‘Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows’ exclusive: EP John Irwin on reuniting ‘Friends,’ ‘Taxi,’ other casts

James Burrows -Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time, NBC is going to bring to you one of the most star-studded and jam-packed events that we’ve had a chance to see in some time in “Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows.” The legendary TV director will be honored and celebrated by a wide array of the actors who he has worked with, and the list is massive. Think along the lines of Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Bebe Neuwirth, Rhea Perlman, John Ratzenberger, and George Wendt from “Cheers,” or Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, and Jim Parsons from “The Big Bang Theory.” Even the entire core cast of “Friends” got together (pictured above minus Matthew Perry, who did a pre-taped segment) in order to honor Burrows and his work.

To get a better sense as to the tone of the evening and also what it was like getting all of these different TV icons in the same room, we had a chance to chat on Tuesday with one of the executive producers of the special in John Irwin, who was one of the architects behind getting many of the celebrities together and devising the perfect tribute that not only honors Burrows’ work, but also serves as great entertainment.

CarterMatt – Let’s start with this: How did the idea for the tribute come about?

John Irwin – [Two of the other executive producers in] Todd Millner and Sean Hayes had the idea, and NBC of course jumped at it, and that’s how it was born, quite frankly. I think with show reunions [being] kind of a big, hot thing when you can pull them together, the idea of getting everyone together to honor Jim Burrows just seemed like a no-brainer, you know?

Logistically, I have to assume that getting everyone together in one room was rather difficult.

I can’t even tell you. (Laughs.) It was pretty intense. First of all, it is a testament to how beloved this man is to have literally all of these people rearrange schedules, change whatever they had to change, to appear on that night. Logistically it was crazy, and one of the bigger projects that I’ve worked on. There were about 60 celebrities orchestrating and organizing, and it’s not like they’re showing up to receive awards. They are all showing up in a performance-like situation.

How long would you say that the filming for the special lasted?

It didn’t take that long, surprisingly. I think we shot for about two and a half hours, something like that, and it gets cut down to eighty minutes roughly.

In the case of a special like this, how do you work to ensure that so many different people all get their individual moment, their chance to shine in the spotlight?

It definitely was kind of a producing feat, but it all just came together nicely. I think part of it was that all of the cast who participated were happy to be there, and that really comes through in the program. We shot it at the Palladium and we organized it [similar to the] Golden Globes [seating], and that lent itself to a party atmosphere, which I think helped a lot because people were eating, drinking. Everyone was having a lot of fun and I think when they were on stage, that really comes through.

In terms of the tone, what do you think people who watch can expect? Were you going more for nostalgia and the sentimentality of seeing this people together again, or were you instead going more for broad comedy?

I think there’s a little bit of both. There’s no question there was a little bit of nostalgia there; these are the actors from some of the biggest sitcoms of our generation. But what was really interesting in putting this show together is that when you look at a show like ‘Taxi,’ that’s a show that could come on today and be as funny if not funnier than most other shows that are on right now. You watch those clips and think ‘that stuff is brilliant,’ and I think that kind of goes for all of these shows.

To get back to your question, there was that nostalgia there, but we were also really playing this for comedy. I think that comes through. Just watching the clips, even if you never saw ‘Taxi’ or never saw ‘Cheers,’ you’re going to be on the floor laughing because the stuff is just really funny.

While you were looking at some of these clips, were you able to do almost what you mentioned and imagine some of these shows on the air now? I mean, almost everyone’s doing these revivals these days with ‘Girl Meets World’ or ‘Fuller House’ out there. Even ‘The X-Files’ is back and getting big ratings.

I think it absolutely could happen [that these shows could work now]. The ‘Full House’ thing is a great example, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does. There’s no reason why it couldn’t happen.

In just looking over the cast for the entire special, I know that the ‘Friends’ cast is getting a lot of the attention, but one thing that did catch me eye was seeing Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen on the list. Are they spending time together?

They were both there, they didn’t reunite as a cast up on stage, but from what I could tell, they seemed to have buried the hatchet, which was great.

And in getting back to ‘Friends’ for a minute, did get you get any particular sense of excitement or joy in the room to see so many of them on stage together again?

I think people were excited to see all of these casts. Obviously there has been all of the press buildup about ‘Friends,’ but if you’re standing in the room with the guys from ‘Taxi,’ the guys from ‘Will & Grace,’ the guys from ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ it’s just pretty amazing. I think that this show is going to prove to be a sum of all the parts. An hour based on one of these shows would’ve been amazing. We have two hours based on seven shows, which is just kind of amazing.

And again, it’s a testament to how much Jimmy is just loved by all these folks.

Was there some fun made of the fact that it’s not like [Burrows] has retired or anything? The guy is still working now.

That was a part of what the tribute is based on, [back] in November he shot his 1,000th episode of television, which if you think about it, it is insane. The guy is still going strong.

Before we start to wrap this up, do you think there is a chance that we could see some future specials honoring some other icons coming up?

I think it’ll be interesting to see how the show does, but I know there’s a huge reaction right now to all of this nostalgia stuff. There’s no reason this shouldn’t keep going.

Thanks to John for his time, and for giving us some insight into the upcoming special! As another reminder, the tribute airs on NBC Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

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