Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Creating a Scene

by Dade Hayes '93

photos by Sam Urdank


continued from first page...

Upon the show's debut, co-creator David Kohan described it this way: "When you look at the television landscape, the men and women you see are either romantically involved, or they want to be romantically involved, or they inevitably will end up romantically involved. What we want to do is examine a relationship between a man and a woman where sex isn't a factor."

Burrows instantly sparked to those dynamics, realizing only later the cultural breakthrough of a prime-time show about an openly gay character.

"This is the most political show I've ever done," Burrows says. "But I've never been a proselytizing director. Norman Lear in the early years, in the early '70s, was very political, very sharp like that. I've never been that way."

Still, he can't help noticing that the immensely popular show--which won a 2000 Emmy Award for best comedy--finds an amazingly broad audience.

"I drive carpool on Thursdays," says Burrows, father of three. "My 12-year-old is in seventh grade. I've got seventh, eighth, and ninth graders in the carpool. I drive along and they ask, 'What's on Will & Grace tonight?' And I'll tell them, and they go, 'Oh, he's so funny, I love Jack.' And I think to myself, 'If the show makes one child less homophobic, then...'"

Burrows doesn't finish the thought, but his point is clear. And yet, as committed as he is to the messages of the show, they're subordinate to what comedians call "the funny." "Gay rights and issues are very prevalent in the show," he says. "But it's never advocacy or non-advocacy. It's mentioned. It's part of life. There are homo jokes. There are lesbian jokes. It's about four people you really like."

One episode cherished by fans as well as the show's staff could hardly be considered a political statement. It had Grace wearing a water-filled bra in an effort to impress a guy on whom she had long harbored a crush. In classic comedic fashion, of course, something goes awry--namely, the bra springs a leak.

"It was an accommodation on my part," Burrows says of that show. "The boys"--as he calls co-creators Kohan and Max Mutchnick--"pitched me that show. In the Cheers days I never would have done it. It's too soon. But I thought, 'I gotta respect these guys. I think we can get away with this bit. We can make it work. We have four really good actors who can legitimize outrageous things. They have the muse of the show. They have the tone, they have the mood, they have the timbre.'

"I made them ground the episode by showing that the guy Grace was doing this for she'd had a crush on since college, and she'd always wanted to meet him. It was a lot of people's favorite episode and a classic moment on the show."

Such calls are hardly rare for Burrows. Spend even a few minutes with him and you realize how dictated he is by feel. It's in everything from his ambling pattern of speech to his unprepossessing flannel shirt.

He's far more intelligent than he would ever claim, especially when it comes to analyzing why things are funny. And yet he never becomes so cerebral as to fail to appreciate a deft punch line or bit of physical comedy.

That balance has deep roots. In fact, it dates to Burrows' Oberlin days. While he majored in government and avidly followed the politics of the Kennedy era, Burrows was never political in an activist sense. But he absorbed plenty from the occasionally turbulent campus.

"When I was there, students were turning over marine recruiters' tables," he recalls. "They were rabble-rousers back then. Antioch and Oberlin were the two sort of wild schools. The kids were smart. I wasn't smart.

"Those were the Kennedy years. You had the co-ops back then and the hippies and the beatniks. It was pretty radical and left-wing, that school. A lot of New York Jews mixing with Ohio Gentiles."

Margolis, a retired journalist who spent 22 years with the Chicago Tribune, remembers his roommate developing a valuable skill during those vivid years: the ability to listen. "I don't really remember Jimmy taking part in any of those interminable political discussions," he says. "But I do remember his listening. The impact of that cannot be non-existent."

Margolis still chuckles when recalling a vintage Burrows moment. The two were leaving an art history class that covered the works of Edward Munch. After walking silently for a few moments, Burrows began to sing a famous jingle of the day--but with a new pronunciation. "Munch, Munch, Munch a bag of Fritos!" Burrows sang.

"That really cracked me up," laughs Margolis. "That's Jimmy Burrows. He's very reserved, not one of these people who's always 'on.' He's just quietly funny."

Four decades later, that sly and unassuming sense of humor is making its mark in the world of television. Burrows wouldn't dream of following another path but the one he's on. After mixed results in movies and the theater, he wears the relaxed countenance of a man who knows who he is.

Burrows, flanked by Will & Grace cast members Sean Hayes (left) and Eric McCormack.


"I consider myself an 800-pound gorilla because I'll say anything I want," Burrows shrugs. "But I'm a gorilla who doesn't insist that you take the crap that comes out of my mouth. Tell anyone I work with. I will say a lot. Half of what I say is good. Half of what I say is shit. It's your job to tell which is which."

Surrounding himself with people who can spot the difference is essential to Burrows.

"I literally have a 'fun clause' in my contract," he says. "If I'm not having fun I go to another show. I don't lack for shows to do. I'm on this show because the actors are so good and the writing is so good. If there's a problem, it's remedied. And on Tuesday nights, when we shoot in front of an audience, it's a religious experience. That's why I do the show, because I have a good time. And that's why I stay in the business."

Dade Hayes '93 is senior editor of Variety and currently lives with his wife Stella in West Hollywood.


A FEW SHORT YEARS AGO, SALLY BRADFORD '98 sat in Hall Auditorium listening to Jim Burrows talk to Oberlin students about his storied television comedy career.

Fascinated, she asked the director how she, too, could work in the world of sitcoms. "Persistence," he answered, just as he told all of the other aspirants.

Bradford took the advice to heart--so much so that she now works as script coordinator for the Burrows-directed show Will & Grace. Earlier this year, she even earned her first on-screen credit as a writer for penning an episode of the hit NBC series.

"The experience has been so amazing," she says minutes after the show's writers met to discuss her newest script. "Everyone has been so great to me, and especially Jimmy."

Of course, comedy is hardly foreign to Bradford. Her father, Hank Bradford, was the head writer on The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson's heyday.

"We used to practice spit-takes growing up," she recalls.

Bradford already had decided that upon finishing her psychology degree in that spring of 1998, she would return to her native Los Angeles, where most sitcoms are produced. She had been corresponding with the director since his campus visit, and her father put in a good word for her.

Burrows agreed to let her start as a production assistant--the coffee-fetching bottom rung on the show business ladder--in the debut season of Will & Grace. As it nears the end of its third year, she is on the verge of becoming a full staff writer.

"I'm partial to Oberlin students. Plus she made all the straight writers happy," Burrows jokes.

Though she speaks enthusiastically of her time at Oberlin--especially performing with the Oberlin Dance Company--Hollywood has turned out to be a thrilling new campus.

"Comedy has always been such a big part of my life," Bradford says. "I just can't believe I get to do it here for a living."

go to page | 1 | 2 | of Creating a Scene
Contents/HOME OAM Home Oberlin Online HOME