Having won 10 Emmys, cocreated Cheers, and directed such classic sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and Will & Grace over the past 30 years, James Burrows pretty much knows how to make anything funny. And ”anything” includes, but is not limited to, a fried wonton.
Said snack has momentarily stalled a rehearsal for the pilot episode of CBS’ The Stones, a sitcom about a long-married couple (Judith Light and Robert Klein) who decide to divorce. On a Chinese-restaurant set, Light is supposed to knock a wonton out of Klein’s hand. She gives it a weak swipe, and it drops meekly onto the table.
”Harder,” says Burrows, his voice a nasal monotone. A baseball cap is pulled over his bald head, and his bushy gray beard undulates as he chews gum.
Light lightly thwaps wonton No. 2 sideways, propelling it a few inches farther than the last.
”No,” says Burrows. ”Hit it up from under.”
She tries hits of various strength, none hard enough to please Burrows. Then she improvises, grabbing the wonton out of Klein’s hand and angrily eating it.
”Hitting is funnier,” the director maintains. A faint shrug in his voice indicates that these are the comedy rules, and toying with them is futile.
Finally, the floor and table littered with wonton shrapnel, Light whips her hand out and sends the wonton soaring over the set, as surrounding crew members laugh.
Burrows smiles. ”See?” he says. ”Funnier.”
Jim Burrows is widely considered to be the greatest sitcom director working today, and come pilot season, prostrating studio execs send the 63-year-old TV vet up to 30 sitcom scripts. Landing him is an alley-oop onto a network’s schedule: It worked for Friends, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Frasier, and Dharma & Greg, among many others. (A network source says he earns around $200,000 — at least $40,000 more than the typical pilot fee.) This season, two of the three shows he helmed made it on air: CBS’ hit Two and a Half Men and The Stones, which debuted March 17. ”You can tell a Jimmy Burrows pilot because there’s so much added,” says CBS chief Les Moonves. ”You read one three-minute scene and see all the things he puts in that aren’t on the page.”
To spend a week on the set of the Stones pilot in April 2003 was to see a man utterly confident in his command of comedy. Burrows refers to himself as the genre’s ”800-pound gorilla.” That means 30-pound banana peels, and you can imagine the laughs those get.
Every morning during The Stones’ rehearsal, creator Jenji Kohan (Gilmore Girls) and exec producers Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (Jenji’s brother, who, with Mutchnick, created W&G, which Burrows directs each week) give Burrows a rewrite, then disappear while he blocks scenes with the actors. As the director prowls the soundstage, he tosses off comedy rules: ”Everything’s funnier on the out” (as in, actors delivering lines while exiting a room) and ”The louder it is, the funnier it is.” When Burrows goes over the script with the cast (which also includes Undeclared’s Jay Baruchel and Grosse Pointe’s Lindsay Sloane), he doles out bits of comic grace notes — Nervously make the wine bottle shake as you pour it! Shine the slide projector in her face! But he’ll also incorporate an actor’s ideas. ”That only comes from somebody who’s really secure,” says Light, ”who knows how good they are without being egotistical.”