When “Will and Grace” premiered 20 years ago, Debra Messing was nervous. “When we came on, we knew that we were trying to do something risky,” she says.
Messing remembers thinking that audiences wouldn’t be ready for a sitcom featuring a gay lead and a gay supporting character, and that there was a good chance NBC would pull the show after three episodes. Her co-star Eric McCormack, on the other hand, was much more confident, she says.
“I distinctly remember after the pilot, sitting with Eric in the double chair on the set in front of the TV, and him turning to me and saying, ‘I think we’re going to be around for a long time.’ And I turned to him and I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yes,'” Messing said.
Looking back 20 years later, McCormack was right. After a successful eight-season run on the Peacock Network, “Will and Grace” returned in 2017 with Season 9 — it was one of the first series to be brought back in a TV landscape now teeming with revivals and reboots — getting critical acclaim and a renewal for Season 10, which premieres Oct. 4, and Season 11, which will air in fall 2019.
To celebrate 20 years of Will, Grace, Karen and Jack, TheWrap caught up with creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan and stars Messing and McCormack to look back on early nerves, favorite moments from the original, and how the show has grown up.
TheWrap: When the show premiered, what set it apart from the rest of NBC’s lineup?
Max Mutchnick: Well I think the thing that made it stand out from the night it originally was programmed, I think that the unique thing about it on that night was it was the only show that was good. We were actually programmed originally on a Monday night on a thing… that the marketing department had created at NBC and I always found it a little bit insulting to everybody. You know, to women, to gay people, just kind of across the board, to the intelligence of America. And we were in there as a girls’ television show, and it just, it never felt right. I thought we were just a good comedy that was in the brand of NBC and so we should be treated like everybody else.
David Kohan: I mean the other thing, obviously, was the subject matter and just how good these actors were. The show had two gay leads, which was novel, and just the skillset of these particular actors seemed special.
MM: From the week that we shot the pilot, it was very clear to everyone involved that we were dealing with a cast that was exceptional. We didn’t see that coming. We didn’t realize how fantastic they would be as a foursome, as an ensemble.
DK: Those four together, and also in these particular roles. Yes. Everybody fed off of everybody else, everybody felt kind of challenged, they had to be at their best because the person next to them was so good. And they liked each other, so there’s a genuine chemistry that sort of translated on the screen because it was present off-screen.
MM: And something that people don’t know is that the four of them say a prayer before every show, that only the four of them know what that prayer is. And they have done that now for 20 years. It’s kind of amazing if you’re privileged enough to be backstage behind the curtain before they’re introduced to the audience, to see the way that they huddle, they stand, the four of them face each other, their foreheads kind of lean into one another and they hold hands. And they say this thing, and they still do it. It’s still sacred to them. And they’ve done it in good times and in bad times. And it really speaks to what David is saying, the [closeness] of the four of them.
Debra Messing: Well, I think the most obvious thing, was that we had a male lead, leading character, that was gay. And a supporting character that was gay. But the leading character I think was the most revolutionary. Ellen [DeGeneres] obviously was the pioneer for that, but she had come out in her real life and then, unfortunately, fans of the show weren’t ready for the character to be gay and the show ended up going off the air. So when we came on, we knew that we were trying to do something risky. We didn’t know if it was going to be accepted or not. I distinctly remember after the pilot, sitting with Eric in the double chair on the set in front of the TV and him turning to me and saying, ‘I think we’re going to be around for a long time.’ And I turned to him and I said, ‘Really?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ And I did not have that confidence. I really felt like there was a very good chance that we would be, you know, pulled off the air after, you know, three episodes. Because, you know, half the cast — the characters were gay. And happily, that didn’t happen… I think really it’s a testament to the writers because the writers… created four characters that were compelling and funny and charming and you know, they didn’t make it about being gay. You know, the sexual identity was just a fact and it was really just about four friends living their lives. So the writers allowed the audience to fall in love with the characters and once they did, then the writers were able to write more, you know, gay-specific comedy that perhaps would have been too radical in the first few episodes.
Eric McCormack: Well I mean, you know, the obvious answer is ah, there were two gay characters, and that was very much what the show was about. What the framework, though, was very much the same and that’s what mattered to me. I know for myself in the early ’90s I was all about “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You,” and eventually “Friends.” That Must-See TV thing had become so dominant, and I just wanted in. By ’96, ’97, I was auditioning all the time. And when I read this script I thought, well here’s an amazing thing. They’ve written something that just begs to be a Must-See show and has the feel the tone, and yet it’s glaringly different, because of the premise. And I think that was the thing. And I know initially NBC almost kind of wanted to soft-pedal it, they didn’t want to say, ‘Hey! Come be gay with us on Monday night!’ It was not that, but we, as a show, were not apologetic. That very first scene — I remember seeing it on the page, and I remember the first time we did it — I don’t think the audience knew what they were going to see. And it was great. We were on the phone. She was in her apartment, and I was sitting in the now-iconic apartment, and we were watching, I think we were watching ER together, and she says something about George Clooney and I said ‘yeah, me too.’ And it was such a big laugh because I don’t think that studio audience was aware that that’s what they were about to see. And so from scene one, moment one of the pilot, we said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna get this tone, you’re going to get this familiar territory, except this is [different]’… We shot that pilot in about two and a half hours, it just zipped by, and didn’t change a word. It was just there on the page and felt very special.
So Debra and Eric, what do you remember about first meeting everyone? Was there an immediate connection?
DM: You know, it was really pretty immediate. I think when we read… the pilot for the first time and we met each other for the first time, and we realized that, you know, that we really respected each other and appreciated each other, I think that started us off on the right foot. And then I think, you know, pretty immediately in rehearsals, we were all singing show tunes at some point. And it became clear that all of us actually got our start in the theater. And I think that’s the defining thing about our cast. We all started on the stage, we all come from, you know, that collaborative way of working and it was like a similar vocabulary and a similar work ethic that we recognize in each other.
EM: That was kind of a magical thing. I think we were and still are very different people — we live very different lives. Unlike a lot of casts that live out of each others’ lives outside of the camera. We just, we lived on that stage, and we were four goofy-ass children on that stage, we still are. But we don’t necessarily see each other a lot outside. So there was a kind of, almost an unspoken understanding of, this is precious, let’s not mess with this, when we’re here, this is our fan box and let’s have fun… Deb and I from the beginning, it was just like bang. That was it. We knew we’d found our dance partner, and that’s never changed.
Watching old episodes back, a lot of the storylines are still very relatable — like trying to find an affordable apartment in NYC, for example. Looking back with a 2018 lens, do you find anything less relatable now?
DK: From the initial thing, the things now are, getting older. Dealing with you know, not being you know, for jack, it’s not being the young hot sought-after guy. It’s easing into a different phase in your life. Dealing with divorces. Dealing with you know where you are right now and making peace with your lot in life. Which are themes that we didn’t really deal with back then. But we as writers we all find ourselves in those positions, and we write about the stuff that we know about, the characters happen to be our age basically, so these are the themes that are more central to our lives, and consequently more central to the lives of the characters.
MM: [It’s] much more interesting to write the show with grown-ups. We enjoy that we get to advance them. And because the actors are really comfortable with who they are right now, it’s a pleasure.
DM: Well I think the thing that stands out to me the most is how our lives have changed with technology. When we first got on the air, Will and Grace used an answering machine. And that was often an important part of the storytelling, you know. We would run home and there would be an important message from someone we were dating, or, you know, a message was accidentally erased, and obviously now, with cell phones — because we didn’t have cell phones 20 years ago — that I think is the thing that really makes the show feel anachronistic when you watch the old episodes. One of the things that was really exciting about coming back was ‘Oh, okay. Now we’re in the world of swipe left, swipe right dating. And so what will that be like for these people?’ So I think that was the thing that stands out the most for me.
EM: Well there’s no chance I would ever have the haircut that I had in the pilot again. I just wouldn’t let that happen, and hopefully people who love me wouldn’t let that happen either. The biggest one for me is that — I mean, I was raised on sitcoms, I couldn’t wait to find one that I could be on. Jim Burrows directs those are real fantasies of mine. And yet, when I go to Will, it took me awhile. I think Sean [Hayes] was Jack like, from moment one, and Debra pretty much found it. Megan [Mullally] and I took a little bit longer, but I really wasn’t comfortable with who Will was until much later in Season 1, sort of the beginning of Season 2. I think it’s cause initially, they were almost afraid to write him, cause he had to sort of carry this mantle of proud gay man but not effeminate… that gay man down the street you didn’t realize was gay, kinda. And it was — I was afraid to bring too much neuroses to him, and a lot of his humor was sort of that straight man response humor. So when I look at that first season, I see an actor still trying to find it. By the first episode of Season 2, I knew — not only did I have better hair — but I knew how to be Will. And so that’s the biggest takeaway for me when I look back.
What are some of your favorite scenes or episodes from the show’s original run?
MM: I think, you know, a standout for us has always been the [NOTE: Season 3] episode titled “Lows in the Mid-Eighties” and that would be a two-part episode about Will coming out to Grace and telling her that he was gay. That’s informed a lot of what the show is now.
DK: You know, let’s see. Yeah, “Lows in the Mid-Eighties” is a big one for me, but there, you know, there was something also about… [the water bra episode, titled “Das Boob”], for example, when you realize… that physical comedy was going to play a role in this, which we didn’t even necessarily consider as much… And also early on in that season, the season where Karen and Jack first met, it wasn’t necessarily that we even thought that the secondary characters were going to have a relationship and a life of their own, but we put them in a scene and saw the chemistry between the two of them and thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be an element.’ So it was those origins, the genesis episodes, you know, that these were foundational for physical comedy, these were foundational for the relationship between Jack and Karen, and that’s why they were important to me.
DM: One of my favorite scenes was the exploding water bra in the art gallery with Eric. That whole episode I think was definitely in my three, four episodes of all of them. And another favorite episode was doing the flashback episode when Will and Grace were dating in college. And the scene in the kitchen where he tells her he’s gay. And you know, I’m wearing that horrible bi-level wig and he’s wearing a mullet, and everything about it was just really, really fun.
EM: Oh, man. The hard part is we always give the same answers to questions like that because we can’t remember everything, you know? And then once in a while, I’ll see something on television — there’s an episode I’ve never seen repeated that I love. I don’t know why they haven’t shown it, but I haven’t seen it. And it’s called, ‘A Buncha White Chicks Sittin’ Around Talkin’.’ And it was just the four of us, there [were] no guest stars, and Debra and I were sitting on a therapist’s couch for the whole episode. You never see the therapist, you never hear the therapist. We just — it’s Deb and I working out our s— as roommates. And it’s just before we got to the whole trying to have a baby thing. And I love that. I just loved that episode, and I don’t think we ever made a mistake. It was like doing a play, it was very natural… Comedically, there was a moment [in another episode] where I was being bullied at work by the same guy that used to bully me on the schoolyard. He comes into the office when I’m putting on hand lotion and he says, ‘Are you lotioning?’ And I say ‘I was not lotioning!’ and at that moment my hands hit the desk and I smacked down and smashed my head. Comedically, that’s my favorite moment in the first few seasons.
In the pilot, there’s a conversation between Will and Grace, and Will tells Grace not to worry because the movie of her life is still only at intermission. How did that inform the show’s initial run? With the revival, do you feel like you’re back from intermission?
DK: Now, it’s not about so much the desperation to change your life or to make it or to figure out what your purpose is. It is more understanding where you are and finding what’s important about it and what’s good about it.
How have Will and Grace grown up?
DM: I think she’s just grown into a very just a confident, autonomous woman. When we met her, you know, she was ambitious — like she still is — and she was determined — and that’s still the case — but back when we met her she was really, really focused on finding, you know, her husband. Finding like, who’s the guy, who’s the guy that, you know, that she’s going to love and be with forever and have a baby with? And that’s just not a focus any more for her. I think that she has a very very successful work life, and she has a very rich personal life with her friends. And, you know, this year you see her dating and the way she’s dating is a completely different Grace. You know she really just, you know, she wants things to be clear, she wants things to be — she doesn’t want to waste her time. And I think that she’s grown into being a feminist. I think she’s really fine not being a mother, and I think she’s fine not being married, and she is happy with her life exactly the way it is.
EM: Well I think his natural desires sort of became the show’s mantra, which is that… it’s one thing to show someone who looks like Debra Messing not getting married for a while, like, okay, at some point you can’t believe it. But we had a gay man at the center, and it became political as well as personal after a while. It’s like, we can’t keep having him not find love when clearly we’ve set him up — it’s one thing for Jack; Jack only wants to sleep with guys and not settle down, but Will clearly wants to settle down. It’s one of the key things that we showed America. Here’s a different kind of gay man: this one doesn’t march in a parade, this one actually wants to buy the house beside you and raise kids and be your neighbor. And that was political in and of itself… And yet, here we were not settling him down. So we had to eventually have him find some love…. He found it with Bobby Cannavale, so to — obviously we couldn’t afford to bring Bobby back for more than one episode, but that was also a political decision, particularly on Max Mutchnick’s part to say, I don’t want to say that a man, a successful gay man in his late forties, has to be in a partnership to be perceived as successful personally. And so we created Will last year as a guy who’s been through that. He’s been through his own divorce, and was okay with it, and was looking forward to dating some younger men, and to being himself. And I think that’s been our political statement this year, was him, is as much as we never want to lose the neuroses of anybody searching for love, we don’t make that his dominant gene. His dominant gene is I’m proud of who I am, and the right one will come along. And comedically I prefer that. Whenever we have a new character on the show because we have to have a partner, it just changes the makeup of the show… I love that there’s a certain confidence to Will despite the fact that he’s older.
These interviews were edited for length and clarity.