Off the Cuff: Jim Burrows
Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Burrows himself is the creator of the show Cheers, and has directed/produced such shows as Taxi, Friends, Frasier, Caroline in the City, Third Rock from the Sun, News Radio, Wings, Mary Tyler Moore and Will & Grace. He has earned nine Emmy awards for his work.
My father found it for me. He wanted me to get away from the city — I grew up in New York City — and get out into the country. My father did some research and found Oberlin. He thought it would be a good match and it was a good match, a really great match.
Was your experience here positive? Were you involved with any campus organizations or activities?
It was very positive. I wouldn’t give money for anything else. I wasn’t involved in any organizations, but there were 18 guys who lived together in our junior and senior year. That was the group that I was with. We just had our 40th anniversary, actually, and I wonderfully reconnected with all the members of that group.
Were you involved with drama or the fine arts on campus?
No, no, not at all.
Why did you contribute to the College’s theater program?
Well, the only reason I wasn’t involved is because my father was a very daunting figure in the business. Growing up I was around theater all the time. A lot of the time sons of doctors or lawyers don’t want to enter into the same business.
Only after Oberlin did I decide to go to the Yale Drama School. I was really good at it, and I decided that I wanted to make a living out of it.
Why did you decide to go to Yale?
For my father, really. He said, “Look, stay out of the draft.” He had some pull and I enrolled there.
Do you wish you’d studied drama at Oberlin?
No, not at all.
Did your Oberlin education influence the politics of any of your shows, such as Will & Grace?
No. I’m from the school of comedy for comedy. I don’t try to proselytize in any of my shows. Will & Grace doesn’t really proselytize, it just sets up a positive homosexual role model. We don’t deal with politics—the show is not about politics. I often tell the story of the carpool on Thursday where I was driving a group of 12 and 13-year-old kids to school, and they all wanted to know what was going to happen on Will & Grace that night. “Wow,” I said, “Here’s a tribute to the show. They’re more comfortable with homosexuals than we ever were.” But Will & Grace is the only show that’s come out as political.
Do you feel that Cheers was successful?
Absolutely! It was a great run, and we went out on top. There was nothing I wish we’d done different.
Is Woody Harrelson really as radical as he seems? Did your Oberlin education have anything to do with that?
Woody has very strong opinions, he’s got a very liberal mind, he’s strongly opinionated and he fervently believes them. He’s a tribute to that kind of person. He’s an Ohio boy, too. From Lebanon. The fact that I went to a somewhat liberal arts college and a particularly liberal college didn’t have much to do with our friendship. I’m not as political as he is.
So now that you’ve entered into the business, you’ve decided to give back to the College?
Oberlin was kind of a seminal place for me. It was where I first left home, and lived alone. It sounds like a contradiction, but you really are out living alone even when you’re with people. [Oberlin] wasn’t about academics, it was learning about life. I’m just giving back.
How did you hear about the fundraising?
The chairman of the board is a good friend of mine. He contacted me about it, unfortunately!
What kind of facilities do you hope the College will eventually have?
The most important part to me is the black box, which really allows you to do anything.
Nancy Dye said the board wants $5 million before they’ll construct the theatre space. Are you involved in any additional fundraising?
Have you ever considered helping to bring media or television production to Oberlin?
I don’t — I don’t want to bring television onto Oberlin. What I do is theatrically based. The basic training for all television is in theater. So that’s why theater is important to me on campus.