Slow Down, Jimmy Burrows

I was asked on Twitter to clarify my reasons for saying that multi-camera comedies should stop hiring James Burrows to direct. I’ve said that before, but I said it again after seeing the pilot of Hank, a bad pilot with a script that, line for line, isn’t too bad (after the clunky opening scene). Burrows is the most in-demand director in comedy; if a producer can get him to direct his or her sitcom pilot, it’s considered a huge coup. But while it’s not always easy to explain what a director contributes, and it certainly isn’t fair to blame a bad show on the director, it still seems like Burrows’ pilots and episodes are quite poorly executed these days except in a very superficial sort of way.

There’s one thing he’s good at now: speed. Not pacing, just speed. Burrows is known as the fastest-working director in TV, someone whose filmings are always efficient and over with quickly. (He’s old school, and rightly believes that the actors should know their lines and that the audience shouldn’t have to sit there for ten hours watching every scene being filmed ten times.) And his emphasis on speed carries over into the way his episodes move: everybody talks quickly, gets in and out of the room quickly, and the episodes never stop moving. But for the last ten years or so, it’s seemed like his episodes don’t do much of anything except move quickly. Potentially good jokes often go for too little because the characters aren’t doing the little pauses or physical tics or other tricks that can help sell a joke.

But even more important than the success or failure of an individual joke is the creation of character, and here’s where Burrows’s shows really fall down for me. Every show he directs, it seems, has everyone acting like Generic Sitcom Guy or Generic Sitcom Gal. This may be something that still works in a pilot, where the objective is simply to establish every character in the broadest, quickest and simplest way possible. (Though if you look at episode one of The Big Bang Theory, directed by Burrows, you’ll see that Jim Parsons’ Sheldon is barely established as a distinctive character at all; he and Leonard almost seem like the same person. Starting in episode two, without Burrows, things started to improve.) But it’s a disaster in a series. Since Will and Grace was canceled, Burrows has been the full-time director of three shows: The Class, Back To You, and now Gary Unmarried. All of those shows have characters who act like sitcom robots; the episodes moved along fast, but the characters never seemed to be doing anything that wasn’t mechanical, tied to the immediate demands of the joke or the entrance/exit. Gary Unmarried, the most successful of these shows, has some good writers, and I’m sure every one of those writers would say how lucky they are to have Jim Burrows directing their show. But when my outsider eyes watch the show, I see people who are moving too fast and, in the second season, still have not established actual personalities. It’s the director’s job to work with the actors and help them define who they are through their actions and line deliveries, until we know that this guy wouldn’t sit there, this woman wouldn’t deliver a line that way. That’s what Burrows did on Taxi and Cheers and Friends and many other shows; that’s what made his reputation. But I don’t see much of that in his current work. It’s quick, it’s efficient, but a year after they started, are these characters doing anything another sitcom character would not do?

Now here’s probably the most famous scene Burrows ever directed, a full 30 years ago. This scene is fast, but it’s not absurdly fast (it helps that there was more running time back then, of course), and it feels looser and more spontaneous than most modern sitcoms. Burrows is working with Christopher Lloyd, who had only been on one episode previously, to develop his character not just through broad, obvious gestures — though there are plenty of those — but little ones like the way he turns around when he hears that loud clattering. Every character in the scene has his/her own distinct reaction to the character’s antics. And the most famous part of the scene was created on the set by Burrows: when “Slow Down!” got a big reaction from the audience, he told the actors to keep going and do it a few more times. This is the kind of superb work that made Burrows the most famous comedy director in Hollywood, but it’s not the kind of work he seems to be doing now.