The Bur­rows ef­fect

The revered di­rec­tor of sit­coms ap­plies his touch to CBS’ new ‘Mike & Molly.’

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Scott Collins

At a re­cent stu­dio tap­ing for the new CBS sit­com “Mike & Molly,” a bald, slightly built man with a fringe of white hair prowled be­hind the cam­eras, lis­ten­ing in­tently, ev­ery so of­ten hol­ler­ing out to the ac­tors as they per­formed a scene. If a line read­ing was flubbed, he was on it be­fore the last word had left the ac­tor’s mouth.

“I’m not hear­ing it!” he cried. “Do it again, from the top.” And later: “Louder, louder!”

CBS has a lot rid­ing on James Bur­rows and his finely tuned ears. The most suc­cess­ful di­rec­tor in TV com­edy his­tory (his hits in­clude “Cheers,” “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “Two and a Half Men”), Bur­rows has a fa­bled abil­ity to tease cozy, liv­ing-room-ready life out of the black-and-white words in a script.

Much of what au­di­ences in­stantly rec­og­nize as a net­work sit­com style — brightly lighted sound­stages, a four-cam­era setup, em­phatic line read­ings, punch lines tossed out as a char­ac­ter en­ters or ex­its a scene — Bur­rows played a key role in de­vel­op­ing. But what he’s es­pe­cially good at do­ing is fos­ter­ing a warm sense of fam­ily among the ac­tors and the view­ers — a dif­fi­cult qual­ity to an­a­lyze and there­fore to du­pli­cate.

“The hu­man­ity you feel with one an­other comes across,” he said of his cast, “even though you’re play­ing char­ac­ters in con­flict.”

Chuck Lorre, an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on “Mike & Molly” who’s fre­quently worked with Bur­rows, ex-

plained the di­rec­tor’s ap­proach: “Jimmy can hear the mu­sic in his head.”

Bur­rows is the ac­knowl­edged mas­ter of the mul­ti­cam­era sit­com, which is shot in a stu­dio, usu­ally be­fore a live au­di­ence. It’s a the­atri­cal style, a throw­back to TV’s ear­lier times à la “I Love Lucy.” The trend runs counter to TV’s cur­rent ob­ses­sion with so-called sin­gle-cam­era (read: movie-like, no au­di­ence or laugh track, of­ten shot on lo­ca­tion) come­dies. The biggest com­edy hits from last sea­son — ABC’s “Mod­ern Fam­ily” and Fox’s “Glee” — are both sin­gle-cam­era.

CBS has stuck to the multi-cam­era genre even as ri­vals have drifted away. And it’s been re­warded hand­somely with the hits “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang The­ory,” both from the busy Lorre work­shop. This sea­son, with “Big Bang” mov­ing to Thurs­day, ex­ec­u­tives are putting “Mike & Molly” on Mon­days, in a key slot be­hind “Two and a Half Men” and be­fore “Hawaii Five-O,” their big drama bet for the year. Rat­ings for last week’s pre­miere were en­cour­ag­ing: An av­er­age of 12.2 mil­lion to­tal view­ers tuned in, ac­cord­ing to the Nielsen Co.

CBS needs the new com­edy to work. Hav­ing Bur­rows helm the en­tire first sea­son is prob­a­bly the best in­surance pol­icy a ner­vous net­work can buy. “That guy has for­got­ten more funny than most of us ever know,” said Billy Gardell, the star of “Mike & Molly.”.

“Mike & Molly” — a ro­man­tic com­edy about a sar­cas­tic yet in­se­cure 300pound Chicago cop (Gardell) who falls for a zaftig school­teacher (Melissa McCarthy) — has al­ready kicked up con­tro­versy about its ap­proach to obe­sity. Yes, it has two over­weight leads who meet at an Overeaters Anony­mous gath­er­ing. Many crit­ics have com­mended that as an an­ti­dote to un­re­al­is­tic beauty stan­dards ev­ery­where else in prime time. But the show also has, er, a ton of fat jokes. Is “Mike & Molly” try­ing to have it both ways on size ac­cep­tance?

Bur­rows, 69, takes the is­sue in stride. “I re­mem­ber on the pi­lot of ‘Will & Grace,’ when one of the NBC ex­ec­u­tives came over and said, ‘There’s too many gay jokes,’ ” he re­called in his sec­ond-floor of­fice above the Warner Bros. sound­stage in Bur­bank. “I said, ‘If not here, where?’ ”

As for “Mike & Molly,” he said, “There may be a few too many fat jokes in the show … [but] it’s not what the show’s about.”

Out of the mouth of some­one else, that might sound like typ­i­cal spin. But Bur­rows is the clos­est thing TV com­edy has to Obi-Wan Kenobi. His cre­ative skills, along with his golden ré­sumé and unas­sum­ing na­ture, have be­stowed on him a rev­er­ence un­usual for some­one work­ing in Hollywood’s trenches. As Lorre joked, “I’m so glad you’re do­ing this piece. It will re­ally help his ca­reer.”

Mark Roberts, a long­time Lorre pro­tégé who cre­ated “Mike & Molly,” said Bur­rows hears sit­coms al­most as ra­dio plays, which makes a kind of sense. The di­rec­tor’s fa­ther, Abe Bur­rows, was a le­gendary writer and per­former in the twi­light years of ra­dio com­edy in the 1940s, be­fore TV took over. The elder Bur­rows later co-wrote the books for the Broad­way mu­si­cals “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Suc­ceed in Busi­ness With­out Re­ally Try­ing” and be­came fa­mil­iar to view­ers as a pan­elist on “What’s My Line?” and “The Match Game.”

The in­evitable com­par­isons with his fa­mous fa­ther — who died in 1985 — may have pushed Bur­rows away from writ­ing. “My fa­ther was weaned on books,” he said. “I’m half­way be­tween be­ing weaned on books and weaned on tele­vi­sion. And if you’re weaned on tele­vi­sion you’re not as good a writer as if you were weaned on books.”

But di­rect­ing is an­other mat­ter, us­ing a re­lated but quite dif­fer­ent skill set. “I know what’s funny, and I prob­a­bly know the best way to de­liver the joke. Whether it’s walk­ing out of a room, fac­ing that way, fac­ing this way,” he said. “I just have a sense of that.”

Af­ter a stint at the Yale School of Drama, Bur­rows was di­rect­ing theater in the early 1970s. He had met TV pro­ducer Grant Tinker and his then wife, Mary Tyler Moore, dur­ing an ear­lier stint as a stage man­ager for as how Moore was ap­pear­ing in. So he wrote Tinker and Moore — who by that time were do­ing “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — look­ing for a job. By the end of the decade, he was reg­u­larly helm­ing episodes of ABC’s sit­com hit “Taxi.” His string of hits since then has made him not just one of the most re­spected di­rec­tors in Hollywood but also one of the rich­est. He has the clout to take a fi­nan­cial stake in the shows he over­sees and en­joys an enor­mous wind­fall if they be­come hits, as in the case of “Friends.”

For some­one who’s spent his life in com­edy, Bur­rows is sur­pris­ingly low-key. Dur­ing in­ter­views, he’s po­lite and unas­sum­ing but rarely cracks a smile and doesn’t feel the urge to fill a si­lence with the sound of his own voice. Dur­ing tap­ings, with the writ­ing team hunched over the mon­i­tors, Bur­rows paces apart from them, of­ten look­ing down. It can seem as if his mind is else­where, but the ears are al­ways en­gaged. At the ses­sion for the third episode, he called out McCarthy for un­der­play­ing Molly’s re­ac­tions af­ter she hand­ily beat Mike at bowl­ing.

“The sec­ond some­thing’s slightly, slightly off, you see him turn right around,” McCarthy said. “You can’t get any­thing by him.”

Bur­rows said there’s a rea­son he re­acts so quickly: “Some­times an ac­tor will stum­ble on the joke, and I’m right on them. Back it up be­fore the au­di­ence hears the bad ver­sion of the joke, be­cause hu­mor is 90% sur­prise. If they know what’s com­ing, they won’t laugh as hard.”

When a joke-worked, how­ever, Bur­rows would sit slumped in his di­rec­tor’s chair, gig­gling like a frat boy. Since he al­ready knows the script cold, he was not laugh­ing out of sur­prise. Rather, it was an un­spo­ken sig­nal, one that the ac­tors live to hear. The sig­nal meant that the scene is work­ing. They made Bur­rows laugh.

For ac­tors, “I’m the guy that wants you to walk the comic plank for me,” he said. “Take it as far out as you want to take it and I’ll bring it back. Some­times I’ll take it fur­ther. But trust me.”

Sonja Flem­ming

SKILLS: Di­rec­tor James Bur­rows, sec­ond from left, with “Mike & Molly” ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mark Roberts, left, ac­tors Billy Gardell and Reno Wil­son, right.

Richard Cartwright

HE’S MIKE, SHE’S MOLLY: Billy Gardell plays a cop who falls for a school­teacher (Melissa McCarthy).

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