Saturday, March 11, 2006

James Burrows interview

NPR's Fresh Air has a great interview up with James Burrows.

Burrows, of course, rose out of the MTM studios farm team to become one of the greatest sitcom directors of all time. His skills are so good that he was able to obscure just how bad Will and Grace had gotten for at least two seasons almost singlehandedly.

To look at the resume of shows he's done more than one episode of is to look at one side of the history of the sitcom since 1970.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
"The Bob Newhart Show"
"Taxi"
"Cheers"
"Frasier"
"Friends"
"Newsradio"
"Will and Grace"

He's also done many, many, many pilots, many of which were pretty good (Dharma and Greg), then turned into bad series.

Burrows, of course, did something like 240 episodes over the run of Cheers, which left him otherwise occupied during the '80s, so he didn't work on Cosby or anything. He also came out of the MTM tradition, so he didn't work on any of the '70s Norman Lear shows for CBS (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, etc.).

To a very real degree, the stuff Burrows worked on has proved to be more timeless than the Norman Lear stuff. So many of the Lear sitcoms, while perhaps more sharply written, were too timely. All in the Family seems to be the only one that has aged well (M*A*S*H, which was not a Lear show, is out of the same tradition of issues-oriented sitcoms; it has hung around, but I find many of its seasons almost unwatchable). The MTM shows (which led to Taxi and Cheers and many others) were not as topical, so they have aged better. To a very real degree, Mary Tyler Moore wins so many critical polls because its style of sitcom is still (barely) alive (one can trace a direct line from the writing staffs on MTM to the writing staff on Everybody Loves Raymond). The Lear-style sitcoms mostly died out in the '80s with the success of Murphy Brown.

Of course, all of this is changing with the real advent of single-camera sitcoms and improvised sitcoms and the like. There seems to be less of a tutelage system in place now, and the older sitcom writers often find themselves without work.

Fortunately, some of the people involved in The Cosby Show have a pilot set up at NBC for next year about 50somethings. Let's hope it goes through and defeats the ageism of the TV industry.

Sorry for the light blogging. I'm prepping a big piece that predicts what network schedules might look like next year.

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