‘The History of Comedy’

Sean Hayes on How the ‘Will & Grace’ Revival Will Update Its Gay Humor

Hayes and his producing partner Todd Milliner sit down for a riotous talk about their CNN docuseries, ‘The History of Comedy,’ and how to do a ‘Will & Grace’ for a 2017 audience.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“I’m going to be asked this question for the next seven months, aren’t I?” Sean Hayes only slightly groans when I bring up Will & Grace.

He does laugh, too, suggesting he’s not entirely put off by my question about how the recently announced revival of the groundbreaking NBC sitcom might be forced to calibrate its humor for changing times in which the discourse surrounding gay culture, gay people, and gay humor might make the original’s jokes seem dated.

Hayes and his producing partner Todd Milliner are barely keeping warm, tucked in an unusually frantic corner of a Park City lounge at the Sundance Film Festival, where the duo premiered their latest producing effort, CNN’s eight-part docuseries The History of Comedy. (“Not ambitious at all, right?” Milliner jokes.)

The pair is close. They were college pals before launching the Hazy Mills production company, responsible for hits like Hollywood Game Night, Grimm, and Hot in Cleveland, plus the ambitious non-hit, Sean Saves the World. Over the course of our conversation, their couple-y bantering and ribbing develops into its own—fittingly—comedic act, a repartee honed by decades of friendship.

It’s so much so that you can practically feel a gust of wind from Milliner’s rolling eyes as Hayes begins to talk about how the new Will & Grace might update its humor: “I was an actor on the show and I’m still an actor on the show. I don’t write it and I never came at it with an angle. My job was to play my character in the best way that I could and hopefully people will enjoy that.”

In fact, Milliner begins to do my job for me, both prodding Hayes and serving up some excellent answers to the questions on his behalf. “We need reminders constantly like Will & Grace that the work is never done,” Milliner says. “Some of the same things that were the reasons that Will & Grace was the breakaway hit in 1998 are exactly the same things that we need Will and Grace to do again.”

“It’s going to do exactly the same thing it did before,” Hayes says.” So if you enjoyed the show before, it’s hopefully not going to be that different.” Later, he adds: “It’s always comedy first on Will and Grace. There was never any other agenda.”

Still, how levels of taste and offense evolve, and the impact that humor might have on a changing culture is certainly a pertinent one given the occasion of our meeting, the Sundance premiere of The History of Comedy.

The eight-episode docuseries, premiering Thursday, will tackle topics like evolution of “blue” (offensive) humor, women in comedy, and the “spark of madness” that draws so many performers with dark histories and depressive natures to the field.

The idea is to not just parse out what makes us laugh, but how comedy has affected the cultural and political landscape throughout history, with the narrative driven by interviews with an exhaustive roster of comedians including Judd Apatow, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, and Maria Bamford.

The duo had about 20 topic ideas they sent to CNN, who killed their darlings for them. Well, more like put the darlings down for a nap, to hopefully be used in future seasons. “With eight episodes we barely cover the tip of the iceberg. There’s not even an episode about musical comedy,” Hayes said. Then, later: “I wish I would’ve said comedy in music. Not musical comedy.”

“Because you sounded like a big gay?” Milliner teases. “A homo!” Hayes stresses, for dramatic effect. “Which I’m proud of.”

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They erupt into the kind of table-slapping laughter that becomes the chorus of our conversation. When cracking each other up and gently giving each other a hard time, they’re finishing each other’s sentences, which they do often as our talk veers from the inspiration for the show (Betty White had something to do with it), why it’s important to laugh in the face of tragedy (or in the age of Trump), and a running gag about what it’s like to sleep with Milliner (he’s a hoot).

Why, of all things in the world and all show ideas, did you decide you were going to tackle this?

Sean: It was a brainstorm.

Todd: It really was. We’re huge docufans. We were trying to figure out what was the appropriate docuseries for us to tackle.

Sean: Yeah. It made sense for us and our brand, I think. And we love CNN, and are huge fans of all their original programming. So that’s kind of how our brains think: if we’re fans of anything, we figure out how to partner with them in a smart way.

Todd: And we did Hot in Cleveland with Betty White for 136 episodes. I think when you do that show and you see all these classic comedy stars come on our show, it gives you a real affinity. And not that we didn’t have an affinity or love for the history of comedy anyway. But being so close to it with this person who just turned 95…it makes you want to dig in and find out where all this came from. And how much we didn’t know about the history of comedy.

How did you go about landing these interviews for each episode? And what tone did you set for the interviews, as far as trying to mine out untold stories and “dirt,” versus a more hospitable “tell us your tale…”

Sean: I hate to refer to anything in the show as dirt, but I know what you mean…

Todd: “Just tell us all your secrets, uncover the stories...” We probably had a list of 500 people when we first started that we wanted to interview.

Sean: And we still have those, if the show should go on for multiple seasons.

Todd: There were a bunch of people who wanted to come in and do interviews as we were wrapping up and it was a lot less malleable at the end. We couldn’t just put somebody in an episode who didn’t make sense. Judd Apatow and Conan O’Brien came in at the last second, but we had spots in the right episodes for them.

And in terms of the questions you asked them…

Sean: We mostly just let them talk.

Todd: It’s a very personal series.

Sean: But it’s called The History of Comedy. We didn’t want it to be The Sad History of Comedy. It’s a retrospective of all kinds. There’s one episode, “A Spark of Madness,” that really focuses on the darker side of comedy and where it comes from, and that depression and comedy sometimes go hand in hand. But that’s the only episode that focuses on that. We didn’t want the series to take itself too seriously, but at the same time we wanted to talk about serious subjects.

Todd: We also made it feel safe. The big problem with a lot of folks is that they didn’t want it to look like they knew more about comedy than their peers.

Sean: Even doing the show, being a producer on the show, I didn’t want that perception. I’m still learning from the people that we interviewed, and for my entire life will be a student of the people we’re exploring. That’s another reason I wanted to do it and we wanted to do it. What a cool platform to learn from your idols.

Todd: Plus, we needed to do a show that would let us get into Sundance. (Laughs) None of these other shows did. Grimm didn’t get us here!

I don’t know if the timing was purposeful for this moment in our culture, but what is the impact of releasing the history of comedy at this turning point in our culture and volatile moment?

Sean: I think we’re always at a turning point. I think every month something happens where we need something like this show or other things like it. For this to be a contribution to offset some of the weight that the country’s feeling or that people are feeling personally, or whatever you’re going through, is a nice thing.

Todd: We hit in a couple of places. When I watched the episodes again last week to get ready to come here, it really struck me how comedy has gotten us through a lot of tragedies in our life. Some people might not call what we’re going through this week a tragedy…

Sean: Some might call it a celebration.

Todd: Yes. But if you remember, we get through. There are blips, big and small, in our lives, nationally, internationally, personally. Comedy kind of helps us get through. So I think whenever we released the series it was going to be a great time to remind people of that. We need to remind people sometimes that it’s OK to laugh again. And it’s OK to have a serious look at comedy, too. But I think no matter what would’ve happened, this would’ve been a good time to release this show. I just think it’s an even better time to release it because of what happened.

Sean: Oh! See how he’s so good with quotes.

Todd: Just like sleeping with me, it’s going to be OK a couple weeks out.

Sean: Just get through it. (Laughs)

Todd: Get a couple months away from it and you’ll find something you like.

Find something to laugh about.

Todd: Well that might happen during.

The “Going Blue” episode is the first episode of the series. Why is that a good one to launch with?

Sean: To loosely quote Jim Jeffries, he said something, I’m paraphrasing, about how when he starts his act, instead of waiting 40 minutes for people to start walking out, he wants to get the blue content out right away. So it’s a fun time for the rest of the evening. It’s kind of like that with our first episode. (Laughs) It’s kind of like, “This is the show, this is what we’ll be exploring.”

Todd: It’s provocative. One of the comedians we interviewed—I can’t remember who said it, so forgive—said working blue for the sake of being blue isn’t the kind of comedy people should be interested in. Going blue with a purpose, however… And that’s what this series shows. It’s super interesting, I think, for audiences to see what blue was 50 years ago, and what it is today. When you couldn’t say “pregnancy” on television and what we expect out of our television today. Or you’ll turn the channel! If something isn’t provocative you’ll turn the channel. Network television is trying to be cable television. We have to grab the viewers. And I think “Going Blue” grabs the viewers.

Is there a fear that the role that those comedians played in paving the way for the comedy we see now might be lost on younger people who might not have their dad who listened to Carlin to tell him about it? Or who don’t remember what it was like to see Eddie Murphy’s Raw for the first time?

Todd: I think it’s like The Beatles. Good is good, and I think that once you watch it you’ll realize what great comedy was. You always hear that David Letterman and Jay Leno’s hero was Johnny Carson. And then you hear that Jon Stewart’s hero was David Letterman. I think it does trickle down to enough people that you have an appreciation for the art form. I think you see value in learning from the Lenny Bruces and George Carlins of the world who made it safe for everybody now. I think even young comedians appreciate that, and appreciate the comedy culture and how far we’ve come. It’s not going to be for everybody. But it’s going to be for a lot of people.

Sean: You see how good he talks?

You’re very good at it!

Todd: See? That’s what happens when you sleep with me.

On the topic of things that were once considered edgy and now aren’t and the evolution of taste levels over the year: one specific example is Will & Grace. There’s a different discourse surrounding gay people, gay humor, gay culture now than when it was on. The show is coming back to a different time. What kinds of considerations are there now in terms of the evolution of the kind of humor that would be acceptable?

Todd: That’s really interesting.

Sean: I’m going to be asked this for the next seven months, aren’t I? My quick answer is that I was an actor on the show and I’m still an actor on the show. I don’t write it and I never came at with an angle. My job was to play my character in the best way that I could and hopefully people will enjoy that. (Shrugs and laughs.)

Of course. But from a viewer’s standpoint: I loved the show. I love watching the show in reruns. But I’m curious, just as I’m sure you are, as to how it will be handled when it comes back.

Sean: You know, it’s going to do exactly the same thing it did before. So if you enjoyed the show before, it’s hopefully not going to be that different.

Todd: It’s funny. I saw a meme the other day. It said at midnight, at the inauguration, get ready America to set your clocks back 300 years. It was a very meme. And I was just thinking that we need reminders constantly like Will & Grace that the work is never done. And that people right now are harkening for a time that they think was probably a more romantic time, a safer time. But some of the same things that were the reasons that Will & Grace was the breakaway hit in 1998 are exactly the same things that we need Will & Grace to do again.

Sean: See, he can say that!

And go through it with these familiar people we know and love.

Todd: Exactly. These people I loved from 1998 through 2007, and I’m going to trust them again to help me through what I’m going through. That’s super important. I think it’s smart for Sean to say, “I’m an actor and I don’t have a platform.” But we’re lucky enough that he does have a platform because now is the time we need that platform.

Sean: Yes. But I like to deliver my message in the way I delivered it before. And there is no message. It’s always comedy first on Will & Grace. There was never any other agenda.

That’s part of its progressiveness. Watching gay people be funny in normalized situations: dating, work, friendships, etc.

Sean: That’s it. This is what they believed. And if you enjoyed watching them go through what they believed, then you’ll enjoy the show.

Todd: And hopefully changing a little bit of minds, even if that’s not part of that platform.

Sean: Yes, but not our priority.

Todd: Make America great.

Sean: Again.