Born Abram Solman Borowitz in New York City, Burrows graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and later attended both City College and New York University. He began working as a runner on Wall Street while at NYU, and he also worked in an accounting firm. After he met Frank Galen in 1938, the two wrote and sold jokes to an impressionist who appeared on Rudy Vallée's radio program.
His radio career gained strength when he collaborated with Ed Gardner, the writer and star of radio legend Duffy's Tavern. The two created the successful series after Gardner's character, Archie, premiered on This Is New York, an earlier radio program. Burrows was made the show's head writer in 1941, and he credited the experience with investing the Runyonesque street characters he fashioned for Guys and Dolls. "The people on that show," Burrows once said about Duffy's Tavern, "were New York mugs, nice mugs, sweet mugs, and like (Damon) Runyon's mugs they all talked like ladies and gentlemen. That's how we treated the characters in Guys and Dolls."
Burrows also wrote for Danny Kaye's short-lived mid-1940s radio comedy show, helping head writer Goodman Ace fashion material for Kaye and co-stars Eve Arden and Lionel Stander. He quit Duffy's Tavern in 1945 to work at Paramount Pictures but soon returned to radio. As a guest on Here's Morgan in 1947, Burrows performed "I'll Bet You're Sorry Now, Tokyo Rose, Sorry for What You Done."
Meanwhile, he became a popular guest on the Hollywood party circuit, performing his own satirical songs ("Darling Why Shouldn't You Look Well Fed, ‘Cause You Ate Up a Hunka My Heart?" and "The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes"). Such informal performances led to a nightclub act and regular appearances as a performer on CBS radio programs, and to his eventually hosting his own radio program, The Abe Burrows Show, (CBS) from 1947 to 1949, a 15-minute weekly comedy that Burrows wrote and directed as well. As he recalled years later, his show came about while he was scripting a radio show for Joan Davis when George Jessel asked him, "When the hell are you gonna become a professional?" Burrows continued as Davis' head writer while doing his own show.
Mixing comic patter ("I guess I could tell you exactly what I look like, but I think that's a lousy thing to say about a guy") with his clever comic songs, The Abe Burrows Show was popular with listeners and critics but not with its sponsor, Lambert Pharmaceutical, then the makers of Listerine mouthwash, but promoting a Listerine toothpaste on the show. Lambert, according to Burrows, complained that the show wasn't selling much of the toothpaste. "It seems that my fans were being naughty," he wrote. "While they were laughing at my jokes, they were sneering at my toothpaste."
Both of Burrows' radio shows originated from KNX, CBS's Los Angeles affiliate, whose program director Ernie Martin encouraged Burrows, who had done some film work, to think about writing plays. "I told him I felt my funny stuff was okay for radio, but I didn't think people would pay theater prices to hear it," Burrows recalled.
Burrows credited his success in the theatre to his work under the theatre legend George S. Kaufman. In the Kaufman biography by Howard Teichmann, Burrows is quoted as saying that what he said (as a director, to his cast) was what he heard Kaufman say in their collaboration on Guys and Dolls.
Eventually, Burrows wrote, doctored, or directed such shows as Make a Wish, Two on the Aisle, Three Wishes for Jamie, Say, Darling, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cactus Flower, Four on a Garden, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Good News (1974 revival), and many others. With his collaborator Frank Loesser, Burrows won a Pulitzer Prize for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Burrows also became a famous script doctor, enough so that the desperate remark of a producer, "Get me Abe Burrows!", remained for many years Broadway shorthand for a script that needed repair. Yet Burrows himself downplayed that role in his memoir, and discussed his fixing of Make a Wish:
I have... performed surgery on a few shows, but not as many as I'm given credit for. I've been involved in 19 theatrical productions, plus their road company offshoots. Only a few of these have been surgical patients. And I don't usually talk about them. I feel that a fellow who doctors a show should have the same ethical approach that a plastic surgeon has. It wouldn't be very nice if a plastic surgeon were walking down the street with you, and a beautiful girl approached. And you say, "What a beautiful girl." And the plastic surgeon says, "She was a patient of mine. You should have seen her before I fixed her nose." Doctoring seldom cures a show. The sickness usually starts at the moment the author puts the first sheet of paper in his typewriter. All the redirecting and recasting can never help much if the basic story is wrong.
Guys and Dolls was apparently selected as the winner for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters. However, because of Burrows' troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), no Pulitzer for Letters was awarded in 1951, as the Trustees of Columbia University had the right of veto.
Burrows wrote the screenplay for The Solid Gold Cadillac in 1956 as well as produced a television series Abe Burrows' Almanac (1950) and The Big Party (1959).
In 1980, he published his memoir, Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?, in which he recalled the meat of his career. His mentored several comedy writers, including future M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart (who was once a Duffy's Tavern writer), Nat Hiken, Dick Martin and Woody Allen, the latter a distant cousin of Burrows.
Over three decades, Burrows appeared as a panelist on such programs as This Is Show Business, What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, all on CBS. On October 27, 1952, he guest starred on CBS's Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, when the musical television series visited The Bronx.
The New York Public Library holds the Abe Burrows papers, which include complete runs of both "The Abe Burrows Show (CBS, 1946-47)" and "Breakfast with Burrows (CBS, 1949)." as well as appearances on other radio shows.
Burrows recorded albums for Decca and Columbia.
June 26–27, 1947
Decca A-607 The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes and other topical type songs (3 10inch 78rpm), reissued
on 10inch Lp DL 5288 (1950)
1 40048 A. - matrix L-4432 piano accompaniment
The Girl with The Three Blue Eyes
The "Hello" Type Song
2 40048 B -- matrix L-4460 with two pianos
The Pansy In My Garden
3 40049 A. - matrix L-4461 with two pianos
Ron Ron Ron
4 40049 B -- matrix L-4468 with two pianos
The Stationery Type Song
The Hospital Type Song
5 40050 A. - matrix L-4466 with two pianos
Waukeshaw Natural Bridge-Part 1
6 40050 B -- matrix L-4467 with two pianos
Waukeshaw natural bridge-concluded
COLUMBIA CL 6128 10inch Lp 1950
Abe Burrows Sings?
with orchestra under the direction of Milton DeLugg
The Gypsie's Violin
BOULDER DAM, Part 1 & 2 issued on HARMONY HL 7224 FUN HOUSE! (tracks B4, B5)
There is a 16inch transcription disc:
US Treasury Dept Radio - U.S.Savings Bonds Division
48 Feb 22, 1948
Abe Burrows and Win Elliot
with Harry Sosnik The Savings Bonds Orchestra
He was married twice and had one son and one daughter. His son, James Burrows, became an influential television director whose credits have included The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers. His daughter, Laurie Burrows Grad, is the author of four cookbooks and host of her own cooking show on The Learning Channel.
Abe Burrows died from Alzheimer's disease in his native New York City.