IT’S GO TIME!
Will & Grace returns to our screens this year for (at least!) 12 more episodes, and WHO got there first to witness the sitcom legends reuniting.
It all started in the back seat of a London cab.
While on vacation with his husband last autumn, Max Mutchnick was reading a newspaper article about the presidential election when he thought of a joke that would have worked on Will & Grace, the NBC sitcom he created with David Kohan in 1998 about a charmingly uptight gay man who lives with his lovably neurotic female friend. “Well, you and David still have the set,” responded his spouse, Erik, of the iconic New York apartment which had been in storage at Mutchnick’s alma mater Emerson College. “You could do the show right now if you wanted.”
The next day, Mutchnick sent an email to stars Eric Mccormack (corporate lawyer Will Truman), Debra Messing (interior designer Grace Adler), Megan Mullally (socialite Karen Walker) and Sean Hayes ( bombastic actor Jack Mcfarland) about shooting a short get-out-thevote video that would address Donald Trump’s candidacy and a few other random topics, like Brangelina’s divorce and Viggo Mortensen’s nether region.
It took them less than 40 minutes to respond.
“There were four yeses. It was amazing,” Mutchnick recalls. “We gave them a date and brought everybody back together. Pretty much every person from the pilot did this. It was incredible.”
And though it didn’t get Hillary Clinton into the White House, it certainly won the popular vote. Within days of it being posted last September, more than 7 million people clicked on the 10-minute video, which served up the same type of snappy repartee and “Just Jack” jokes that made the sitcom run for eight seasons. So that got the network thinking: if that many people were willing to click on a Youtube video, how would they feel about a limited-run reunion for the network this year?
“I had started talking very much in secret with Max, who clued me in to the secret reunion special that they were making,” says NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. “We didn’t do anything overt until after it streamed and we saw the reaction. I said to Max, ‘They look amazing. They look the exact same. The show is the same. It’s hilarious and insightful. What about doing more episodes?’ ”
Lucky for the suits, the Fab Four were already thinking big-picture. “I was sitting on the couch in my house reading the script,” remembers Mullally, “and then I emailed Max and I said, ‘ Why can’t we do this show again?’ And he emailed right back saying, ‘ We can!’ ”
Messing was equally enamoured with the idea of getting the band back together again for more than just a special: “I always thought about the four of us as being like an orchestra and each of us playing a different instrument and creating a musical together. Comedy is music. Once we started playing the music again it was like, Oh, I know how this song goes.”
“I don’t think we were trail-blazing in any way. I feel like gay men and straight women were everywhere all throughout the country, but no-one was writing about it or putting it on TV. We just lucked out that we did it first,” says Mutchnick modestly. (Tell that to former vice-president Joe Biden, who in 2012 said in his first public endorsement of gay marriage that Will & Grace had done more to further LGBTQ equality than anything else.) But in 1999, when Will & Grace was first introduced to advertisers at the annual upfronts in New York, the TV landscape was a very different place. “The tagline 18 years ago was ‘They’re not a couple, they’re a couple of friends,’ ” Kohan recalls. “There was no mention of [sexual orientation]. They were very squirrelly about it.” That’s because gay and lesbian representation in prime time rested solely on the back of Ellen Degeneres, who had come out two years prior on her eponymous ABC sitcom to much fanfare—and a decline in ratings.
So skittish was NBC over the idea of a gay title character, Mutchnick recalls, that they insisted a straight actor play the part of Will. “They needed to tell themselves that this wasn’t really who you were watching,” remembers Mutchnick. “You’re not really watching a gay guy, America. Don’t worry about it. You can enjoy yourself.” And Mccormack was definitely straight-friendly —almost to a fault. Most of the people in the initial test audience didn’t realise Will preferred guys instead of dolls—despite him talking about Stevie Nicks’s fashion sense and professing his love for George Clooney before the opening credits had even begun rolling. “We told the audience in the first scene that Will had just broken up with a guy,” says Mutchnick. “Still, at the end of that first test a lot of people wanted to know why he and Grace don’t get together.”
“Mccormack was perfect for it,”
says Kohan. “He allayed any fears the executives had that Will & Grace would be a queen-fest.” But it didn’t start out as a ratings-fest, at least for the first two seasons. Though impressive by today’s standards, the first 44 episodes of the sitcom averaged an unremarkable 12.5 million viewers in the US as it told bawdy jokes about sex, dating, booze, and illegal immigration. But something made viewers want to check out reruns during the summer of 2000—did viewers finally discover Jack and his glorious jazz hands?—and in 2001, Will & Grace closed out its most watched season yet.
The sitcom would last another five seasons, attracting a drag queen’s dream team of guest stars, including Madonna, Britney Spears and Cher, until its finale on May 18, 2006, when more than 18 million viewers watched as Will and Grace drifted apart at the start of the episode before reuniting 20 years later when they discover their children are attending the same college. And Jack—after being briefly married to Beverley Leslie (Leslie Jordan) before the diminutive daddy was blown off his balcony by a strong wind—had moved in with Karen, who hadn’t aged a bit.
“I think we were all ready,” recalls Hayes. “It felt healthy to leave.” But there were still ugly tears after the final taping. “It was rough,” remembers Mullally. “I couldn’t leave the set, and then I couldn’t leave my dressing room. It got to the point where my husband said, ‘ You have to go.’ I told him to just go start the car or something and let me have my time alone! I couldn’t say goodbye. It turns out I didn’t have to.”
So will the new season take place on a college campus during parents’ weekend? Not even close. When Will & Grace returns—it will air on Stan from Sept. 29—Will is still living in his New York apartment with Grace, Jack is still their why-don’t-you-ever-knock neighbour, and Karen is still swilling martinis in the mansion and berating anyone foolish enough to cross her. Why? Because it’s just easier that way.
“That finale caused us a lot of grief,” admits Mutchnick. “You write a finale because a show is over and you never think that it’s coming back again. If you think in those terms, we wouldn’t have written that finale because it’s not the storyline we would have wanted to follow. What we learnt from the election video is how that foursome can still fire on all cylinders. We didn’t want to mess with that beautiful chemistry. So we just decided to get rid of the finale episode.”
That means no kids and no husbands like Vince and Leo, the spouses of Will and Grace played by Bobby Cannavale and Harry Connick Jr. (though the latter actor will briefly reprise his role in the new season, one of a limited number of guest stars participating in the reboot). The characters will even have their same jobs—will’s still a corporate lawyer, Grace is still an interior designer, Karen’s still, well, doing Karen, and Jack has developed a new method for theatre performers called “Jackting.”
Even without seeing a script, the cast was on board with all of the non-changes. “If we just picked up where the finale left off, which a lot of people loved and some people didn’t love as
much, we wouldn’t be doing the show,” says Mccormack. “I think everyone responded to the election video because it looked the same, and the apartment’s a big part of that. Why not say these two people are still living together? They’ve had heartbreaks and they’re still together. And rather than making that something to be frowned on, let’s celebrate that. What if our best friends from youth really become our rocks in our middle age?” Mullally puts it more bluntly: “We can all suspend our disbelief.”
So what will the gang address this time around? Oh, the usual—dating, ageing, and politics, but not too much talk about the current administration. “The show’s not about who won or who didn’t,” says Hayes. “It’s about the situations that we’re in. Everything that happens in the world is ancillary to their lives, but it’s not the focal point.” There’s something else that the cast would prefer not to talk about, at least for now: what happens if this show becomes a hit and NBC starts asking for subsequent seasons. “We’re not coming back with the intent to make this an ongoing series,” insists Messing. “We all have rich creative lives going on. So the 12-episode order is actually perfect for everyone involved. If it goes beyond that, we’ll decide.”
Until then, their intent is simple: tell jokes and have a grand old time while doing it. Fortunately, they don’t need a script to do that, as evidenced by their effortless rapport at Who’s photo shoot. Messing I always felt like Karen was living her own life in a parallel universe. You know, just married to Donald Trump and really happy. Mccormack Married to Donald Trump and really happy? Mullally Super happy. Are you kidding? They’re perfect for each other. Mccormack It’s a science-fiction show! Hayes That’s what was brilliant about the election video. You had a voice representing everybody in America, or at least large chunks of America, within each character. Mullally Did you call me chunky? Mccormack He called you a large chunk of America. That’s what he called you. Mullally I don’t know that I like that.
Oh, but we do. Welcome back, old friends.
Debra Messing as Grace and Megan Mullally as Karen in the “Bully Woolley” episode (2005)
Messing, Hayes and Mccormack show off their moves in “Alive and Schticking” (2005)
Messing and Mccormack in “Whatever happened to Baby Gin?” (2006)