James Burrows

  'When I 
mentioned that old writers were raised on books, thatís an idea-oriented concept; thereís much more there for the imagination. If youíre raised on television youíre going to be imitating the
 old television
 ideas.'


 

An old pro on why
TV isn't funny anymore

Jim Burrows laments the decline in good writing

By David Everitt

   Getting laughs has become a pretty grim business lately. Twenty sitcoms premiered in the 1999-2000 season. Only two of them are still on the air. The sitcom has been a TV staple since the earliest days of Lucy and Desi, but every so often the genre has slipped into decline. This is one of those times. Itís gotten bad enough that some network executives are talking about overhauling the whole idea of how sitcoms are presented. Some people are tinkering with the concept of interactivity. Some have even questioned the basic four-camera, live-audience approach. So what exactly is the problem with TV comedy today? To get some perspective on this question, we talked to one of the most accomplished and respected guys in the business. Jim Burrows got his start in the early seventies, during what you might call the second golden age of TV comedy. He was director of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Taxi," and later went on to become producer-director of "Cheers." More recently heís worked on "Frasier," one of the few genuinely funny shows since "Seinfeld," and has also produced and directed "Will and Grace," one of the few comedy hits to emerge over the last couple of seasons.



Why do you think the networks have been having so much trouble producing successful comedies lately?


     There are only so many good writers out there, and there are now more venues than there ever were before.
     The good writers are often either writing books or doing movies. There are more slots to fill [than there were in the Fifties and Sixties], so a lot of the shows are failing because theyíre being done by people who canít execute them.
    The National Football League has 26 teams instead of eight like they used to have, so the eight teams that were once in the league could probably beat all the 26 teams now. 
   You just donít have that many prime-quality players to fill the rosters, and you donít have that many writers thatíre prime-quality writers. Thatís why itís so hard.
  Also, back in the old days we were all weaned on books. Now weíre being weaned on television, so you have the imitative factor. They were a lot more innovative in the old days than they are now.
  
Plus, if you are a good writer, if you write a good script, then youíve got to cast it right, youíve got to get the right time slot. And not necessarily a typically good time slot.
     A lot of times, a bad time slot helps shows. It helped "Will & Grace." 
    If we had been put on Thursday night after "Frasier" and "Friends," we would maybe not have done that well right away when compared with these established hits. Thereís no reason to watch the show, thereís no star in it. And itís a concept that would probably repel a number of people. But on a Monday night when we didnít have a lot to prove, we could sneak into town.
   So all these things have to happen in order for your show to become a hit, and it all begins with the writers.


In a recent article in USA Today about TV comedy, some TV people suggest that the format might have to change, that the four-camera method might have outlived its usefulness, that we need more inventive camerawork or perhaps interactive elements. How much of a factor is that really in creating a successful comedy?

    The good thing about it is its innovation. 
    But the thing that all these people have to do is tell a good story. If you tell a good story with people you like, youíll have a successful television show, no matter what form itís in.
    Maybe if you donít have what people like, maybe you can do it with interactive stuff and get away with it. 
   But as long as you tell a good story with people you like, the form works. 
    Iím still in the business of trying to tell a good story with four cameras. I donít believe I have to get fancy with the cameras to have a hit show. "Will & Grace," for instance--there are no funny cameras in that show.


How would you say todayís comedies compare to shows of the seventies when you were establishing yourself in the genre? What have been the most significant changes?

    Theyíre much more niche-oriented today. Back then you needed a 35 share to succeed, so you had to appeal to 35 percent of your audience. Now you have to appeal only to 15 percent of your audience to succeed. 
   So you donít have to be as far reaching, you can do much more specific shows, hence the WB Network, UPN, the teen shows. Those wouldnít fly if they had to appeal to 35 percent of the audience.


You mentioned that so many writers today were weaned on TV shows. Do you think todayís writers can learn much from classic comedies like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or "Sgt. Bilko"? Is the problem maybe that writers today were raised on the wrong shows?

    When I mentioned that old writers were raised on books, thatís an idea-oriented concept; thereís much more there for the imagination. If youíre raised on television youíre going to be imitating the old television ideas.
   I think also the problem is that now, since there are so many venues for comedies and so many comedies needed, writers are promoted way before their time. 
   So they havenít had enough time to learn their craft. When Glen and Les Charles and I did "Cheers," we had been seven years in the business, toiling away at a number of shows. 
   I had done "Laverne & Shirley" and I did a "Lou Grant" and I had all this background that I brought with me when I did my first show on my own.
   With these writers now, somebody writes one spec "Will & Grace" script and theyíre given a pilot deal.
    And nobody asks how good the spec was, and nobody knows how much we helped the spec when we did it. So thatís another problem, people being promoted way before theyíre ready.


Any other problems youíve noticed in the TV comedy business today?

     Itís just that writing television shows is very difficult because you have to do a great pilot, and then you have to have the ability to take these characters on a journey.
    There are many good pilots thatíre done but just no concept of what to do with them after the first episode.

April 17, 2001 © 2001 Media Life


-David Everitt covers television and technology for Media Life, writing from Huntington, New York.


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