A rare "Friends" cast gathering, sans Matthew Perry, spurred a flurry of stories last month. But what drew the five pals together – a tribute to the great TV director James Burrows – garnered less notice.
That's understandable, if ironic: Burrows, a co-creator of "Cheers," the place where everybody knows your name, never became a household name himself – even if his moniker is familiar to closing credit watchers from all over.
Burrows, who's excelled at directing high-quality ensemble sitcoms for more than four decades, takes center stage in "Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows" set for Sunday on NBC. It's a prime-time opportunity to celebrate one of the best friends TV viewers ever had.
The director got his big break in the early 1970s, helming a handful of installments of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," perhaps the greatest of the ensemble comedies.
He absorbed the "MTM" formula – great cast, sharp writing, character-driven laughs and plots, deceiving depth and warmth. That ethos informed his later work on "The Bob Newhart Show," "Taxi," "Will & Grace," "Frasier," "Mike & Molly," "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory," and, of course, "Friends," to name a few.
The 75-year-old Burrows recently logged his 1,000th TV episode, directing the upcoming NBC sitcom "Crowded." But his impact resounds beyond his resume: "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" are among the shows that benefitted from the ensemble movement he helped foster.
Burrows, though, remains most closely associated with "Cheers," which he co-created with Glen and Les Charles. They served up an 11-year master class in TV comedy, set in a Boston bar. "Cheers" played like an "MTM" relative, but put its own twist on the sitcom DNA.
Both shows boasted classic finales. "MTM" ended with the "Long-Way-to-Tipperary" mobile group hug. "Cheers" concluded with a man banging on the bar door, only to be turned away by owner Sam Malone. The shadowy figure in the darkened doorway was Burrows, who let barkeep Malone, played by Ted Danson, have the final word: "Sorry – we're closed."
On Sunday, Danson, most of the "Friends" cast and other TV luminaries will be on hand to give James Burrow his moment in the spotlight. He deserves all the cheers he gets.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.