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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."
instantly sparked to those dynamics, realizing only later
the cultural breakthrough of a prime-time show about an
openly gay character.
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."
he can't help noticing that the immensely popular show--which
won a 2000 Emmy Award for best comedy--finds an amazingly
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...'"
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."
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.
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.'
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
flanked by Will & Grace cast members
Sean Hayes (left) and Eric McCormack.
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
himself with people who can spot the difference
is essential to Burrows.
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."
Hayes '93 is senior editor of Variety and currently
lives with his wife Stella in West Hollywood.
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.
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
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.
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."
course, comedy is hardly foreign to Bradford.
Her father, Hank Bradford, was the head writer
on The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson's
used to practice spit-takes growing up," she
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.
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.
partial to Oberlin students. Plus she made
all the straight writers happy," Burrows jokes.
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.
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."
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