Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Creating a Scene

by Dade Hayes '93

photos by Sam Urdank

  He knows what's funny, and he goes with his gut.
TV hit man James Burrows '62 is the reason America stays home Thursday nights.

HIS DRESSING ROOM ISN'T ACTUALLY A ROOM. It's closer to a closet. • But Jim Burrows doesn't dwell on the limits of his surroundings. He views his environment instead with a trademark brand of pragmatism.

"I have the smallest dressing room, but it's the closest to the stage," he says, putting his feet up on the coffee table and digging a hand into the pocket of his corduroys.

Proximity to the stage is but one ingredient in the 60-year-old director's relentless focus on craft. His no-nonsense demeanor and perfectionist drive suggest that, to the bearded Burrows, television comedy is far more vocation than occupation. As one of the creators of Cheers, and therefore a millionaire dozens of times over, he certainly doesn't do it for the paycheck.

From the sidelines Jim Burrows works his magic during a Tuesday afternoon dress rehearsal of Will & Grace.


"I get the work ethic from my father," he says, alluding to Abe Burrows, the late Broadway writer-director known for How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Guys and Dolls. For more than half a century, directing has been part of the Burrows DNA. For Jim Burrows--or Jimmy, as most friends and co-workers call him--that deeply embedded code has helped turn shows such as Taxi, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Caroline in the City, and Will & Grace into mega-hits and earned him nine Emmy Awards. Former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield once said certain programs became known as "Jimmy Shows." He joked that network executives would eagerly mark pilots he was handling with the letters "JS."

"As my wife will tell you, I'm no good hanging around the house," Burrows says. "I could go play golf, I could go to the track, I could go to Vegas. But I choose to come here, where I have a good time."

By "here," Burrows means the Los Angeles studio where Will & Grace is about to close its third successful season. The sun-drenched San Fernando Valley setting seems a long way from overcast Oberlin, but the tight circles and sharp intellect of his Hollywood milieu--not to mention the political tinges of Will--often recall his college experience. During an hour-long interview, it didn't take much prodding to get the memories to tumble out--starting with the seed planted by his famous father.

"I would often meet all of my father's actor friends and the literati and the cognoscenti," Burrows says. "He was an intellectual who spoke with a mug-like voice--'der, duh'--but he was very smart. He asked me what school I wanted to go to, and I said Cornell, Brown, maybe NYU. He did some investigation and found Oberlin.

"I said, 'What's that school?' He said it was a small liberal-arts school in the Midwest, co-educational. He was smart enough to know that I grew up in the city and I should maybe go away to college."

Not long after, Abe Burrows put his son on an overnight train from New York to Ohio. When Jim Burrows arrived, he found a world that was invigorating, if a bit intimidating.

"I was not a great student, but I fell in with a great bunch of guys," Burrows remembers. "I learned how to live on my own, which is what college is all about. It's learning to live with other people. Oberlin is a great community."

With a self-deprecating shake of the head, Burrows adds: "I was a government major. I was going to be a math major, but it just wasn't there. I was good in calculations, but once I got into limits in calculus, I was dead."


Jon Margolis '62, a friend who shared a four-person dorm room with Burrows during their sophomore year, recalls Burrows' greatest contribution to dorm culture.

"He brought into our lives the first recording we'd ever heard of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner doing The 2000-Year-Old Man. We still sprinkle bits from that into our conversation."

After graduating in 1962 and earning a master's degree in theater at Yale, Burrows worked as an assistant for his father and started directing a bit in the theater. He had a nagging sense, however, of not having found his true calling.

In the early 1970s, he saw a new TV comedy starring Mary Tyler Moore, whom he knew from one of his father's musicals. Something clicked ("I said, 'Wow, they're doing a 20-minute play every week'"), and he sent her a congratulatory letter. Not long after, he was asked to work on Moore's show, filmed, ironically, at the same studio lot where Burrows now does Will & Grace.

Over his career, especially the 11 years spent as executive producer and director of Cheers, he has never stopped sailing toward uncharted waters: different characters, fresh wordplay, unexplored relationships.

Burrows over the past decade has become a specialist in "pilots," or initial episodes of new series. It's an elite niche among directors, many of whom gravitate toward steady, predictable work on existing shows rather than seeking to create new ones. In 1998, this quest for newness led Burrows to Will & Grace.

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