Revival of the Wittiest
Will & The stars Grace of on good times, their groundbreaking series and what’s in store for its return
When Will & Grace ended in 2006 after eight successful seasons, the creators broke down the set and even offered pieces of it as souvenirs to the four main cast members, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally.
Little did they know they’d need much of that set back again to begin production for this month’s revival of Will & Grace, returning Sept. 28 on NBC.
During its run, W&G earned 16 Emmys, including wins for each of its four stars—McCormack playing buttonedup lawyer Will Truman; Messing as neurotic interior designer Grace Adler, with Mullally playing her wealthy and wildly boozing assistant, Karen Walker; and Hayes as struggling actor Jack McFarland—making it one of only three sitcoms to ever achieve the honor. At its close, 18 million viewers tuned in to the finale to say goodbye.
While the cast had a hard time bidding farewell too, some felt the break was necessary after eight straight years on the TV treadmill. “I needed a minute,” admits Hayes, 47. “I just didn’t know a minute would be 11 years! But I think we all feel like there’s more to say.”
After more than a decade performing
apart, the Will & Grace cast came together last fall to film a special mini-episode encouraging viewers to vote in the November election. When the reunion episode became such a smash, NBC gave a green light to the full series—which has already been renewed for an additional season.
The series’ revival comes at a time when other hit shows and fan favorites from the 1990s and early 2000s have been popping back up, like The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Gilmore Girls. And Roseanne will be back on ABC in 2018. McCormack, 54, isn’t surprised that television viewers are looking forward to harking back.
“Nostalgia is part of what we do,” he says. “One of the biggest pieces of the ’70s was the ’50s, from American Graffiti to Happy Days.”
But while the new Will & Grace is a throwback to the good old days, it will be dropping the characters into upto-date current events, smartphones in hand. “Obviously, it’s 2017. There are lots of Instagram and Twitter jokes to be made,” McCormack says.
The creators have provided a few other hints about what viewers can expect in this new season: Will and Grace will be living together again; Jack will be hawking his new brand of acting called “Jackting”; fan-favorite character Rosario (Shelley Morrison) won’t be back, but singer Harry Connick Jr. will; and the time-traveling forward they all did in the finale? It never happened.
Instead, the characters will pick up 11 years after they left off. McCormack is excited to see the characters showing their age. “It’s not the same as a comedy of a bunch of 24-year-olds sitting around and yakking,” he says. “I think it’ll be richer, honestly.”
And when it comes to the core of the show, they’ll be doing the same rich dance of character-driven comedy and zippy dialogue that spun them into TV history in the first place—one that they all knew felt special from the start.
Messing, 49, remembers reading the original W&G script after wrapping another show, the sci-fi TV series Prey, which she had been doing at the time. “I read it in bed,” she says. “I remember being halfway through it and sitting up and being like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really something.’ ”
McCormack had been doing so many dramas up until then—“I could have had a career carrying guns and solving crimes,” he says—before getting his role on W&G.
Mullally, 58, auditioned for the role of Grace, but got turned down. “They were like, ‘Next!’ ” she says, laughing. Even after returning to read for the Karen role, she worried whether she could make it her own. “I tried to make her just a little quirkier and added the ‘honeys,’ the tics and the laughing.”
Hayes had only bit parts on his acting résumé until he was hired to play Jack, and he spent his first days expecting to
be fired. “To hold on to the job was just a success in and of itself for me!” he says.
Out of the Closet
The show debuted the same year Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen ended—one season after Ellen’s character famously came out as gay. The characters of Will and Jack, on the other hand, were out of the closet from the first episode, already proud and comfortable in their lives. Hayes saw their roles as “letting people peer into the lives of gay people—which are exactly the same and as boring as straight people.”
Still, “I think the mere existence of Jack pushed the envelope for a lot of people,” says Hayes, who points out that the show got its share of hate letters. “My family wrote so many of them,” he adds, laughing.
Though the show pushed the envelope every week, its prime-time network spot meant it could go only so far. Over on cable’s HBO, Sex and the City could bare it all. “We had to use double entendres while, basically, they just used single entendres,” McCormack says.
“Our first goal was making people laugh,” says Messing. One of her favorite episodes was when her water bra exploded in an art gallery. “That was just so fun to shoot, I can’t even put words to it,” she says. “It felt like an homage to I Love Lucy.”
McCormack loved the scene when Will’s former school bully, who had begun working at his office, catches Will putting lotion on his hands. “He says, ‘Were you lotioning?’ and I put my hands on my desk and I slip and smash my face on the desk. It’s my favorite piece of physical comedy ever.”
Mullally’s favorite is when Jack quits caffeine and Karen quits alcohol—and their withdrawal leads them to a manic slap fest.
The more popular the sitcom became, the bigger the guest stars who rolled through its revolving door, including Matt Damon, Cher, Gene Wilder, Michael Douglas, Elton John, Madonna and film legend Debbie Reynolds, who had a recurring role as Grace’s mother. “She had a chromosome that would not allow her to stop performing,” says Messing. “Whether it was for the custodian walking by or the craft services woman giving her soup, she would entertain them. She would sing, she would tell jokes.” And not necessarily clean jokes. “She had a dirty mouth,” says Messing, laughing. “You were convinced she was gonna moon people any second—she was outrageous! And that’s why we loved her.”
But the greatest sign of success for the cast was the influence the show had
beyond the screen. “I don’t think any of us—even the creators of the show—ever really thought, This show is gonna make
a real impact, make a difference,” says Mullally. “It’s mind-blowing.” In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden declared his endorsement for equal marriage rights for gay citizens, citing the show as a major shift in the cultural tide.
And the cast hopes they’ll continue to hit the hot buttons with the new season. “When we were on the show, we dealt with LGB—lesbians, gays and bisexuals,” says Messing. “I’d like to finish the rest of the alphabet now.”
‘I don’t think any of us—even the creators of the show— ever really thought, This show is gonna make a real impact, make a difference.’ - Megan Mullally
‘Our first goal was making people laugh.’ - Debra Messing
‘Obviously, it’s 2017. There are lots of Instagram and Twitter jokes to be made.’ Erick McCormack
‘I think the mere existence of Jack pushed the envelope for a lot of people.’ - Sean Hayes
The late Debbie Reynolds (second from left) was a cast favorite in her recurring guest role as Grace’s mother, Bobbi.