Comedy Timing and James Burrows

I heard an interesting NPR interview in the car this morning, Making A Comedy Pilot? You Might Want To Call James Burrows by Neda Ulaby. The new CBS sitcom which James Burrows directs, Partners, airs tonight.  But Burrows is a veteran of sitcom writing and directing.  He has directed more than 50 pilots, including Cheers, Friends, Taxi, and Frasier.  He prefers sitcoms to features and uses his expertise in comedy timing to bring success to a show.  One of his favorite all-time comedy moments is from a Taxi episode from the second season, written by partners Glen and Les Charles.  In the “Who’s on First” style moment, a bumbling cabbie seeks help from his friends on a written driver’s test, asking the question, “What does a yellow light mean?”  Here is a link to the episode.  Burrows captured the live audience reaction and says the laughs went on for 45 seconds, one of the longest ever.

The comedy timing established by Burrows continued throughout each season of Frasier, one of my favorite sitcoms.  I recently watched an episode from the tenth season, written by Eric Zicklin and directed by Scott Ellis, guest-starring  Zooey Deschanel.  One of my favorite Frasier scenes is in that show.  Martin makes a bet with Frasier that he can get Niles to cook their dinner, against seemingly impossible odds. The collision of the characters’ personality quirks and their motivations, combined with expert timing, results in big laughs.   Below is an excerpt from the script that can be found on a blog dedicated to FrasierHere’s a link to the scene.

[He picks up the bowl and Frasier’s from the coffee table, and heads for the kitchen.]

Niles: See? Small, consistent efforts, that’s what it takes. Just like managing one’s cuticles.

[He reaches the kitchen.]

Niles: [calling] You know, there’s a bowl of potato salad laying out, completely uncovered.

Martin: It’s getting tangy.

Niles: The plastic wrap is right here.

Frasier: We really should help him.

Martin: Are you nuts? He’s about to make us dinner.

Frasier: He is not.

Martin: Twenty bucks says he is.

Frasier: Forget money. Let’s wager something real.

Martin: All right, if I get him to make dinner, you do all the chores. If I don’t, I’ll do ’em.

[Daphne comes back out.]

Daphne: I’m ready, Niles.

Niles: [returning from the kitchen.] Excellent, because tonight I am taking you to the finest bistro in the Pacific Northwest.

Frasier: You’re on!

Martin: Take your sweet time, why don’t you?! [calling out] Hey, guys,Are you sure you don’t want to stick around? I was just going to open a can of spaghetti.

Niles: [stopping at the door] But, you have sea bass in the fridge.

Martin: Oh, it’ll probably last another day.

Niles: Oh, I think you should cook it tonight.

Martin: Fine. I’ll nuke it with some ketchup.

[Frasier looks on warily.]

Niles: That’s ridiculous. You can’t use your turkey recipe on fish.

Martin: Well, what am I supposed to do?

Niles: Well, just take one clove of garlic, two tablespoons of finely minced fresh ginger… [off Martin’s confused look] Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll do it myself.

[He heads for the kitchen, Daphne closes the door.]

Daphne: I suppose I’ll lay the table.

Martin: No, no Daphne. You’ve done enough for today. That’s Frasier’s job.

[He sits smugly as an irate Frasier gets up. Fade out.]

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