IT’S GO TIME!

WHO - - News - By Lynette Rice

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)

The Fab Four: Mul­lally, Hayes, Mccor­mack and Mess­ing, pho­tographed on May 14, 2017 in New York City.

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