When it comes to the most popular comedies in television history, many roads lead to James Burrows.
Widely regarded as the king among directors in the genre, the 10-time Emmy winner has put his imprint on such series as “Cheers,’’ “Taxi,’’ “Will & Grace,’’ “Friends,’’ “Frasier,’’ “Two and a Half Men’’ and “The Big Bang Theory.’’ Stars of many of the shows gather to honor him in the new, two-hour NBC special “Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows’’ airing Sunday at 9 p.m.
The salute’s title offers a nod to the slogan formerly used for the network’s Thursday-night lineup, when it was sitcom-driven and encompassed many Burrows-guided shows. “Will & Grace’’ was one of them for most of its eight-season run; also among its executive producers, Burrows directed all of its nearly 200 episodes.
Someone who surely has benefited from his skills is Megan Mullally, who won two Emmy Awards as “Will’s’’ high-strung and literally high-pitched Karen Walker. She reunited with co-stars Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes at the event taped last month in Los Angeles (Debra Messing could not attend, stuck in that weekend’s East Coast snowstorm), and she says the evening was a delight because “we all love Jimmy so much.”
Mullally said, “They kept saying during the show that he’s everyone’s father figure, and it’s so true. I never thought of that in those exact terms, but that’s 100 percent what it is. And his speech at the end was just, ‘Get out your handkerchiefs.’ It was funny and incredibly moving. He’s a man who says what he means and means what he says, so any speech he gives is going to be great.’’
Mullally also enjoyed being among “the casts of the various shows. That was pretty cool. I was so into the ‘Taxi’ section; when they showed the clips from that show and those people all ambled up there, it made me want to go back and re-watch it. And I thought the ‘Friends’ cast was amazing. They were up last, and they did a really beautiful, eloquent job of summing up and paying tribute to Jimmy.’’
The upcoming NBC show “Crowded,’’ starring Carrie Preston (“The Good Wife’’) and Patrick Warburton (“Rules of Engagement’’), will mark the 1,000th sitcom episode Burrows has directed, part of the inspiration for the televised tribute to him. Currently co-starring in NBC’s “You, Me and the Apocalypse’’ — in a role she says “tests all of my abilities as an actress’’ — Mullally says she was “so spoiled’’ during her years under Burrows’ weekly guidance.
“One of the things I loved,’’ she says of the special, “was that everybody said how consistent he’s been through the years in the manner he’s directed all these great shows. He’s extremely hands-off when it comes to directing people, if he’s got the right actors. He’ll just give you a word or two, then he trusts that you’ll take it, run with it and make it your own. He gives you the freedom to create the character and expand on it, and really allow it to breathe and change and grow.
“After [‘Will & Grace’], I went on, and other directors would be bombarding me with notes . . . and I’d be like, ‘Aw, man. Jimmy never gave me any notes.’ ”