A Multi-Cam Hero: James Burrows and My Favorite Episodes

On Sunday, NBC will air a two hour special honoring a man that not many may realize has had a hand in creating some of the most beloved sitcoms over the past 40 years: James Burrows.

The Internet has been freaking out since the Television Critic’s Association meet-up in January, where NBC announced it. It’s not that everyone is crazy about James Burrows, at least not consciously. No, it’s because news sites used misleading headlines… like “A FRIENDS Reunion is Finally Happening” or “Will & Grace Reunion Special to Air on NBC Next Month.” That’s what made the Internet lose its damn mind. And yes, many of these casts got back together. But not for us or for themselves. For one man. The man who had a huge part in their careers.

Mr. Burrows is THE multi-camera sitcom director. Starting on such hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Laverne & Shirley, he found his first moment with a little show called Taxi, where he directed 75 episodes. A few years later, he co-created Cheers, directing 237 (out of 271) episodes. He favors pilots, giving him the opportunity to help a fledgling show find its voice. NBC is honoring him for directing his 1,000th episode of television.

James Burrows has been an idol of mine for 15 years now. Not long, considering his massive career. But his style of directing multi-camera comedy cannot be matched. He knows good writing and respects the theatricality of filming in front of a live audience. Since Mr. Burrows is behind 3 of my all-time favorite shows, I decided to put together my own list of my favorite episodes of those shows, in no particular order, directed by the man of honor.

The BIG episodes: Pilots, Season Finales, Weddings, and Break-Ups:

You know the ones. They’re important to a series structure, sometimes an arc that writers have worked on for months. And networks know they usually could bring in big ratings. No pressure, there.

Cheers

Give Me a Ring Sometime (S1.E1): Most likely the greatest pilot of all-time, and a constant threat to my own attempts at penning a pilot, this episode set the stage without feeling like it. The actors instantly own their roles, nailing delivery, many times in a subtle way, setting the tone for Cheers’s natural, bar-banter humor.

Show Down Pts 1 & 2 (S1.E21-22): The season one finale that gave us all that we wanted from Sam and Diane – a memorable fight culminating in a passionate kiss we’ve been waiting for. And though it could’ve been easy for the rest of the cast to allow Ted and Shelley to carry the entire thing on their own, they give it their all with the subplots: their love for Sam’s (unseen) brother, Coach’s attempt at speaking Spanish, even the ladies ordering their drinks (“I haven’t had a beer since I don’t know when”). It feels so effortless for such a big moment. There would certainly be more moments, but none that top this one.

I’ll Be Seeing You, Pts 1 & 2 (S2.E21-22): A brutal break-up episode, we see the dissolution of Sam and Diane’s relationship. Sam’s ego and vanity and Diane’s impossible expectations where never a match – we love them apart, but they’re a terrible couple. They had to crumble. Christopher Lloyd, whom Burrows worked with extensively on Taxi, plays an aloof artist infatuated with Diane. It was almost too easy. The arc’s pinnacle moment is the difficult argument between Sam and Diane, that begins with childish slapping and nose pinching, but quickly delves into the seriousness of their emotions. The weightiness of their relationship is powerful. There’s a long silence between Diane walking out and Sam opening the painting, giving a simple, sincere “Wow.” That one word held so much, and was an impactful way to end the season.

An Old-Fashioned Wedding (S10.E25): A classic farce that could pay well on stage,  it has everything a farce needs: a wedding, a dead body, a drunk uncle and a jealous German husband. The revolving door of issues means timing is everything, from Sam’s exits and entrances to Carla’s unfortunate dumbwaiter trips. While it seems absurd that so much can go wrong on one day, the actors never miss a beat, so you don’t get too caught up in one story.

Frasier:

My Coffee with Niles (S1.E24): Not always ranked high on usual best lists, I always loved this episode because of its dark underside: Frasier may not be happy. It’s a deep topic, particularly for a sitcom character, and both Grammer and Pierce pull it off brilliantly. The entire episode takes place in the coffee shop, practically in real time, as Roz, Daphne, and Martin come in and out, bringing out different sides of Frasier during their interactions, along with the poor barista attempting to get his coffee order correct. For a series that so often looks at others’ internal psyche, it’s a rare meta moment of introspection and a quiet way to end the first season.

Friends:

The One with the Prom Video (S2.E14): An instant classic, and the reason why so many sitcoms afterward delved into character flashbacks. Monica and Rachel, in typical ’80s fashion, are preparing for prom. Unbeknownst to Rachel, a nervous Ross was ready to step in as her date, at the encourgement of his parents. When Rachel’s date shows, they leave Ross heart-broken, holding the flowers he just pulled from a vase. The killer moment is Rachel’s long, slow walk from the living room to the apartment door, as she realizes what Ross did for her, all these years later.

The One with the Morning After (S3.E16): This one is tough. I have to really gear myself up to watch it, but that’s because it makes me feel so strongly. The episode wisely puts us in the position of the rest of the gang, trapped in Monica’s bedroom, unable or unwilling to interrupt this blowout. Ross and Rachel were at an impasse, and their hours-long argument feels real and painful for both sides.

The Regular episodes that left a mark:

Season openers and closers, big break ups, and wedding episodes naturally lend themselves to good TV, if all the players are present, of course. But it’s the middle of season episodes where it’s harder to stand out. So when they do, they’re even more impressive.

Cheers

Diane’s Perfect Date (S1.E17): What seems like a typical sitcom set-up (two characters who are obviously into each other deflect by setting each other up with somebody else) plays with hilarious consequences here. Sam’s sly cockiness that Diane is setting herself up with him is both dumb AND revealing. When he sees he was wrong, we’re introduced to the unassuming, homicidal creep that is Andy Andy. The double-date that ensues is comical and terrifying. The final scene, where Sam and Diane engage in school yard “I’ll say I like you if you say you like me” tells us all we need to know about this relationship.

Pick a Con… Any Con (S1.E19): Harry Anderson plays Harry the Hat as a smooth if geeky conman, at once a throw back and completely relevant. He’s a known swindler, but when it looks like Coach is being taken advantage of, Sam knows who to call. This episode is wrought with tension, as the gang is trying their damnedest to win back not only Coach’s money, but his dignity. When Harry reveals how he pulled the ultimate con, it’s a testament to the directing that we in the audience are just as shocked as the gang.

The Triangle (S4.E15): Frasier has lost his mojo. Diane and a reluctant Sam scheme to help him out, but their assists result in an unexpected emotional explosion from Frasier, where he calls the pair out for their infantile, petty relationship. As a teeny-tiny subplot, there’s Norm and Cliff’s argument over Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, which is brilliantly executed by comically punctuating the very serious situation happening with Sam, Diane, and Frasier. Though Kelsey Grammer’s monologue is one of my favorites, it’s the following scene that shines. Sam and Diane sit in awkward silence, sneaking glances at each other. Diane fidgets, Sam leans back, then they tepidly discuss what the good Doctor has revealed. It’s yet another moment that’s heavy with emotion, and it’s what makes Cheers the sitcom by which all should be judged.

Abnormal Psychology (S5.E4): At five seasons in, it’s good to see Cheers wasn’t afraid to create a budding new relationship. With Sam and Diane on a clock, it was time to find a new pair to exchange testy banter. Enter Lilith. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier was already well-developed, but Bebe Neuwirth matches him line for line, heated glance for heated glance. To frame their contested conversation within the bounds of a TV screen at the bar makes the sexual tension even more palpable.

Thanksgiving Orphans (S5.E9): Crescendoing to an epic food fight, this is episode takes the cake. One of the original “friendsgivings,” the Cheers gang ends up spending the holiday together because they all have no where else to go. They prove, however, that friends ARE family, complete with family-sized arguments over football, turkey, who’s really thankful. The food fight is just plain fun.

Everyone Imitates Art (S5.E10): A personal favorite, because it reveals a side to Diane we don’t often see: intellectual inferiority. Shelley Long brings a manic obsessive energy to the episode, while Ted Danson perfectly underplays (as usual), giving Long the power to control her scenes. Diane goes through a whirlwind of emotion here, and we, like the rest of the bar gang, just sit back and watch.

Frasier:

The Innkeepers (S2.E23): An episode that highlights the delusions of grandeur the Crane boys suffer from, it’s so fast-paced, you don’t really have time to consider just how unrealistic it might be. David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves are particularly great here, working together in the kitchen.

The Show Where Diane Comes Back (S3.E14): Again, a personal favorite because of how much I love Diane Chambers. She’s written a play that’s being produced in Seattle, which she convinces Frasier to help support. Frasier thinks he might actually be falling for Diane again, and it’s interesting how the series handles Frasier’s past here, recognizing how painful it was for him to be left at the alter. The slow-build during the first act, where Diane admits her troubles leads to a brilliant pay-off, and an epic rant performed by a still-bitter Frasier. Considering Long left Cheers nearly 10 years prior, she falls right back into her role easily, as does Grammer with her.

Friends:

The One with the Blackout (S1.E7): A standout for Matthew Perry, as we get to see his nerdy awkwardness without nerd-stereotyping. The rest of the gang is huddled in Monica’s apartment, doing what you do in a black-out – swapping stories, having singalongs, and getting attacked by stray cats. It’s also one step forward and three steps back for the Ross-and-Rachel relationship, an episode that brought “friendzone” into the pop-lexicon.

The One Where Nana Dies Twice (S1.E8): Death and comedy can go hand-in-hand. This episode handles the death of Ross and Monica’s Nana with poignancy and laughs. Ross helping pick out his grandmother’s burial clothes, Monica’s difficulty with her mother, and Joey sneaking in the football game all make the funeral events feel believable.

The One with All the Poker (S1.E18): A fun episode with a basic premise, it’s chock full of quoteable lines. Even though it’s tad bit sexist that none of the women know the game, it lends itself well to some great comedy and the girls finally do come around to playing with some skill. The final showdown between Ross and Rachel is incredibly revealing, since unlike Rachel, we as the audience know how Ross really feels. Did he let Rachel win? Maybe. “But look how happy she is.”

 

“Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows” will air Sunday, Feb. 21st at 9pm on NBC.

 

ATX Television Festival and My Weekend in Heaven

We just got back from Austin, after spending four glorious days surrounded by all things TV. And it was amazing.

The ATX Television Festival is a fairly young, relatively small convention, whose sole focus is television past, present, and future. Sounds pretty magical, right? Cory & I went to the Fest in 2013. It was its second “season,” and highlights included a reunion of the Boy Meets World cast & crew, and an American Dreams celebration/reunion. Like its much older, louder, and intimidating brother San Diego Comic-Con, those celebrity-driven events get most of the attention, such as this year’s Gilmore Girls reunion. More on that later.

But also like Comic-Con, the venues are filled with fascinating panels of industry insiders, covering topics like single cam vs multi cam comedy scripts, pitch tips, and niche vs. mass audiences. The panels are usually well-stocked with high-level executives, producers, and creators, offering truly honest experiences and genuine advice. And when there’s a good moderator and a great mix of personalities, the conversations can be deep and eye-opening — far from any scripted, 15-minute “look at these guys!” panel in Hall H.

The best part is the Fest is still small enough to feel small; the panel rooms aren’t cavernous — you can sit anywhere and still make eye contact with the panelists, many of whom are happy to stick around longer than scheduled to answer more questions.

Another thing is ATX TV Fest uses a Fast Pass system, which has worked well up until this year, I believe. If you purchased a badge, you’re able to register for 3 Fast Passes a few weeks before the event. The Fast Pass essentially guarantees entry into the chosen panel, provided you’re there on time, and gets you prime seating choice, since they clear rooms in between panels. So no camping out! Or in! The reason it didn’t really work well this year was the epic Gilmore Girls reunion. The Fast Pass ticketing site crashed, froze, and caused general frustration and anxiety. I still think the FPs are a good idea, especially judging by the lines of people trying to get into each room. But each year the Fest reconsiders, so I guess we’ll have to see how that all plays out.

Anyway, Cory & I did not go last year, since it was a moving year and we just couldn’t do everything, even though there was a Hey, Dude! reunion. Still kinda bummed I missed that one. This year, only because of our impending nuptials, we agreed we would only go if our pitch made the final round. Spoiler Alert.

Finalists.
Finalists.

We were just happy that this year, the Pitch Competition was on Friday morning. That meant we could enjoy the rest of the weekend. And enjoy we did.

There were a lot of great panels on Friday, including a Girl Meets Boy Meets World discussion. However, after pitching and the following reception (where we briefly spoke with Dan Harmon), we were wiped out, so we did not participate. Instead, we camped out in the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin hotel bar, figuring out the next move with the pitch and our subsequent projects. It was also a great social outing — fest-goers came up to us all day, congratulating us on our pitch and offering other kind words. We were surprised by how many of them actually thought we were already in the television business, but I guess that’s a good thing?

Saturday was planned out. We had Fast Passes to a panel called Niche vs. Mass Audiences.  The panel included Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), Kathleen McCaffrey (HBO development), and Noah Hawley (Fargo). They talked about what ratings used to mean, what they mean now, and how networks feel about them. If you’re interested in the business side of TV,  this was a great conversation. Interesting, funny, and honest, it was also great that the panel each had experiences with different networks.

Afterward, we headed next door to see the great James L. Brooks (if you don’t know, look him up), who was receiving the ATX TV Fest Award. I was really excited about this one. Thanks to the Fast Passes, we got second row in the theater space. Phil Rosenthal was the “moderator,” and the hour-long event consisted of Brooks discussing his vast television history – how polite and perfect Mary Tyler Moore was during filming, how fucking insane and brilliant Andy Kaufman really was, how funny Tracey Ullman could be — I could’ve listened to him for hours.

When the discussion was over, Rosenthal and Brooks walked off the stage and started to head up the aisle. I pushed forward, trying to time it perfectly. Then,  we were face-to-face. I essentially told him the story about how Chuckles Bites the Dust was the first script I ever read, because my dad (of course) had a framed copy signed my Mary Tyler Moore. He seemed surprised, but grateful, and asked me a few questions about what I do, and I what I hope to do in television. Phil Rosenthal listened intently, too, asking a few questions himself. It was a big moment for me, needless to say.

Framed and autographed by MTM.
Framed and autographed by MTM, the first script I ever saw.

While still on a little bit of a high, we headed over to another panel called Unseasonably, which was supposed to look at what a TV season is today, and how to keep audiences engaged when a series is released all at once, etc. This panel was…. okay. I’m not sure if it was the topic, the moderator, or the panelists (all dudes, but whatever), but nothing really went anywhere. They all just kept saying, “If it’s good, the audience will find it.” And all I could think of was a few dozen cancelled shows who wished this was true.

The Gilmore Girls reunion was Saturday night. We did not get Fast Passes because I would’ve felt guilty. I’m not a die-hard fan; if I went, it was just because it was a big deal, not because I really, really wanted to go. And I knew there were people who really, really wanted to go. The plan was to check out the general line and decide if it was worth it. We did. It was not. The line couldn’t start until 5 pm, and even then the blazing sun and dense humidity made standing outside for hours really unpleasant. Instead, we opted for dinner at the restaurant next door, then moved to the bar upstairs, where we realized we were surrounded by “Gilmore Girl Rejects,” or those who did not make it into the theater. The venue had 1,300 seats, but a few hundred, apparently, did not get in. Throughout the whole process, it’s pretty evident the ATX Fest crew did not anticipate the fandom of GG.

Sunday started with a panel called The Directors (all women – yay). Each panelist had a ton of experience directing in various mediums, but mostly television – Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, The Leftovers), Betty Thomas, Tamra Davis (Billy Madison, Younger), and Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Orange is the New Black). The scene-stealer here was the great Betty Thomas, whose directing credits include The Brady Bunch Movie, John Tucker Must Die, and recently, Grace & Frankie. Overall, they gave great advice on how to get into directing, and how to maintain relationships with writers and creators. Fun note – they agreed that often the most difficult person to work with on a shoot is not an actor, but the cinematographer.

We caught brunch with some new friends, then checked out The Leftovers panel, really just to see Damon Lindelof in person, instead of on a giant screen in the back of Ballroom 20. The panel was good, and they discussed the difficulty in promoting a show that is ultimately grim, with of course a few sly winks at past errors (*Lost*cough*).

That was the end of our experience at ATX TV Fest. It was incredible, to say the least. I really admire the co-founders, Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson – they are present at the events, very hands-on, and this is something they clearly put their hearts and souls into.

For me, this Fest is invigorating. It’s so weird to be surrounded by people who speak my language – seasons, ratings, episodes, characters, networks, producers — vocabulary I usually only use at family dinners with Dad and James.  These Fest-goers are all serious fans, no matter their involvement in the industry – which is the best part – network executive, showrunner, writer, critic, viewer – everyone here has the same passion. And that is something special.

Oh, and did I mention it’s in Austin? ‘Cause…. that’s pretty great, too.

 

The Greatest Opportunity: ATX TV Fest’s Pitch Competition

ATX TV Fest has an annual pitch competition, where, within the confines of a 90-second video, you must pitch your idea for the next great (scripted) TV show. I entered the competition in 2013, and gleefully made it to the 25 Semi-Finalists list. Unfortunately, I did not make it any further. We entered again last year, but we made the video literally the night it was due. We had been in San Diego for maybe 4 days. Needless to say, we did not make it any further.

This year, Cory & I developed a new concept and filmed the video in our tiny apartment. It was a solid pitch and we knew it. But it was still pretty cool when we officially made the 25 Semi-Finalists list. There was a new component this time: semi-finalists were asked to submit a 10-page writing sample, proving that you can work within a narrative and in the genre that you were pitching. No sweat. Cory & I poured over the written content we had, pulled our best 10 pages from an original pilot script, spent hours and hours and hours and hours editing them to hilarious perfection and submitted. No sweat.

We were proud of our 10 pages, and of our pitch video, but without knowing your competition, there’s not much you can do but hope for the best. And the best came. We were on the list of the 10 Finalists. We were going to Austin to pitch our show idea in front of an audience and a panel of industry insiders.

The Pitch Competition was Friday morning. We got into Austin Thursday afternoon, registered, and spent the rest of the day in our hotel room, rehearsing. We had some posters (thanks to our friends for providing and creating the images on VERY short notice), which we had packaged at FedEx to fly out with us. Rehearsals went well. We were confident.

When I told people about this competition, especially people here in San Diego, who haven’t known me that long, they all asked, “Oh my god, aren’t you nervous? In front of an audience?” To which, I’m sure my friends back in NEPA would laugh and laugh. I am not afraid of an audience. And I wasn’t afraid of the judges. I was nervous, but the good nervous. More than anything, I was proud. Proud that I made it this far. Proud that this was really a joint effort between me and Cory. Proud that I was so confident.

You have to understand: what I love, there aren’t always competitions for. It’s not like singing or dancing or showing off some kind of talent, or even just writing. This was a competition where I got to stand up, microphone in hand, and talk for three minutes about what I love most. Hopefully, not for the last time.

Happiness
Happiness

The competition went by super fast. We went fourth in line, and nailed it, just as we rehearsed. We watched the rest of the pitches from the back of the room. Some were good, some were surprising, one was so great, I would have bought it right then. The winner was announced, and it was a pitch that went before us, so we didn’t see it. We heard it was good. And we’re very happy for the winner.

Afterward, we got to speak with the judges and got some valuable insight into what worked and what didn’t.

Even though we technically “lost,” I never felt an ounce of disappointment. Making it that far was the goal. The rest of the weekend, those judges actually would stop and talk to us — not just about the pitch, but small talk and general conversation. They recognized us. It was a good feeling.

Now, we get to take everything we learned, all the advice, all the notes, and combine it with that confidence knowing we CAN DO IT. We can make a TV show. Maybe not this year. Maybe not next year. But it’s coming, friends. Mark my words.