On Saturday actress Lisa Kudrow hosted a conversation with veteran director James Burrows. Burrows — who’s earned 10 Emmys, four Directors Guild Awards and a spot in the TV Academy Hall of Fame — received the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Masters Award for Comedy during this year’s Comedy@SCA Festival.
Burrows has a long list of directorial credits to his name including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Will & Grace and Friends. His more recent credits include directing episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Mike & Molly.
Both Burrows and Kudrow received scholarship funds in their name through the Okie Foundation. The “Humor is 90 Percent Surprise” award will be given in honor of Burrows and the “Just Stay With it and Keep Working” in honor of Kudrow. The scholarships will be given to USC School of Cinematic Arts students starting next year.
Kudrow spoke of Burrows’ ability to foster familial relationships and creativity. While shooting the first season, Burrows said he took the six Friends cast members to Las Vegas.
“I said, ‘This is your last shot at anonymity,’ because the show hadn’t been on the air yet and I wanted them to bond. I wanted them to love one another,” he said. “I wanted them to, if another director came in, have the guts to say, ‘I think for me it would be better if it went this way.’ I knew they were all creative and that would only make the show better.”
But according to Kudrow, Burrows’ generosity extended both on and off set. He gave up his dressing room — which was larger than the actors’ — to the cast so they could play poker.
“For the actors you create this playground during rehearsal. It’s a very productive rehearsal, and you encourage those who are willing to pitch jokes. You make it really fun and it feels really collaborative,” Kudrow said. “Thanks for the money you fronted us to gamble.”
Though Burrow’s ability to direct comedic television might not have changed much over the years, he said the business of television has. With the rise of cable television and networks such as HBO and Showtime, Burrow said there are more shows on television and comedy writers working at the networks are no longer necessarily the best comedy writers.
“With the amount of shows being done now — most of them are not any good,” he said. “But there are maybe 10 shows that are really good, which is probably the same as what it was in the ’70s when there were just three networks.”
The volume of shows is not the only thing that’s changed, Burrows said. Starting in the 1990s when Burrows worked on Friends and Will & Grace, networks began to meddle with the plots, claiming that Will & Grace had too many gay jokes and that Monica — one of the Friends — shouldn’t sleep with someone on a first date, as she did in the pilot. Kudrow said that on the night of the pilot taping they did a survey and the audience approved of the plotline.
“[The network] didn’t really trust that [writer/creator] David [Crane] and Marta [Kauffman] knew what they were writing about or new the people they were writing about and the network didn’t trust that the audience were the same people,” Kudrow said. “They also wanted an adult on Friends because there hadn’t been a show with just 20-somethings and who’s going to watch that or be interested in those people?”
The importance of being innovative and persistent was a key takeaway for students who came to the event.
“These two are both very important people in our field and I think the important thing they said was just keep at it,” said Thomas Truax, a freshman majoring in writing for screen and television.
David Himelfarb, executive producer of My Wife and Kids and Kyle XY, said he came to the event to see the legendary Burrows, but was excited to see so many eager students.
“It’s a business in which training and knowledge is passed on a verbal basis,” Himelfarb said. “There’s a living tree of memories and tradition and ideas and thoughts that are passed along and that’s how the business grows.”
Ultimately, Burrows said the most important thing is to have fun with what you’re doing.
“I tell actors, ‘Check your ego at the door,’” he said. “I have a fun clause in my contract.”