The majesty of the sitcom is in its
familiarity, through both form and setting. When the medium is most successful,
the audience is made to feel at home, where everybody knows your name. But in
the annals of American art, the sitcom director is nameless.
Television doesn’t celebrate the auteur
the way film does. While the Scorseses, Spielbergs, and Allens et al. are fêted
for their artistry and filmic authorship, television’s directors are anonymous,
secondary, and uncelebrated. Traditionally, actors receive TV’s affections and
ceremony. In recent years, the showrunner has risen to prominence. But in the
background, TV directors ply their trade in obscurity, as if the productions
Buried even further in the mythos of the
medium is the sitcom director. In film or television, comedy has always been
relegated to secondary status. Acclaim for the humourists comes only when they
step into the dramatic spotlight. From Red Buttons to Robin Williams, the funny
have been asked to be furious when they desire their community’s utmost
Which makes one wonder: If James Burrows
had directed dramatic films and not the funniest sitcoms of multiple
generations, would he still revel in the shadow of Hollywood?
If you’ve watched television anytime in
the past four decades, James Burrows has made you laugh. His IMDB page reads
like a survey course of the best in sitcoms: Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers,
Taxi, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory.
But his Wikipedia page reads like that of
a professor of a survey course of the best in sitcoms. Its brevity is shocking,
and indicative of the status afforded to sitcom directors.
Burrows has been nominated for an Emmy
Award for directing an episode of a sitcom 24 times. He has received one
nomination every year since 1980, excluding 1997 and 2004. He has won an Emmy
five times. He has directed 30 sitcom pilots. His resume is unparalleled.
Imagine if Coppola had won an Oscar every eight years. His face would be placed
on a billboard next to the Hollywood sign. Instead, Burrows continues to work
without the adorations offered to his big screen brethren.
At a spry 71, he keeps stepping behind
the camera because he loves the medium he helped establish.
The sitcom in its multi-camera form is
the closest thing that TV or film has to stage productions. James Burrows’
inherited affection for the form has redefined it. The contemporary sitcom is
all James Burrows, from the joke setups to the audience’s laughter. And his
work has the utmost respect for the audience. As Burrows once noted: “I’ll tell
you what I love about directing: the surprise. You never know what’s going to
happen with your piece until an audience weighs in.”
But why is Burrows a lesser-known genius,
and why has his medium been stumbling towards irrelevance? Recently NBC, home
to the Must See TV sitcom blocks that starred Burrows projects for much of the
80s, 90s, and aughts, announced a fall schedule with only one hour of sitcom
programming. Has the form lost its way? Is Burrows a dinosaur in a nearly
extinct medium? The answer can, perhaps, be found in the words of the director
himself: “Most of the pilots I choose do not have high-concept ideas,” says
Burrows, “so for me it’s not the idea as much as the execution of the idea… You take a bar in Boston, that’s not a
high-concept idea. But if it’s executed well, it makes a great show.”
One of the oldest jokes begins simply:
Man walks into a bar.
While the absence of concept helped
develop the sitcom as an art form, the high-concept approach has contributed to
its death. The premise of the situational comedy is simple: Provide a setting
and characters. Comedy will ensue. When the sitcom is most successful, this is
the recipe, as it was in most of the programs Burrows was involved with,
whether or not they went on to become
iconic parts of American culture. And the sitcom should be welcoming, identifiable,
universal, and above all, funny. But it has moved away from that. The sitcom
now leans towards the cynical, the mean-spirited, or the pedestrian. As Burrows
says, “I have a fun clause in my contract. If I’m not having fun, I can leave.”
The American audience has stopped having fun, and has
left for dramas, reality TV, and film.
James Burrows is a giant in film and TV’s
smallest medium. In between commercials, he has been crafting our laughter
since the mid-70s. As the sitcom changes, and perhaps stumbles towards
obsolescence, it is making a violent departure from the Burrows sitcom, to
single camera and mockumentaries, to dramedy and to parody. But television’s
greatest director’s influence will forever be seen, in Labor Day weekend Friends marathons, in a network’s feeble
attempt at a mid-season replacement, and in the laughter born of an
unmistakably Burrows setup, whether on TV or out in the ether. Burrows has
taught generations what funny is, and it’s funny to me that so many of those
generations may not even know his name.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.
Steven Santos is currently a freelance television editor/filmmaker based
in New York. He has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The
Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal
Planet. His work can be found at http://www.stevenedits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut (http://www.thefinecutblogspot.com). You can also follow him on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/stevensantos).