James Burrows Wouldn’t Even Watch the Actors While Directing ‘Friends’

Jennifer Aniston reveals that the sitcom legend directed purely off of rhythm
James Burrows Wouldn’t Even Watch the Actors While Directing ‘Friends’

The way we know that Jim Burrows is the best sitcom director of all time is that he can, quite literally, do it with his eyes closed.

When you look at Burrows’ absolutely daunting resume, it’s funny how Friends, one of the most successful and influential sitcoms of all time, is barely a quaint little footnote on his colossal list of credits. Burrows “only” directed 15 episodes of NBC’s smash hit sitcom about aesthetically pleasing pals sitting around New York City drinking coffee and taking breaks

Pivotally, however, all 15 Friends episodes with Burrows behind the camera came in the first season of the show, including the pilot episode, “The One Where It All Began.” The Cheers co-creator was responsible for establishing the rhythm of a successful and funny Friends scene, and his unparalleled comedic timing is a crucial component of the formula that made Friends last for 10 seasons and 236 total episodes.

During a discussion with Abbott Elementary star and creator Quinta Brunson for Variety's “Actors on Actors” series, former Friends actress Jennifer Aniston revealed that, while Burrows was directing the cast that would go on to command $1 million paychecks per episode per actor after his work there was done, he wouldn’t even watch them rehearse the scenes on-set, opting to pace the room and conduct the episode purely based on sound and flow.

You just know he nailed the timing on those claps.

“The comedy that I really respond to is comedy that is coming out of the truth of a situation where it’s not sort of showy and hitting the joke or hitting that punchline,” Aniston said of her personal humor sensibilities, explaining that she learned them from the best when she was just getting started playing Rachel Green. “Jim Burrows, who was our director for the first half of the first season of Friends, he really set a tone for us. He wouldn’t even watch the actors. He would have his hands behind his back, head down. He would just pace back and forth and listen to the rhythms.”

As for the kinds of notes Burrows would give after his audio-only rehearsals, Aniston said that the sitcom GOAT kept it simple. Aniston told Brunson of those early Friends days, “Jimmy was always about, ‘I need you to take it down. Let’s get to the truth of this. We’re just telling a story.’ So that’s what I’m drawn to.”

One of the most disappointing trends with modern TV audiences is how, according to some statistics, as many as 50 percent of American TV-viewers keep subtitles enabled regardless of the show their watching, which absolutely destroys the carefully crafted comedic timing on sitcoms such as Friends. Burrows’ approach to bringing scenes to life is, sadly, archaic in an age when half the audience of Abbott Elementary gets to the punchline before the actors do.

But, hey, it worked for Burrows and Friends, and Burrows even racked up one of his dozens of Emmy nominations for directing for “The One with the Blackout.” Maybe he wanted to teach New York that they didn't need to see what they were doing to be successful, either.


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