Two generations of Burrows conquered a huge swath of American show biz between them: radio, Broadway and television, with some dabbling in the recording industry and films.
The founder and father was Abe Burrows (Abram Borowitz, 1910-1985), who grew up in Brooklyn and started out supplying jokes to Rudy Vallee’s radio program in the late 1930s. In 1941 he teamed with Ed Gardner to create the popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern, becoming the show’s head writer. During his tenure, he mentored the younger Larry Gelbart in his first writing gig. In the mid ’40s he also worked for Goodman Ace writing for Danny Kaye’s radio show, as well as for the radio shows of Henry Morgan and Joan Davis. During this period he also began entertaining at Hollywood parties and appearing on radio himself, singing his own funny songs, punctuated with humorous patter. This led to the release of three comedy records, as well as his own radio shows The Abe Burrows Show (1947-48) and Breakfast with Burrows (1949) and the TV show Abe Burrows Almanac (1950).
In 1950 Burrows co-wrote the book for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls with Jo Swerling, adapted from the writings of Damon Runyon, and directed by George S. Kaufman, who was to become his Broadway mentor. He would go on to write and/or direct such shows as Two on the Aisle (1951), Can-Can (1953), Silk Stockings (1955), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), What Makes Sammy Run? (1964), Cactus Flower (1965), and Forty Carats (1968), et al, including later revivals of many of these shows through the early 1980s.
At the same time, he continued to be a popular broadcast personality as a guest or a panelist on such programs as This is Show Business, The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Password, To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line?, Match Game, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Joan Rivers Show, and The David Frost Show. He also created and wrote several episodes of the sit-com O.K. Crackerby starring Burl Ives in 1965.
Burrows also made an indirect contribution to the worlds of cinema and stand-up comedy. At the instigation of his mother, in the 1950s, a young Woody Allen (a relative of Burrows) sought him out, seeking advice and contacts. Burrows generously helped him and encouraged him though they’d never met before, thus putting Woody’s career into a faster lane than it otherwise might have taken.
Abe’s son, the sit-com wizard James Burrows was born in 1940. After graduating from Yale, he broke into show business in entry level positions on several of his dad’s projects. He was a dialogue coach on O.K. Crackerby. He also had positions on the theatrical productions of Cactus Flower, and Forty Carats, and most significantly on an ill-fated musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that had starred Mary Tyler Moore. It was Moore who gave Brooks his leg up into TV directing, hiring him to helm some episodes of her popular sit-com. It is for this reason, I’ve always been apt to mix him up with James L. Brooks, one of the producers of that show. At any rate, work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show led naturally to also directed episodes of Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant, The Ted Knight Show, and The Betty White Show, as well as the MTM shows Friends and Lovers with Paul Sand, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Tony Randall Show, and Brooks’ show The Associates starring a young Martin Short and no fewer than 75 episodes of Taxi.
In 1982 he directed his one theatrical film, the gay-buddy-cop comedy Partners, starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt, which did not fare well critically or financially. But he did have a success that year to balance that set-back. He co-created, produced and directed nearly 250 episodes of the monster hit sit-com Cheers (followed by 3 dozen of Frasier), one of the things he is best known for nowadays. Later he would direct nearly 250 episodes of Will and Grace. Those two shows, Cheers and Will and Grace account for less than HALF of Burrows over 1,000 television directing credits! Most recently he has been involved in co-directing those Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials co-produced by Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel.
James’ sister Laurie Burrows Grad is also a public personality. She has been a television chef, food writer, and the author of several cookbooks, and more recently a writer and commentator on grief. Read about her on her website here.