A recent newspaper article focused on Jim Burrows, the most successful sitcom director of all time. I don’t have the energy to list all his credits. If you’re interested, you can check them out on IMDB. From my perspective, Jim Burrows’ most significant credit is that, in 1981, he directed the pilot of Best of the West.
People call Jim Burrows Jimmy. I never called him Jimmy. I’d be too embarrassed. I called him Jim.
“Hey, Jim,” I would say.
But that’s me. Most people call him Jimmy. A 69 year-old Jimmy. That’s what we’re dealing with here.
Show business is very informal in that way. Sometimes, this can catch you off guard, like when they’re your boss, and they suddenly exert their authority.
“Jimmy fired me!”
It’s a disorienting feeling. Were you actually fired? Or were you banished from the tree house?
I have strong memories of the valuable, directing touches Jim Burrows’ injected to make the Best of the West pilot better, moments that may have been suggested in the script, but they weren’t specifically designated, and he put them in, and they fit, and they were funny, and they improved things considerably.
My favorite example:
It’s the final scene. A clinging Elvira, is gathered on the cabin floor, her arms wrapped tightly around her seated husband Sam’s leg. As he speaks, Sam gets up and tries to move. But Elvira continues clinging to his leg. Sam momentary stops speaking, and looks down at his wife. Given no alternative, he sits back in his seat.
The moment’s in the script. But not the physical move. That was inserted by Jim Burrows. The addition bolstered the scene and enhanced the moment. Dramatically, and more importantly, comedically.
Boy, was I grateful.
I was less grateful, however, and less gracious, at another point, early in the production process. Jim had agreed to direct the pilot, though I have no idea whether he liked it, or if he was simply doing a favor for his buddies, who created Taxi (which Burrows regularly directed), and produced Best of the West as well.
I guess Jim was attempting to provide me with his overall “take” on the material. He opened the script to Page 2, pointed to a spot in the middle of the page, and said,
“There’s your first joke.”
I made a face. Call it a grimace. I wasn’t happy with that approach.
“There’s your first joke.” Indeed!
I didn’t write jokes. I wrote something else, something that, in the Best of the West pilot, at least, elicited some powerful laughter from the live studio audience. I could write jokes. That’s generally what was expected of a sitcom writer. But they always felt structured to me. For me, “structured” meant contrived. And “contrived” meant “not my favorite.”
When I was writing at what I felt was my best, I was able to get laughs a different way. I wanted the laughs to come directly out of the moment, rather than from a manufactured setup.
The Best family has just completed an arduous, stagecoach ride West. Almost immediately, Sam is challenged to a gunfight by a deadly desperado. When Sam exits for the confrontation, a terrified Daniel, Sam’s eleven year-old son, throws his arms desperately around his Stepmom, Elvira, and buries his face in her chest.
At this point, some writers might take the “head in the bosom joke” route. I, instead, allowed the moment to remain silent for a long beat, and then had Daniel look up at his Stepmom and ask,
“How long has this dress been in the trunk?”
A “bosom” joke might have gotten a bigger laugh. I preferred this one. Not just because it avoided an eleven year-old doing a “bosom” joke. But because the line arose organically out of the situation.
This was a different way of getting a laugh. No (at least, verbal) set-up. Payoff.
So, when Mr. Burrows pointed to the middle of Page 2 and said,
“There’s your first joke.”
I got upset.
If that’s how he was evaluating my script, Jim Burrows was going to find it sorely lacking in places to point to.
But that was his training – the “Set-up, Punchline Express.” It turned out, the “pointing to the joke” approach didn’t hurt the pilot, which turned out extremely well. It only hurt my feelings.
Jim Burrows and I do have one approach in common, which was highlighted in today’s article, though my name never came up. While other writers and directors watch the actors directly or, more often, watch their performances on an onstage monitor, Jim and I both
Watch with our ears.
We don’t watch the actors. We just stand there, and we listen. What are we doing? We’re feeling for the rhythm. When it’s there, it’s right. And when it isn’t, you cut, and change the actor’s delivery, or you alter the words. Word rhythm is like music. There’s right, and there’s wrong.
Laugh-getting methods may vary.
But you don’t mess with the rhythm.
Don’t take my word for that.
Take it from Jimmy.