could have been a radio show because there
wasn't that much movement. It was all about attitudes and all about
intonations and nuances and stuff like that. And...
GROSS: Can I just stop you. That would be a terrible insult to a lot of
people. If you said--there are a lot of TV people, if you said to them you
just produced this brilliant radio show, just written a brilliant radio show,
they would think that was a terrible insult because they're working on
television. And sometimes when you say radio to television people it's like
saying, `You don't know what you're doing. You're blind. You can hear, but
Mr. BURROWS: No. If you watch that show, people cross occasionally. Norm
comes into the bar. But you got to listen to that show. It's all about
GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. BURROWS: There's no eye candy in that show. There's no--originally,
I'll never forget, originally the boys in the first draft had some kind of
hurdle race in there that we took out. But it was, they came in, they sat
down, they told their stories, and that's what it is. You could have done
that show on radio. You wouldn't have had to worry about how the actors
looked, as long as their voices were good. But it was a television show.
But when I meant brought radio to television was it was smart. It was a smart
show. It was an upscale, smart show with jokes about Schopenhauer and Updike
and Freud and Jung, and we didn't care if the audience knew who those people
were. And they--it was a genius job. And so it was my job to shape this
cast. You cast them. You cast these people individually but you don't know
what you have until you put them together. So I always, in pilots, I always
will begin by sitting around a big table. And, in fact, on "Cheers" we sat
around the bar, and we talked about where everybody came from, their
characters. You know, I carried a conversation on with Sam and Diane and Norm
and Cliff and everybody like that. And we talked. And it's not only good for
me, it's good for the actors because they're going to want to talk anyway, and
if I can do it now and get them to talk and get them--they'll only grow into
the roles more.
So we spent, you know, we spent half a day just sitting around--probably a day
sitting around talking. And then I went to work on it. And it was, you know,
I did 240 out of like 275 shows. And I had a great time. I loved that show.
To me, that's my baby. And I was there from the beginning for the cast, and I
was there at the end, and they trusted me. And we, you know, after awhile we
knew what worked and didn't work. We didn't have to spend a lot of time on
stuff that didn't work. And we, you know, we could make the stuff work that
worked really quickly.
GROSS: James Burrows will be back in the second half of the show. He's being
honored with a career tribute Saturday at the US Comedy Arts Festival in
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with TV director and producer
James Burrows. He's being honored with a career tribute Saturday at the US
Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. He was the resident director of "Taxi" and
directed the pilots and many episodes of "Cheers" and "Frasier." He's directed
"Will & Grace" for the past eight seasons. Along the way, he's directed
episodes of "Friends," "Veronica's Closet," "Dharma & Greg," "The Bob Newhart
Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Now, "Cheers" was shot in front of a live audience. Do the laughs help the
actors? And does it ever work against the show? In other words, like because
the actors can't like pick up and say the next line until the laughs fade.
And, of course, the audience at home isn't in the studio audience, so do you
think the timing when you're watching at home is any different than the timing
when you're in the theater?
Mr. BURROWS: Well, laughter is communal, so it really helps to have an
audience because movies are so much better. I try to go see comedies in a
theater rather than try to watch them at home--in the movies because it's
really tough to laugh at home. Or I'll get the family into watch, and then we
can all laugh. But it's infectious and it's communal, so those were true
laughs. And you can tell they're true laughs because you can see the actors'
eyes glint on "Cheers." You can see the glint in their eyes, the excitement in
hearing such a big reaction to something they've said. And they had to wait
to be heard. And sometimes they wouldn't wait and I'd have to back up and
say, you know, `Let's go back a little bit.' And so they would be heard. But
those are true laughs. That show was a truly funny show.
GROSS: OK, well, say you had to backup because they weren't heard, or say you
want another take because it didn't work. What happens when the audience is
hearing a joke the second time and their laughter, it's not going to be the
same the second time around. They've already heard the joke. They've already
laughed at it.
Mr. BURROWS: But you're--yeah, they've laughed at that joke, but then you go
the second time so that you can get the reaction of the other person to that
joke. And then you can hear the other line from the person, because they have
previously said it into a laugh, and you didn't hear it. So that's why you
have to do that. But you'll use the first take of that joke because the
laughter was so big.
GROSS: So do you ever use the laughter from one take and roll it for a second
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah, you use--when you cross takes, you'll take the laughter
from the first take and play it over the reaction in the second take.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. BURROWS: You have to do that, otherwise you couldn't make sense of the
show if people are saying lines into laughs. You have to hear every line. So
we didn't do that a lot. Back in the "Cheers" days, we only ran the scene
twice. I would backup occasionally if somebody said something into a laugh.
But we didn't run the scene twice like we do now. We ran the "Cheers" scenes
only once, and then I would go back if we missed something or we wanted to
change one joke, I would go back and just shoot a piece of the scene again.
On "Will & Grace," we do everything twice and in between each scene the
writers rewrite some jokes.
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah.
GROSS: So the audience gets to hear--gets to see two different versions of
Mr. BURROWS: Yes. If you're going to do a scene twice, it really helps to
change the jokes.
GROSS: Now, is that typical that the writers are on the set?
Mr. BURROWS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Typical for you, maybe. Is it typical for other shows?
Mr. BURROWS: Oh, yeah. Any sitcom you got to see what--I mean, if you're
not on the set you don't know whether the show bombs or not. You got to be
there to see. It's either euphoria or it's your funeral, but you got to be
there and you got to fix what doesn't work. Because that's going on the air,
and you don't want something that's no good going on the air, so you better
GROSS: Now, Lisa Kudrow had this great series recently on HBO called "The
Comeback," in which she played somebody who had been on a real popular sitcom
and is now kind of washed up, and she has a small role on a new sitcom. And
you play the director of that new sitcom.
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: And there's one scene in there where she has like one line in the
whole episode in the sitcom that she's shooting. And so she really wants it
to be great and to have this big laugh. And she thinks like the laugh isn't
big enough and she didn't say it quite right so she wants to do it over. And
she insists to you that she wants another take. And you tell her, `No, it was
fine. We're moving on.' And she starts saying to the audience, `I want
another take. Another take! Another take!' And she gets the audience to
chant along with her. And then you take her backstage and give her a little
lecture about how that's really not good. `You can't do that.' The take was
good enough and she should figure out that she's not the star of the show.
Mr. BURROWS: I did say, `You took a small part and hit it out of the park.
You're not it anymore.' Yes, I did say that to her.
GROSS: So did you ever have to--is there anything in real life that was ever
like that scene where an actor said, `No, I want to do it again. I could get
a bigger laugh,' and you had to say no?
Mr. BURROWS: No. No. That's egregious. I mean, I would really--I would
take the actor behind the woodshed for that. That was in terrible, you know,
even as an actor acting that part it's incredibly emasculating and
embarrassing. But, you know, for the sake of the show, since I do get a
chance to read her the riot act at the end, it was OK.
But I--actors are more subtle than that, or the ones I work with are. They
will come and say, `I don't feel like I hit it.' And I'll say, `OK, we're
going to do another take.' If an actor--you don't want to just ride over an
actor. They're people, too. They have opinions. They're smart. They want
to get it right. If they watch themselves, they want to know they're playing
the right emotion. And it's not too difficult to go back if it's handled
correctly. If it's handled as a la "Valerie Cherish" handled it, it's not
GROSS: What are some of the inappropriate things that actors have done on the
set? And you don't have to mention names.
Mr. BURROWS: Well, they always curse. They always, if they forget a line,
they always curse. And then, of course, that gets a big laugh. I remember
doing "The Tony Randall Show" back in the '70s, and Tony would go up on the
stage just because he could say the f-word in front of the audience and it
would loosen everybody up.
But there, you know, there have been inappropriate--there have been, you know,
instances where actors were on an unhappy show, not on a happy show. And I
don't work usually an unhappy show. Sometimes I get saddled with one and then
I have to--I don't like it very much so I don't pursue those shows anymore.
But I've seen actors so upset with writing that they'll dog a performance,
which is amazing that an actor's vanity will let them dog a performance. But
I've seen that.
GROSS: You mean they'll intentionally do it badly because they hate the
writing so much?
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: That's kind of sabotaging themselves though, isn't it?
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah, it is. It is. But I've seen that occasionally. I've,
you know, I try to stop that and stem the tide on that when I see it. But I
don't usually get a lot of behavior. Sometimes I get actors go in their
dressing rooms and they're pissed at something, and then, you know, you draw
straws to see who has to go in there and spend some time with them and get
them out of the dressing room. You know, you play that game. But as far as
in front of the audience, there are not--I don't see many, many, much
GROSS: Now, as we mentioned, you usually work before a live audience. And so
the laughter that you're using is real laughter. It's not canned laughter.
But do you ever sweeten the real laughter with canned laughter?
Mr. BURROWS: Sometimes if you're making an edit and you need to bridge the
edit, sometimes you'll sweeten it a hair. But we do not--on "Will & Grace"
sometimes you have to take down the laughs they're so big. You know, too big
a laugh really hurts you, too, sometimes, so we occasionally to bridge a scene
or to bridge a cut we'll fudge a little bit with the laugh, but not usually.
GROSS: My guest is TV director James Burrows. More after a break. This is
GROSS: My guest is TV director James Burrows. He was the resident director
of "Taxi," directed the pilot and many episodes of "Cheers" and "Frasier," and
has directed "Will & Grace" for the past eight seasons.
Now, you know, we were talking about "Cheers." And, of course, after "Cheers"
you worked on the spin-off "Frasier."
Mr. BURROWS: Right.
GROSS: And you directed lots of episodes of that. You were there right at
Mr. BURROWS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Why was Frasier the character that you all decided to spin off?
Mr. BURROWS: We didn't. I did not spin him off. David Angell, Peter Casey
and David Lee, who were the producers of "Cheers" from years four through six,
and then went on to do "Wings," had talked to Kelsey about doing a spin-off.
So they wrote the script, and they spun him off. They asked us if they could,
and we said sure. And they wrote a brilliant script. They--their genius and
that script was taking an actor who had this incredible ability that Kelsey
has, and taking Frasier, making him Sam Malone, because he had to be the
center, and taking David Hyde Pierce as Niles and making him Frasier. So that
was brilliant on their part. And the tone of that show was brilliant, too.
So much more upper crust than "Cheers" because, other than Martin, the father,
there was no other Sam Malones or Norms or Cliffs on that show. They were all
upper crust, smart people. And they did a brilliant job. And I directed the
pilot, which was huge. And I think I directed about 20, 25 episodes. And
they did a great job, and they had a great actor in the lead and a great cast.
GROSS: I want to play a short scene from the pilot, which you directed, of
"Frasier." And this is a scene from early in the episode. Niles and Frasier
are at a coffee shop, and Niles is suggesting it's time to find a convalescent
home for their father to live in.
(Soundbite of "Frasier")
Mr. DAVID HYDE PIERCE: We have a problem and that's why I thought we should
Mr. KELSEY GRAMMER: Is it dad?
Mr. PIERCE: I'm afraid so. One of his old buddies from the police force
called this morning. He went over to see him and found him on the bathroom
Mr. GRAMMER: Oh, my God.
Mr. PIERCE: No, it's OK. He's fine.
Mr. GRAMMER: What, his hip again?
Mr. PIERCE: Frasier, I don't think he can live alone anymore.
Mr. GRAMMER: What can we do?
Mr. PIERCE: Well, I know this isn't going to be anyone's favorite solution,
but I took the liberty of checking out a few convalescent homes for him.
Mr. GRAMMER: Niles, a home? He's still a young man.
Mr. PIERCE: Well, you certainly can't take care of him. You're just getting
your new life together.
Mr. GRAMMER: Absolutely. Well, besides, we were never sympatico.
Mr. PIERCE: Of course, I can't take care of him.
Mr. GRAMMER: Well, yes, yes. Of course. Of course. Why?
Mr. PIERCE: Because dad doesn't get along with Maris.
Mr. GRAMMER: Who does?
Mr. PIERCE: I thought you liked my Maris.
Mr. GRAMMER: I do. I like her from a distance, you know, the way you like
the sun. Maris is like the sun, except without the warmth.
Mr. PIERCE: Well, then, we're agreed about what to do with dad. Golden
Acres, we care so you don't have to.
Mr. GRAMMER: It says that?
Mr. PIERCE: Well, it might as well.
Mr. GRAMMER: All right, I'll make up the spare bedroom.
Mr. PIERCE: Oh, you're a good son, Frasier.
Mr. GRAMMER: Oh, God, I am, aren't I?
Unidentified Actor #4: Two cafe supremos. Anything to eat?
Mr. GRAMMER: No, I seem to have lost my appetite.
Mr. PIERCE: I'll have a large piece of cheesecake.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: A scene from the pilot of "Frasier," directed by my guest James
And, you know, great scene, great series. One of the things that's really
interesting to me about that scene and about like, you know, the early
"Frasier" is that Niles sounds completely different than he did later on. He
is not talking with that, you know, kind of effete, clipped style of speech
that he developed later in the series.
Mr. BURROWS: I did not notice that. I always thought that he was--there was
no other word to describe Niles than effete for me, because he was a
personification of "Frasier," and Frasier was certainly effete on "Cheers." So
I did not know that. I guess, I--well, you know, what? Niles is a minor
character. If you talk to the boys, originally Niles only had one scene in
the pilot. And he was an afterthought. They thought the strong relationship
would be between father and son. And then because of David, that part
expanded rapidly. And, thank God, because it was a wonderful relationship.
GROSS: Now, you know, a lot of people thought that Niles and Frasier were
really two gay men cast as brothers. Do you know what I mean?
Mr. BURROWS: Yeah.
GROSS: That the brothers was just a cover, that this was a story about really
two gay guys. Did you feel that way when you were directing it?
Mr. BURROWS: Oh, yeah. It's a husband and wife, those two.
GROSS: Uh-huh, OK.
Mr. BURROWS: They are, they're a couple. They are a couple. And it's
great. It's great. I think it really helped with "Will & Grace," that
relationship. I don't thin they were gay. I never thought gay as much as a
married couple. They talk like a married couple, a snobbish married couple,
an effete married couple. So I totally agree with that.
GROSS: Now, on "Will & Grace," which you continue to direct, there really is
a gay character, and it was among the first really popular gay regular
characters on sitcoms and on broadcast. Were there issues about how broad to
make the character and, you know, how the character should be depicted?
Mr. BURROWS: Well, you know, the genius of that show is the script, is that
Max and David wrote a script where there's a love affair between a woman and a
man that can't be consummated. So the dialogue is brilliant in that script
and very, very smart. So you have a gay man who you don't play gay, which
gives you the liberty to play gay with the other character, with Jack. Jack
can be incredibly outrageous because Will is not . Will, you know, he gives
you credibility, mainly among the gay community. Because I think if Will
wasn't on the show we would get letters from the gay community about how
Jack's portrayed, how that character is portrayed. But because of Will, it
allows us to do that.
So I always thought of the show as a really funny show that happens to have
two gay characters on it.
Mr. BURROWS: That was--that was my goal in directing. And I talked to Max
and David who wrote it, and I firmly believe that, you know, the pilot was
through the roof when we ran it in front of an audience. They loved it. When
we shot it, they loved it. And I went to the network and I said, `Please,
don't put us after "Seinfeld." We cannot survive there because people are not
going to watch us. Please put us somewhere where we can kind of sneak into
town and people can, you know, find us eventually because there's no reason to
watch this show.' And then I wanted, there's a kiss in the pilot between Will
and Grace, and I wanted that in there because I felt that if we could convince
the part of the country that doesn't appreciate gays, that oes not like gays,
or has some problem with gays, if we could convince that part of the country
that maybe Will will take the super drugs and get over his gayness and marry
Grace, and if we let them think that they'll get together, that they'll maybe
tune in to watch the show because they've heard how funny it was. And then,
once they are in there and see how funny it is, they're never going to leave.
So we had a kiss in the first show, and we had a kiss in the first show at the
end of the first--at the last show at the end of the first year, just to do
that. And then we started to get an audience, because once they started to
tune in, they saw how funny the show was and how different it was, and how
inoffensive it was.
GROSS: So are you really glad you've been able to have a career in TV?
Mr. BURROWS: I've been blessed. I did--in 1981, I tried a movie. If I had
tried it in '91, the movie probably would have been more successful because I
would have had much more self-esteem than I had in '81. This was before
"Cheers." I didn't like the process because it took two years to get a result.
I didn't like the hours. I'm not a guy who is meticulous with how the set
looks and doing each scene three times so we can then cut it. I'm a guy who
likes to do live in front of an audience. And I have been blessed to be able
to work in this medium that I don't have to work anymore. I didn't have to do
"Will & Grace." I'm financially sound and--but I do it because I love it. I
do it because "Will & Grace" makes me feel 20 years younger. I've been in the
business about 35 years, so I just turned 25 last year. That's how old I am.
And I love laughing. I love to hear the laughter. I've done an ex--I've been
lucky enough to be associated with some extraordinary shows and shows that may
not be as extraordinary but were so wonderful, like "News Radio," which I did
the pilot of, and "Third Rock" with Johnny Lithgow. And I've had, you know,
these wonderful shows, and it just--I'm going to go on next year. When "Will
& Grace" is off the air, I'm going to try to find another show because I have
so much fun doing it.
GROSS: James Burrows, thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations
on your award from the US Comedy Arts Festival. And thank you so much for all
the great programs that you've given us. Thank you.
Mr. BURROWS: And thank you for some questions I've never been asked before.
GROSS: James Burrows is being honored Saturday with a career tribute at the
US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.
Coming up, music critic Milo Miles remembers Ali Farka Toure, the guitarist
and singer from Mali who died this week.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Critic Milo Miles remembers guitarist and singer Ali
Farka Toure of Mali
TERRY GROSS, host:
Guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure of Mali died Tuesday of bone cancer. He
was one of the best-known African performers in the world. He broke through
to a Western audience when he collaborated with Ry Cooder in 1994 on the
Grammy Award winning album "Talking Timbuktu." Toure won a second Grammy this
year for his album "In the Heart of the Moon." Music critic Milo Miles has a
(Soundbite of Ali Farka Toure song)
Mr. MILO MILES: Ever since his first American album came out in the late
1980s, Ali Farka Toure could not escape comparisons with classic blues
players. He was ambivalent about it. He said that John Lee Hookers'
influence on his playing was no different than that of the Bamako's people in
north Mali, and, in fact, that the blues grew out of African styles like his,
not the other way around.
The comparison was apt for more than musical reasons. Toure's work and life
showed a dignity, gravity and integrity that recalled the most noble of the
old-time blues masters. Growing up without schooling in the desert country of
Mali, his childhood fascination with music did not thrill his family of hard
scrabble farmers, but Toure persisted. Although he worked as a taxi driver
and a radio engineer in the '60s, he always gave concerts and even led bands.
He could sing in 10 languages. The subtitle of his 1987 US debut told the
simple truth, "10 Songs and the Legendary Singer from Mali." He had been a
huge national star for decades and saw little reason to spend much time away
from his country.
Toure also resembled the blues greats in that he was adept at writing songs
about issues, like apartheid and all sorts of everyday matters, like
schooling, farm labor, fighting locusts. And in the following number praising
a sacred mountain, Heygana.
(Soundbite of Ali Farka Toure song)
Mr. MILES: Toure never made a weak record, though his earliest sides in the
'70s have very wispy sound. His 1987 release "Ali Farka Toure" and a
follow-up called "The River" are his most potent, straight forward albums.
And, of course, his most famous release is "Talking Timbuktu" with Ry Cooder.
With more musicians and fancier production than usual, "Talking Timbuktu" has
much beauty and helped a wider audience hear Toure. It's a bit sweetened,
though. There's some dabs of golf course in the desert.
"Talking Timbuktu" sold well outside the regular world music audience and
brought Toure his largest crowds and longest tours. He found international
fame exhausting and distracting, however. In 1997 he declared he was retiring
from music to go back to his home town Niafunke and to his first love,
farming. But just two years later, he made his masterpiece. Recorded in and
named after Niafunke, it was largely performed on traditional folk
instruments, but it has the heft of all Toure's experiences in it, and the
desert soul of Niafunke seems to creep into the music. Or perhaps the soul of
Niafunke is Toure himself. He did become mayor in 2004.
He operated a large rice farm, oversaw vast irrigation projects, sponsored and
helped record young musicians and supported his many children. He knows all
about that. Ali Toure was given the name Farka because he was his parents
10th child and the first to survive to adulthood. Farka means donkey, and it
properly honors a man: tough, determined, hard working, good to have around.
GROSS: Music critic Milo Miles.
Ali Farka Toure died Tuesday of bone cancer. He was in his mid-60s.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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