‘Must See TV: An All Star Tribute to James Burrows’ exclusive: EP Todd Milliner on huge lineup, Bruce Springsteen, more
Come Sunday night on NBC (9:00 p.m. Eastern time), we are going to have a chance to view something rather special in the world of comedy: A special celebrating the work of famed director James Burrows … which has the oh-so fitting title of “Must See TV: An All Star Tribute to James Burrows.” Whether it be “Frasier,” “Taxi,” “The Big Bang Theory,” or “Friends,” casts from many of the shows in which Burrows worked on are going to be reunited to talk all about his accomplishments and the impact he had on their careers.
One of the men at the center of everything going on with this special was executive producer Todd Milliner of Hazy Mills Productions, who you may also know for his work on “Grimm” or “Hollywood Game Night.” In preparation for the special we chatted with him recently about everything from coming up with the idea with business partner Sean Hayes to then figuring how to make everything logistically work in a short amount of time.
CarterMatt – How did you and Sean first conceptualize the idea for the special to honor [Burrows] now?
Todd Milliner – We were working on [new NBC comedy] ‘Crowded’ when he directed the 1000th episode, and we were talking about what we going to do to celebrate it, if we were going to a press [event], if we were going to do a cake. He was such a big part of Sean’s life forever [on ‘Will & Grace’].
At the company we were talking about what would be our version of the ‘SNL’ 40th [anniversary special], where they got to visit all of these really cool old clips that we loved. We realized that a lot of people didn’t know the breadth of Jimmy’s career, and we didn’t even know the breadth of it before we started researching it. The moment we thought of that, we phoned Bob Greenblatt and Paul Telegdy over at NBC and said ‘we’d love to do this special.’ It was really that quick, and everything just came together because everyone really wanted to revisit these favorite characters from our history.
So when you guys were having these conversations with Bob and Paul, were there any particular things that they wanted to see happen, people they wanted to see brought in?
That was the hardest part, because there were so many shows we didn’t get to honor that are favorites of ours. You know ‘Wings,’ ‘3rd Rock from the Sun,’ ‘NewsRadio.’ At some point we had to agree, so it really was just a process of elimination based on how many acts we could get together for a two-hour special. We ended up not getting to honor as many shows as we actually wanted to (laughs), and that was just a numbers game at that point. I think you can argue the merits of one show over the other, but at the end of the day we had to just vote and it was a really tough decision.
What was the process like getting people to sign on, and how difficult was it to get people all scheduled at the right day and time?
It’s funny because the date was harder than getting people [to sign on]. We wanted to do it on a Sunday night and we didn’t want to keep people busy for too long. We were worried about all of these things that we worry about when we cast ‘Hollywood Game Night,’ not realizing that people who came would do anything for Jimmy Burrows, and that’s what we found out. The amount of people we got for this thing [was incredible].
I live close enough to Palladium to walk home, and that morning I was walking home and I just started laughing, which probably looked crazy, thinking ‘I can’t believe we just did that. I can’t believe all of those people said yes and it wasn’t that hard.’
The hardest thing was when people had commitments out of the country. [Matthew] Perry was in the UK, John Lithgow was in the UK. There was a couple of people who just couldn’t physically be there, but as for everyone else David Schwimmer was on a plane Friday night to try to get out ahead of a blizzard, just to get there for Jimmy. It was inspiring to see all of these people do so much for a guy who did so much for them.
One of the things I’m so impressed with, and I spoke with [fellow EP] John Irwin about this earlier in the week, is how you guys were able to film this in a relatively short amount of time, and still make sure to give everyone these individual moments.
We don’t usually do this; we typically do scripted television and ‘Hollywood Game Night.’ We were told by our booking person that we usually get another six months on top of [what we had to prepare], so this was really all hands on deck to make sure that [it worked]. The good thing was that this was something that everyone cared and was passionate about, and without all of those things coming together, that perfect storm of the right day and the right person [that was honored], it [wouldn’t have worked]; everyone was really on top of their game, from every PA to every executive producer, to get this thing done. I can’t over-exaggerate how hard everyone worked.
I’ll share with you a little bit of a story that is probably a little bit of a scoop: When you see the special you’ll see Bruce Springsteen in it, and to get him to do something on the road, in between concerts, to get something filmed after soundcheck, get it uploaded, get it here, get it into the final cut … Everybody just cared that much about Jimmy.
As a comedy nerd myself I cannot imagine the sort of emotions that had to be there in the room seeing these casts from ‘Cheers’ and ‘Taxi’ and all of these other great shows there. Can you try to put some of that into words?
To me it was an embarrassment of riches. When you’re sitting there in the truck with the director and he’s calling out the camera numbers, and everywhere you go there’s a shot that’s going to get somebody. (Laughs.) You’re kind of shaking your head. I wanted to meet all of these people and have a conversation with them, but I had a show to produce! So I was running backstage and watching the show, and anytime someone asked me a question I was mad because I wanted to hear all of these stories. So for some of it I had to actually wait for the cut, but for a TV nerd like me, it was nuts going from one moment to the next.
I was talking to Judd Hirsch beforehand and just shaking me head and wondering ‘why am I talking to Judd Hirsch’ and if there was any point in my life that I thought I’d be talking to Judd Hirsch because ‘Taxi’ was one of my favorite shows. My business partner’s Sean Hayes! It’s easy to take things for granted, the access that we have, but that night I didn’t take anything for granted.
We’re obviously in the big nostalgia craze right now, and everyone obviously wants to take that and run with it a little bit. How did you forge the balance between doing some of that for you, and then incorporating also some genuinely funny moments?
I think one of the things that we always talk about here at Hazy Mills is that we want to have as much heart as humor in our half-hour comedies; we think that those two things next to each other make things so much better. All of the shows that were there do that. All of the people that were on it, we didn’t have to prod anyone or write for anyone. They all truly enjoyed being back together with each other, and when they were together they were funny and heartwarming. We had all of the comedy from watching the clips, and then as a viewer when you realize that these are markers for your own life, you kinda got wistful at that, too. There’s equal parts of inside information, humor, and heart. It all kind of came together as a function of being in a room together, and then throwing in some clips from our favorite shows.
In transitioning more into what is the current state of modern comedy, I know ‘funny is funny’ but is there any particular trend that you and Sean are looking for, or maybe trying to capture moving forward that some of these classic shows did so well?
I think the biggest hindrance sometimes when you’re doing something like ‘Crowded’ is just for time. You’re not allowed to let a lot of laughs play out like you used to. I remember watching old clips of ‘The Honeymooners’ and they would just laugh and laugh and laugh and the rolling laughter would continue. When we’re doing ‘Crowded,’ so many writers and producers prefer single-camera now, but in doing ‘Crowded’ we think we were able to capture some of that same feeling that you had watching those old favorite shows. That was why it was perfect to have Jimmy do it; all of those pieces kind of came together, and obviously [creator] Suzanne Martin created ‘Hot in Cleveland’ for us, and that show was a little bit of a throwback.
I think the hardest thing is just telling a story in 21 minutes now, and allowing it to breathe and having real moments and allowing it to roll. I think you hit the nail on the head with ‘funny is funny,’ but when we started our company people said that multi-cam’s dead, and we always said that ‘I think good multi-cam will always succeed and always have life.’ I hope when people watch ‘Crowded’ they’ll see some new fresh stuff in there, but also reminisce about what made those multi-cam’s worth watching in the first place.
Thanks once again to Todd for his time, and as a remainder, the tribute airs Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. on NBC.
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