'All-Star Salute To James Burrows': Not The Salute He Deserved

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Watching some of the clips of the shows directed by James Burrows on Sunday night’s Must-See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows — funny moments from series such as Cheers, Taxi, Will and Grace, Friends, and many others — you could only marvel at what an adroit, skillful man Burrows is, to have created so much memorable comedy. Watching the rest of the two-hour special, however, was a kind of laugh-less torture that did not give Burrows the honor he deserves.

Given the array of stars present — most of the casts of the shows named above, plus those of The Big Bang Theory, Frasier, and Mike and Molly — it seemed like a can’t-miss special. But hosts Andy Cohen and Jane Lynch struggled to elicit anything like funny anecdotes from the actors, and the entire production was edited so choppily, it was impossible to tell whether that person in the audience was actually reacting with a big laugh to that feeble joke someone on-stage was telling.

The editing was so manipulative that at times it became downright deceitful. The Friends segment featured all the major players except Matthew Perry, who sent a taped introduction from England, where he’s appearing in a play. Making chit-chat with Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, and Jennifer Aniston, Cohen asked them to confirm what he said was a long-time rumor: “Did you all sign contracts saying you wouldn’t sleep with each other?”

The cast looked startled, and the show cut to a commercial. Oh, the suspense! Oh, what a great TV moment was in the offing — after all, hadn’t NBC used this question in their ads promoting the show? Boy, the answer was going to be a doozy, wasn’t it?

Related: The Ultimate ‘Friends’ 24-Hour Marathon

Back from commercial, NBC re-played Cohen’s question. After the startled looks, the reaction of the Friends cast can be reduced to one word: Nope. No, they didn’t sign anything like that. Next!

The entire evening was like that. Let’s provide some perspective this “All-Star Salute” failed to give you. Burrows is the son of Abe Burrows, a well-known wit, writer and director himself. James Burrows didn’t stand in the shadow of his father, however. After apprenticing on sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne and Shirley, he struck out on his own, developing a style that broke with sitcom tradition. It is a tightly choreographed method that combines physical comedy with wide-frame reaction-shots, so that at any given time, you see the other actors reacting to the jokes at the same time as the studio audience.

When you watch a show like Cheers or Taxi — shows set, essentially, in one workplace location, the site of all the emotional development of the characters — you realize that Burrows mastered a kind of TV that owed something to the stage sets of Broadway, but which uses the camera to emphasize the emotional center of any given scene. Burrows is so great a technician of comedy, he remains the most sought-after person to direct the pilot episode of a sitcom, because networks and producers know that what Burrows lays down in the first episode will likely become the blueprint for the series for the rest of its existence.

Almost none of this was acknowledged in the All-Star Tribute. You could tell, from the abrupt conclusions of some of the anecdotes, that a few of the stars probably told stories to the assembled group of colleagues and Burrows himself that related to Burrows’ technique and what they learned from it. But NBC seemed so frightened of letting in any moment that might turn, however briefly, to a serious appreciation of Burrows’ craft, that it was rigorously edited out in favor of, say, Danny DeVito talking about Burrows pulling at his crotch at one key moment. DeVito is himself a good director and an intelligent man; I’m sure he said a lot more insightful things than that, but we’ll never know.

Instead, the lead-up to this special was overtaken by a breathless media trying to build the public into a frenzy over whether the entire Friends cast would finally reunite for this occasion. You’d have thought that if only the stars of Friends could all sit on the same sofa together, all of the problems afflicting America would be solved, we could all be happy again.

Related: Food Fight! The Story Behind the Classic ‘Cheers’ Thanksgiving Episode

This was no way to honor James Burrows. He looked happy enough, sitting in the audience on Sunday, smiling broadly — though at what, we could not know for sure, because as I said, the editing of the All-Star Salute was so devious, it was impossible to be sure any reaction matched what had just been said. Anyone who was a fan of any of these shows would have known the anecdotes that were told this night — no new light was shed.

No matter. James Burrows continues on. A clip was shown on Sunday night of an upcoming sitcom, Crowded, starring Patrick Warburton (Puddy from Seinfeld and, to some of us, the beloved Tick) and Carrie Preston (whose recurring character Elsbeth Tascioni made a welcome appearance on The Good Wife last night as well). The brief clip suggested that Burrows has not lost his touch. I look forward to it.