In the beginning, there was Lucille Ball. She defined TV comedy six decades ago.
Then came another towering figure, who arrived in 1974 with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and now, dozens of sitcoms later, keeps making history (and viewers laugh).
But even after all this time, James Burrows isn't a household name. Nor is his face (with its trim, gray beard and trace of mischief) likely to be recognized by fans of his many shows. Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Burrows reigns as a comedy giant. He's a director whose brand of funny business has helped shape TV comedy, season after season.
Consider this partial resume: 240 episodes of "Cheers"; 75 "Taxis"; 10 early, formative episodes of "Friends"; 32 "Frasiers"; all eight seasons of "Will & Grace." Ten Emmys and counting.
Mr. Burrows is not only in demand as a lucky sitcom's resident director, but also as a highly sought presence at the shows' pilot stage who has midwifed future hits, including "NewsRadio," "3rd Rock from the Sun," "Dharma & Greg," "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "2 Broke Girls."
Not for him are single-camera comedies like "Modern Family," "The Office" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
"My head doesn't work that way," he explained. Instead, Mr. Burrows has specialized in the multicamera genre pioneered by Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy." It remains as one of TV's oldest thriving program formats, and it is nourished by Mr. Burrows with each succeeding project.
"I don't think my style has changed over 40 years," said Mr. Burrows, who is 71, "and I'm not ashamed to admit it."
And he's still going strong. During an alfresco breakfast at a posh Bel Air hotel last month, he tried to shoo away a housefly that refused to take direction while he talked about his latest venture: "Partners," a new CBS comedy about two best friends and partnered architects — one straight, one gay — played by David Krumholtz and Michael Urie.
Mr. Burrows directed its pilot last spring and, in a week, would be back at Warner Bros. as production resumed. (The show premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m.)
He hadn't yet seen the upcoming script, but this he knew: The series initially should explore how Louis, the gay friend, felt "jilted" by Joe with his impending marriage to his girlfriend.
"You go the heart of the show, you write to that heart," Mr. Burrows said. Secondary characters and stories can blossom later. Right now, stick to basics.
"Partners" shares a bond with most of the shows he has thrown his weight behind: "It has an incredible amount of humanity. There's warmth at the core."
Joining "Partners" reunites Mr. Burrows with its co-producers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, his longtime colleagues on "Will & Grace." But it meant saying goodbye to "Mike and Molly," the CBS comedy he helped turn into a hit by directing the pilot and its entire first two seasons.
"Jimmy broke our hearts when he left," said "Mike and Molly" star Billy Gardell. "But we had him longer than most. I would go over and mow his lawn — that's how much I still love him."
Television is thought of as a visual medium. But Mr. Burrows doesn't worry much about appearances. Standing just beyond camera range, he listens, sometimes with his eyes shut, as a scene unfolds.
"My cameras are eyes capturing a play, while I listen to the 'radio dialogue,' " he said.
He also listens intently to the audience response, and if something isn't working, he will change it.
"You don't argue with the audience," he said. "And the words come first. It's all about the words."