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Why ‘Will & Grace’s’ Big Gay Success Story Was So Unlikely
Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, and the cast of ‘Will & Grace’ on why their show worked at a time when America didn’t seem ready for a Big Gay Sitcom. (Thanks, Rupert Everett???)
In 2000, a wonderful thing happened. Sean Hayes, for playing a flaming homo, and Megan Mullally, as his hysterical fag hag, won well-deserved Emmy awards for their scene-stealing performances in Will & Grace. But then something unbelievable happened. Later that night, Will & Grace itself won Best Comedy Series.
(Over the course of the show’s original eight-season run—the revival begins on Thursday—Debra Messing and Eric McCormack would also win Emmys for their performances, joining Golden Girls and All in the Family as the only series in which the four main leads would all win Emmy Awards.)
“This award really gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘acceptance speech,’” Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick said, thrusting the Emmy statue in the air. “I think I finally met a girl I’d want to sleep with,” he’d also joke. It was the kind of award show frivolity we’d find hilarious today, but at the time, it was also revolutionary.
Sure, a year earlier Ellen DeGeneres came out in “The Puppy Episode” of her sitcom, but the entertainment press at the time was focused on how that ruined her career.
Ellen had just been canceled when Will & Grace was being developed by NBC. David Nevins, now president and CEO of Showtime and then of NBC, remembers being asked more than once, “What world do you live in to think Americans would watch this gay TV show?”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had just been passed. The AIDS plague on the gay community had only recently been declared over, famously by Andrew Sullivan. The Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on same-sex marriage for another nine years after Will & Grace’s original finale aired.
At that time, if a gay character appeared on TV it was as a long-suffering soul in a Very Special Episode centered on disease, suicide, bullying, tortured coming-outs, or self-loathing—or they were the effeminate punch line.
Will and Jack may have always been happy to laugh at themselves—as Megan Mullally tells The Daily Beast, the brilliance of the show was that “the characters of Jack and Will gay bashed each other more than anybody watching could.” But they were never tokens either.
“I think in these characters living their lives in an honest, open way, we showed viewers that gay people were part of the human race,” says Sean Hayes. “There is no difference between being straight and gay other than who you go to bed with. That’s it. I think people were surprised to learn that, and being surprised they also laughed along the way.”
Still, the fact that Will & Grace even made it to air on Sept. 21, 1998, let alone that people watched it and enjoyed it, is something so unlikely that, two decades later on the eve of its revival, we’re still marveling at it and wondering how it happened.
At its peak (a 2002 episode in which Matt Damon masqueraded as a gay chorus boy), 25 million people watched it each week. For context, that’s twice the amount of people who watched the recent Game of Thrones finale live. It even won the People’s Choice Award in 2005 for Favorite Television Comedy, and, perhaps more unbelievably, in 1999 for Favorite New Television Comedy.
What was it about that show and these characters that was, despite all the political and social cues, primed for a cultural moment?
Why Rupert Everett Might Be to Thank for All of This
Warren Littlefield, who was the president of NBC entertainment during the height of its Must See TV reign of glory, was the show’s biggest champion from inception to iconic status. In his book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, he recounts that he had floated the idea of a similar show—gay guy and straight girl are best friends—in the ’80s. “As I recall, [the response was] ‘Get the fuck out of here,’” he writes.
A decade later, writing partners Max Mutchnick and David Kohan had written a pilot script with a similar idea, with a gay guy-straight girl friendship loosely based on Mutchnick and his best friend, Janet.
“I thought that’s something that intrigues me, that amuses me,” Kohan remembers. “Why wouldn’t everybody else feel that way? That was really our thinking. If we like it, why wouldn’t other people like it?”
It turns out that other people did find that relationship amusing, at least in a tangential way. My Best Friend’s Wedding was a massive box office hit that year and made Rupert Everett a breakout star, thanks to his endearing turn as Julia Roberts’ gay best friend.
They actually referenced the movie in their pitches, Kohan says: “Look, this is a thing! It’s a relationship that’s out there in the culture. But more significantly, we know it, and can write about it. I guarantee you it’s interesting and fun and funny.”
More, a show that launches with the audience already aware that the characters are gay has an advantage Ellen didn’t have.
“Because of the fact that Ellen’s character came out as gay once the show had already been established, then they had to address it in every episode,” Mullally says. “You couldn’t just go back to hijinx at the bowling alley, so it became politicized. Then along comes Will & Grace where two of the four main characters are gay people. And yet, it’s just an aspect of their lives. It wasn’t politicized. It was a subject for humor, comedy.”
In a world of oral histories and nostalgic tributes, the origin stories of Will & Grace are well-known by this point.
Mutchnick and Kohan had heard that NBC was looking for a romantic comedy to replace Mad About You, the Helen Hunt-Paul Reiser sitcom that was going off air. Groomed on the ultimately unsuccessful sitcom Boston Common, they pitched a series about three couples, one of which would be Will and Grace-like characters. Littlefield suggested that they scrap the other couples and build the show around them.
They were both thrilled and skeptical. Mutchnick remembers at one time in the development process his agent wondered if he could go back and make Will straight again. Internally, NBC’s West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, would scoff at the project as Grace & Gay, which was hardly a vote of confidence to the young writers. It would’ve been crippling, if they weren’t so simultaneously sure it could work.
Kohan had once worked as an assistant to Sidney Pollack, who would end up playing Will’s dad in the series. Pollack had unforgettable advice for Kohan: “I’d only ever made love stories, and the love story ends when the boy and the girl kiss. So the story is only as good as the obstacles preventing the boy and the girl from kissing.”
Turns out, they had a story like that.
As most gay men will tell you, then or now, the straight girl best friend who fills your life with all of the emotional intimacy and aggravating mania of a spouse is certainly an evergreen concept. (This writer went so far as to make a tall, thin redhead his Grace.)
“In television, historically when there’s a man and a woman who are the titular leads, the whole question is when will it happen?” Messing says. “From day one, you knew it was never going to happen with them. So it was sort of like, OK, all bets are off. All rules about storytelling are off. I think that made people sit back and exhale, but also lean in and think, ‘Wait a minute. What is it going to be then?’ That might have been part of the allure.”
Assembling the Beatles of Gay Sitcoms
Each of the cast members had their own dramatic journeys to getting cast in the show, and the series’ own journey from pilot to broadcast was understandably hectic for something so groundbreaking.
McCormack was playing a character that had just been completely axed from The Jenny McCarthy Show when he was offered the part of Will.
Marin Hinkle, perhaps best known as Jon Cryer’s ex-wife on Two and a Half Men, had been attached as Grace, but Littlefield desperately wanted Messing, who had been starring on the canceled drama series Prey. Messing was so burnt out from the series and reluctant to sign onto anything else that, even up until her meeting with the legendary James Burrows, the network was still auditioning Nicollette Sheridan as a backup.
Mullally was originally so unenthused by the Karen role she almost didn’t show up for the audition. After getting cast, she instantly thought the now-signature high-pitched voice would be perfect for the character, but knew she would be fired immediately if she did it in the pilot. So she slowly dialed up Karen’s voice over the course of the first season, estimating that it was around Episode 10 that it hit its now-recognizable peak.
“My instinct right now is to keep it a little more subtle,” she laughs when asked about how high Karen’s voice would be in the revival. “I think you can lay back on things and have more of an impact sometimes. And I’m sure there will be times where I’m screaming like a banshee, but my impulse right now is to keep it pretty chilly.”
Then there’s Jack.
The original Will & Grace pilot had Will and Jack fused into one character. Sean Hayes had been interested in auditioning for Will, but was at the Sundance Film Festival promoting his first big role, in Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, and couldn’t afford to change his plane ticket back to L.A.— furthermore, he wanted to relish his breakout moment in Park City.
When he got back to Los Angeles and his agent sent him in for the built-out role of Jack, he killed so hard they had him audition twice, just to be entertained. (The late Alexis Arquette, who was then Robert, was also up for the role.)
“Showing two gay men who weren’t lovers was brilliant,” says McCormack. “They were never going to be lovers. They weren’t the easy, ‘Oh, that nice couple.’”
And that they were so different was the icing on the cake.
“One represented the world of the gay man that America thinks they know better,” he says. “Jack’s a queen and he’s out and he’s proud. But Will was the one they hadn’t really seen before, and if they had, they maybe didn’t recognize it. Maybe he’s their lawyer. Maybe he’s the guy they know down at the supermarket. The ‘straight acting’ one, to use an expression. We got to see the gay world from two different perspectives.”
At First, Audiences Couldn’t Tell Will Was Gay…
Of course, it took a while for the thing we now find so revolutionary about Will & Grace to materialize.
McCormack has routinely joked that after his audition, he was told he’d never have to act any gayer than he did that day as Will. The effect for so much of America was that here was this guy you knew, who could be your next-door neighbor, and he happened to be gay. It was the thing Joe Biden was referencing when he credited the series with moving Americans toward accepting same-sex marriage.
The funny thing is that when NBC first tested the series and showed the pilot’s opening scene, in which Will and Grace are on the phone both talking about how attractive they think George Clooney is, audiences didn’t realize the character was gay. That was how unlikely it was at that time for a male lead of a sitcom to be a gay.
Any nerves that might have given Kohan and Mutchnick—or Littlefield, who was championing the show at the executive level—pause passed when James Burrows, the Taxi and Cheers legend, gave the series his blessing by requesting to direct the pilot. (And, eventually, the entire series, including the revival.) When Littlefield finally screened the first episode for executives, they gave it a standing ovation. One suit told him it was the best thing the network had ever done.
Still, there were cold feet.
There was a blip in which McCormack, worried about his career being limited if he was defined as the gay guy from that sitcom, withdrew from the show. (Though not for long.) In the end, it was the perfect marriage of character and actor, even if he had to shake some nerves first.
“Most of my friends were gay,” he says. “I was called gay from an early age by the assholes at school. It was always a world and role that I felt very comfortable in. I played a number of gay characters before Will. While taking on the title character and all of that was nerve-wracking at the time, it was a very easy fit for me. And it got easier and easier.”
He credits, too, the gay community’s warm response, when they didn’t have to be as kind as they were. “They could’ve very easily done that thing of, ‘Oh, he’s the straight actor, we don’t buy it.’ And they didn’t,” he says. “They always understood that possibly my being straight, the character being more straight acting compared to Jack, was going to allow more people to invite us into their living room that wasn’t going to happen.”
Anecdotally, he was exactly right.
Messing remembers early on encountering a woman at a Midwest airport who cooed, “Grace!” when she saw her. Her introduction started alarmingly: “OK, my husband hates gays…” But then she continued a story about how, at first, he wouldn’t even come into the room when she had Will & Grace on. Then he came in but would hide behind the newspaper. Then she’d hear him laughing from behind the paper. Eventually, he was walking around the house going, “Just Jack!”
Why We Still Need Will & Grace Today
It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing.
McCormack fielded some heat early on for Will’s “gayness” not being gay enough, as evidenced by the reaction to that opening scene. “Well, he wasn’t supposed to be, because a lot of gay men aren’t,” he says. “That allowed people in. Once they realized Will was an out and proud gay man not living according to the clichés, I think that did a lot of good, and it was a message I was comfortable delivering.”
Messing, too, stewed until the last possible moment (and a point on the backend in her contract) before signing on for the series, proposing a Sliding Doors scenario for her life that would seem almost unfathomable at this point. She currently serves as Global Ambassador for HIV/AIDS at Population Services International, and earlier this year won GLAAD’s Excellence in Media Award for her work on behalf of the LGBTQ community.
Now, she says the show “feels like it’s part of the reason why I’m here.” When she was in graduate school, she watched her acting teacher die of AIDS. (Her son is named after him.) “So before Will & Grace, when I had absolutely nothing, I was like, if I’m going to be able to give anything it will be to try to make sure that no one has to follow down the same path that he did and suffer in that way needlessly,” she says. “When Will & Grace showed up, it felt like, well of course. Of course this showed up into my life.”
Much has changed since the show debuted in 1998, and certainly in the 11 years since it went off air.
Politically, LGBTQ rights are at risk under a new administration; the president refused to acknowledge LGBTQ Pride Month. But then there’s the pop culture progress, too. Countless gay characters have followed in the footsteps of Will and Jack, and, while few if any have been leads of a series, they have certainly been embraced.
“I don’t think it’s as much of a story anymore, which is a positive thing,” Hayes says. “I don’t think them being gay is the focal point anymore. Now it’s going to be about other things that affect gay people: work equality, the fact that Trump just announced the trans military ban. There’s many gifts to comedy that come out of Washington every day. And as many gifts to comedy that come out of other social movements too, not just political, that are going to be gifts to the show that we have the fortunate opportunity to shed light on.”
And Jack is always ready to seize his spotlight.