THE FIRST GAY SHOW TO SUCCEED IN PRIME TIME IS NOT ONLY LAUGH-OUT-LOUD-FUNNY, IT’S CHANGING PERCEPTIONS OF SEXUALITY.
Primetime Special Emmy Magazine
Volume XXIII, Number 3
by John Griffiths
Above Photograph: Alberto Tolot
Little kids are watching. That realization doesn’t make the four stars of Will & Grace paranoid, but it does give them goosebumps.
“At first it was gay couples telling us how much they appreciated the show, then it was people telling us how it helped them come out,” says Eric McCormack, who plays sardonic Will on what might be NBC’s greatest saving grace right
now (after all, the sitcom did take home the Emmy for best comedy series last year). “Now,” says McCormack, “twelve-year-olds with absolutely no malice wave hi at me on the street. They tell me Will & Grace is their favorite show. It’s amazing.”
Debra Messing, known to millions as sweet interior designer Grace, can top that. In New York’s Central Park, reading children’s stories at a pediatric AIDS benefit not long ago, “seven-year-olds were telling me, ‘I love Will & Grace’” the engaging actress says. “That stuns me. If these kids can accept [the gay characters], that bodes really well for the future.”
And Sean Hayes, the sprightly actor who’s prone to blow bubble gum and who plays Will’s out-there buddy Jack — perhaps the most unashamed gay character in the history of American television — was thrown when he heard his name used in a Jeopardy!question recently. But that wasn’t nearly as affecting as hearing one of the characters in the spring flick Josie and the Pussycats make a passing reference to Will & Grace’s popularity. “This was a teen movie,” says Hayes. “When I go to a movie, I turn my brain off and forget everything. But then suddenly I’m reminded I’m part of this great thing.”
Megan Mullally, who in person is much more contemplative than her champagne- swilling sass machine, Karen, sums it up this way: “It’s been interesting from the start, but this year was wild, yeahhh.”
Yeahhh, indeed. In this anxiety-inducing, humanity-questioning era of power crises, hair-by-the-chinny-chin-chin strike threats and just-when-ya-thought-he-was-okay Robert Downey Jr. downers, it’s more than nice to be able to point to a television show that’s changing the way people think and act for the better. Reports of gay bashings are on the rise, which social workers take as a good sign — the theory being that the incidents themselves are not increasing, but people are more inclined to speak out. Meanwhile, straight men seem more inclined to seek affirmation from gay guys — i.e., “Does my butt look okay in these jeans?”
To say that Will & Grace has had a part in any thawing is not too much of a stretch, considering 20 million or so viewers — including everyone from conservative Midwest moms to what Mullally calls “burly straight key grips” who have told her their wives and girlfriends got them watching– are giving the show the thumbs-up each week in its coveted Thursday-night slot.
Those numbers are all the more impressive considering how grim the series’ chances looked when it joined NBC’s withering Monday night schedule back in 1998. Coming off Caroline and the City was one problem, coming way out another. While ABC’s Ellen had drawn tramloads of viewers to the titular character’s — and, in a way, the star’s — sexual awakening, many hopped out as the aftermath became more sturm-und-drang than sitcom. And the last NBC show to center on a gay character was the early ’80s Tony Randall dud Love, Sidney, which watered down its subject’s sexuality so much that it wasn’t even mentioned.
Adding to the inertia was the fact that Will & Grace’s cast was made up of virtual unknowns (though Messing had been paired in Fox’s cult fave Ned and Stacey, another sitcom with an offbeat-couple premise). All things considered, the fact that Will even willed its way onto the tube was a marvel.
“At the beginning, we were uncertain of how things would go, so we just looked at it as a good fight to fight,” Messing says. “I’m still amazed that nothing’s been compromised along the way.” Executive producer David Kohan says that unflinching mindset is what has ensured the show’s success. “We’ve never felt the need to apologize for these characters, and people have followed our lead,” says Kohan.
He created the show with fellow exec producer Max Mutchnick, who boasts a friendship with a Grace-like pal that dates back to the trio’s days at Beverly Hills High. In high school, the two young men swapped favorite-sitcom influences (drama student Mutchnick liked subversive shows like Mary Hartman, while jock Kohan went for Brady Bunch reruns), and a few years after graduating, they decided to tackle writing specs. After landing staff gigs and graduating to show-running the under- rated Boston Common they yearned to lend “a fresh spin” to the sitcom, says Mutchnick, “and that gay man-straight woman friendship seemed like compelling material. It was like a romantic comedy, only the lovers had one insurmountable obstacle.”
The show’s increasing popularity — its audience average among adults eighteen to forty-nine grew 87 percent on its move from a Tuesday slot to Thursdays last year — seems to be a case of kismet. “People haven’t seen these type of relationships before,” Hayes says. “It’s all about timing, because they do exist everywhere.” Messing may know that better than anyone. “I’ve had a lot of women come up and say, ‘I’m Grace,’ and men say, ‘My Grace is at home.’ I can’t tell you how much it means to me to play a character that’s struck a nerve in such a meaningful way. That doesn’t happen very often.”
“We’ve been lucky,” adds McCormack. “But more than that, it’s heartening to know that we can appeal to so many people and still be true.”
And the biggest truism that sets apart this otherwise classic four-character sitcom?
“All four characters wanna kiss men,” says Jim Burrows, the veteran sitcom director who has helped guide the likes of Taxi, Cheers and now Will & Grace. While the four- some make that desire abundantly clear, Will & Grace doesn’t “make an issue of sexuality,” says Hayes. “It just shows these people for who they are.” Gone are the days where topical sitcoms like Maude and All in the Family had “special episodes” with gay revelations (actually, they’re not so long gone; a recent, almost quaint episode of Becker had the doc deal with his godson’s coming out). Freed by the groundbreaking Ellen, Will & Grace has taken TV’s portrayal of gay characters up a big notch by making their gayness secondary to funnyness.
Sure, Will will deal righteously with the occasional relationship with a closeted sportscaster (Patrick Dempsey’s turn this past season), but the show perhaps makes more of a statement by not making a statement each week. “We’re not writing to the left or the right,” says Mutchnick, who points out the show has nabbed both GLAAD honors and People’s Choice awards. “We’re making a comedy that we want to appeal to as many people as possible.”
In other words, this ain’t ShowTime. Though gay fans flock to Thursday-night viewing parties at favorite hangouts like Casita del Campo, a Mexican restaurant in L.A.’s Sllverlake’ area that double-bills the evening with a tarot card reader in drag, Will & Grace by virtue of its network genetics, “isn’t a niche show,” says McCormack. A Toronto native whose favorite show as a kid was the popcorny Get Smart, he’s happy to clarify, “It’s much broader than that.” Case in point: the now-legendary “water-bra episode” in which Grace’s said liquid-filled bra springs a leak at an inopportune moment. “I was soaking wet, but it was pure joy,” gushes Messing, an NYU drama grad who grew up in Brooklyn and New England idolizing slapstick queen Lucille Ball.
Despite the appreciation of the cast and producers for Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, the show obviously isn’t always an exercise in — umm — dry wit. “Even though we’re not afraid to be attuned to gay culture,” says McCormack, “we’re also not always about that.” Indeed, ‘Will & Grace resonates most when it finds the humor in the frailties of best friendships, the bittersweetess in the worries of some- day growing apart or being replaced by a sudden love (most recently in the form of Woody Harrelson, who was brought in as Grace’s love interest at the end of this past season).
But if there’s never been a show before like Will & Grace, it’s because there’s never been a sitcom character like Jack. “To me, he’s a totally different character, so hyperactive,” says Burrows, who directed Andy Kaufman back on Taxi. When it comes to helming the Emmy-winning Hayes, he adds, “I’m just the editor.”
Any good show with gays has to have an unflagging gay sensibility, which Jack — and the whole series, in fact — have in spades. With those tearjerker moments has come Audrey Hepburn-worthy style (starting with the sophisticated but playful ampersand that brings the characters together in the show’s opening credits), pop culture references to the likes of Britney Spears, campy mincings, blatant bitchiness, Ab Fab-level partying, and diva appearances extraordinaire (Joan Collins and Cher).
Then there’s that unheard-of- for-net-TV bawdiness. Though McCormack says, “Of course, we have boundaries that cable doesn’t,” Will & Grace is pushing the line and turning it around. These kids don’t go for the chestnut Three’s Company double-entrendre. Noooo. When a hormone-happy Karen read the naughty “homoerotic literature” that Jack pecked out earlier this year, she hubba-uttered things that could actually pass for blue fiction. “I’m surprised at how dirty the jokes are that get on,” says Mullally, an Oprah Club book reader whose roots are in conservative Oklahoma City. Says Mutchnick: “From day one, we’ve been allowed to do what we want.”
And in this sitcom of the new millennium, the fab four may even linger knowingly after tossing those double-entendres, much like performers in a vampy review. “It’s totally intentional,” says McCormack. “Just like the audience, we all grew up on comedies. Everyone knows where the badda-bum is, so we tend to comment on it.” Like a surreal Magritte painting, “we’re inside and out of the sitcom structure because even Will and Grace know it would be too easy to fall into cliches. We have to be smarter and surprise people.”
Such on-your-toes energy has gained Will & Grace a reputation for being one of the most fast-flying, fun sets in television. Here, writers won’t budge (there have been additions but no turnovers in the show’s three years), and all four cast members are happy to banter and drop drawers. “A lot of those jokes, crazy faces and sounds are impromptu, not rehearsal,” says Mullally. “It’s like a party.”
“We sing a lot on the set, hop on top of the piano,” adds McCormack, who has nabbed lilting reviews for his starring turn as The Music Man on Broadway this year. Messing has doo- wopped “Love Will Keep Us Together” with McCormack on the show, the Chicago suburb-born Hayes hit the ivories at age five and started his career as a musical director, while Mullally has done How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway and has more recently put up a one-woman, avant-garde musical review. “All that harmony comes across on the show,” says Burrows. “These people are happy with each other in real life.”
There is one high note that the show has yet to hit: an all-out romance for Will, who is after all a good-hearted, good-looking, successful lawyer. While it may be a surprise — and disappointment — to some that the WB teen drama Dawson’s Creek beat Will and Jack to the smack with a brief guy-guy kiss last May, McCormack for one is confident Will — as critical and fastidious as he can be — will fall in bed with the right guy. “He’s a good catch, and someone will catch him eventually,” says McCormack. Though NBC and the producers have been noncommittal, it’s increasingly hard to doubt him, for the show’s hit status even opposite CBS’s new smash C.S.L is a sign the show will be around a while.
Kiss or not, Will & Grace has engendered a lot of love — and inspiration. Since the series hit, Fox was emboldened to go gay with the John Goodman vehicle Normal, Ohio and CBS whipped up the he’s straight/he’s gay spin Some of My Best Friends. Though those shows fizzled, the nets aren’t giving up as easily as they might’ve years ago; CBS is shepherding Say Uncle, a potential fall show with Ken Olin playing a gay man helping raise a nephew and niece.
Perhaps preemptively,Will’s creators had a little shock for viewers — and Jack — in the season finale: it seems sitcomland’s least-likely paternal character donated his unique genetic code to a sperm bank years back, and the son he never knew popped in to promise plenty of playful plots for next season. “It’s a great way to ground the character,” says Kohan.
By its mere nature — and nurture — Will & Grace continues to make TV history. Which is why its stars can’t wait to get back to year four. Hayes understates that it will be “interesting” to see Jack play dad. Messing, who just wrapped a part as Woody Allen’s girlfriend in the director’s next movie, will push for more big schtick (“They have to pull me back sometimes,” she giggles). Mullally, who just notched a turn as a trailer-park vixen in the upcoming satirical feature Uncle, toasts Karen as “a slightly fabulous survivor in the pantheon of gay icons” — a character so embedded in gay culture that the West Hollywood video bar Revolver bookends Karen clips to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”
And while the in-tune McCormack is thrilled to say he is subletting on Broadway right now, Will is after his heart. “He’s a terrific character,” says the actor. “He has leading-man qualities that aren’t hampered by macho tendencies.”
Mutchnick and Kohan are eager to start up, too. “We went for it with this show, and now sometimes we find ourselves alone in our office laughing,” says Kohan. “It’s hard to believe we’re the same losers that went to high school together.”
Losers? Hardly. Kohan tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who wrote them that he had come out to his parents by showing them a tape of the episode in which Jack does the same to his mom. “After they watched the tape, the boy wrote that his parents looked at him with love and said, ‘We get it.’”
JOHN GRIFFITHS is a Los Angeles freelance writer.
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