Published September 21. 2012 4:00AM
In the beginning, there was Lucille Ball. She defined TV comedy six decades ago.
Then came another towering figure, who arrived in 1974 with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and now, dozens of sitcoms later, keeps making history (and viewers laugh).
Even after all this time, James Burrows isn't a household name. Nor is his face (with its trim, gray beard and trace of mischief) likely to be recognized by fans of his many shows. But behind the scenes Burrows reigns as a comedy giant. He's a director whose brand of funny business has helped shape TV comedy, season after season.
Consider this partial resume: 240 episodes of "Cheers"; 75 "Taxis"; 10 early, formative episodes of "Friends"; 32 "Frasiers"; all eight seasons of "Will & Grace." With 10 Emmys and counting.
Burrows is not only in demand as a lucky sitcom's resident director, but also as a highly sought presence at the pilot stage who has midwifed future hits like "NewsRadio," "3rd Rock from the Sun," "Dharma & Greg," "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "2 Broke Girls."
Not for him are single-camera comedies like "Modern Family," "The Office" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
"My head doesn't work that way," he explains. Instead, Burrows has specialized in the multi-camera genre pioneered by Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy." It remains as one of TV's oldest thriving program formats, and it is nourished by Burrows with each succeeding project.
"I don't think my style has changed over 40 years," says Burrows, who is 71, "and I'm not ashamed to admit it."
And he's still going strong. During an alfresco breakfast at a posh Bel Air hotel last month, he tried to shoo away a housefly that refused to take direction while he talked about his latest venture: "Partners," a new CBS comedy about two best friends and partnered architects - one straight, one gay - played by David Krumholtz and Michael Urie.
Burrows directed its pilot last spring and, in a week, would be back at Warner Bros. as production resumed. (It premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m.)
He hadn't yet seen the upcoming script, but this he knew: The series should initially explore how Louis, the gay friend, felt "jilted" by Joe with his impending marriage to his girlfriend.
"You go the heart of the show, you write to that heart," says Burrows. Secondary characters and stories can blossom later. Right now, stick to basics.
"Partners" shares a bond with most of the shows he has thrown his weight behind: "It has an incredible amount of humanity. There's warmth at the core."
Of course, Burrows doesn't just apply broad concepts to the job. With a manner that is mild, almost diffident (with lots of supportive laughter), he draws on his finely calibrated sense of timing and motion and delivery. Then he makes suggestions that, more often than not, are right on the money.
A few days earlier, Michael Urie recalled the first bit of direction he got from Burrows while shooting the "Partners" pilot.
"He told me, 'On that line, go over there and get a coffee cup,'" said Urie. "Before then, the line hadn't been working, but suddenly the scene made sense and I knew exactly what I was doing."
Joining "Partners" reunites Burrows with its co-producers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, his longtime colleagues on "Will & Grace."
But that meant saying goodbye to "Mike and Molly," the CBS comedy he helped turn into a hit by directing the pilot and its entire first two seasons.
"Jimmy broke our hearts when he left," said "Mike and Molly" star Billy Gardell. "But we had him longer than most. I would go over and mow his lawn - that's how much I still love him."
Gardell went on to describe the joy of learning Burrows' shorthand.
"After a while, he can grunt and you know what he means," Gardell said. "It's the Burrows 'm-a-a-a-a.' He says, 'You gotta give it more "ma-a-a-a'" - and you know just what that means."
Television is thought of as a visual medium. But Burrows doesn't worry much about appearances. Standing just beyond camera range, he listens, sometimes with his eyes shut, as a scene unfolds.
"My cameras are eyes capturing a play, while I listen to the 'radio dialogue,'" he says.
He also listens intently to the audience response, and if something isn't working, he will change it.
"You don't argue with the audience," he says. "And the words come first. It's all about the words."
Burrows learned his fundamentals from someone as noted in show business as he has become: his father, the great Broadway writer-director Abe Burrows, whose credits include "Guys and Dolls" "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "Cactus Flower."
After attending Yale School of Drama at his father's encouragement, he took jobs as a Broadway stage manager. Then he began directing summer stock and dinner theater around the country.
Then he came to Los Angeles, where he landed a directing job on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which, despite his lack of experience with TV, felt familiar: a weekly mini-play.
"On that stage with that cast I was wholly intimidated at first," he admits. "Then I began to hear my father's voice in my head. I wasn't just gonna be a traffic cop. I was determined to think of funny positions for them and sight gags, just to put my imprint on the show. I think I have that innate ability.
"And I've picked up a couple more tricks over 40 years, from really good writers and really good actors."
His record isn't perfect, either in duration or acclaim for the shows he's been involved with. (Remember "Four Kings," "Better With You," "Teachers" or "The Stones"? No?)
But in the uncertain world of TV comedy, it appears there's no more tried-and-true way to flourish than with Burrows. As he continues to exhibit to his viewers, knowing just the right amount of "m-a-a-a-a" makes all the difference.