When “Will & Grace” premiered in 1998, the biggest comedies were “Seinfeld,” “Veronica’s Closet” and “Friends.” It was the year President Bill Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The year that gave us Google. A time when the notion that young adults were spending less time with the television set was beginning to percolate.
And there were two writers, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, on the verge of helping to pave the way for LGBTQ characters on TV with a prime-time sitcom that featured two gay characters.
“Will & Grace” followed the friendship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) along with their kooky cohorts Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally).
The comedy, with its then-boundary-pushing portrayal of gay men, ran for eight seasons, racked up 16 Emmy Awards and was one of the ratings stalwarts of NBC’s venerated “Must See TV” era.
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“When the show wrapped, I moved to New York City and went to a therapist,” Mutchnick recalls. “The first thing I said to her was, ‘I’ve just finished a run of a popular television show called “Will & Grace,” and I’d like to figure out a way to not talk about it ever again.’”
So much for that.
These days, the show is all Mutchnick and Kohan talk about as the comedy gears up for its splashy return to NBC on Thursday, 11 years after the series went off the air. The sitcom’s second coming, featuring its original cast, is one of the network’s top assets this season, and its return underscores the value networks see in bringing familiar faces back into living rooms.
The 2.0 version of “Will & Grace” joins the list of flat-lined shows that have been resuscitated recently. Others include “Arrested Development,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Full House” and the upcoming “Roseanne.” But only “Will & Grace” has a comeback story with roots in the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton election.
A few months before last year’s election, Mutchnick rallied the troops for a video urging people to vote. The 10-minute bit, known as #VoteHoney, featured a pro-Trump Karen making cringe-worthy jokes and a pro-Clinton Grace trying to persuade Jack, undecided, to vote for Clinton.
“I remember reading the script to the election video, and I emailed Max and said, ‘Why can’t we just do the show again?’” Mullally recalls. “He emailed right back: ‘We can.’ Of course, neither of us knew what we were talking about. It was just wishful thinking, because when you end a show, you know that it’s forever, and you’ll never come back to do it again.”
But the response was quick and overwhelming, with the YouTube video notching up millions of views. NBC came calling.
“The minute I saw (the video), I thought, ‘It’s the show.’ It felt like the show had come back together,” says Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. “The four of them were incredible. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me … (And) it seemed like the right moment to bring back a show that comments very cleverly on pop culture and politics and the world in general.”
What started as a 10-episode revival season quickly evolved into a 16-episode revival season with a renewal already locked in.
The cast members, who had moved on to other projects after the show ended, say there was no hesitation about reviving their roles for a longer term.
‘I needed to laugh’
“Part of the reason I wanted to come back was because I felt like I needed to laugh,” says Messing, who stumped for Clinton. “The last year has been hard on everyone in this country.”
“You’re always told: You can’t go home again,” says McCormack, who juggled his return to the comedy with the Netflix time-travel drama, “Travelers.” “But we got to go home again. And the reason they say that is because it’s not going to be the same. But it was. I mean, it really was.”
In addition to Mutchnick and Kohan, three other writers from the original series (Tracy Poust, Jon Kinnally and Alex Herschlag) have returned to fill the 10-person writing staff. Director James Burrows, who helmed every episode of the comedy during its original run, has also resumed his duties.
But change has come in other ways. The original series arrived a year and a half after the “coming out” episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ ABC sitcom, “Ellen,” a landmark moment when few celebrities were out of the closet and there were no gay lead characters on television. Not everyone was receptive, resulting in a backlash that included advertiser boycotts and hate mail.
But “Will & Grace” continued the push and helped bring gay culture into the mainstream. Former Vice President Joe Biden credited “Will & Grace” for the nation’s shift on gay rights while discussing his endorsement of same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press” in 2012.
“Will & Grace” returns to a markedly different TV landscape and zeitgeist. Since it went off the air, gay marriage has been legalized. And many of the most popular TV shows — “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Empire” — now feature LGBTQ characters and stories.
Which prompts the question: Can a show that broke ground with its portrait of the gay community stand the test of time?
Mutchnick puts it this way: “If the show initially was something novel, now I think people will tune in because it’s familiar and it’s comfortable and it’s something that people associate with a happier time, maybe.”
So, no, there won’t be a drastic new approach to this incarnation.
The radical departure, instead, comes in how the revival picks up. When we left off, Will and Grace had both gotten married and had kids. Mutchnick and Kohan say figuring out how the show would resume was something they grappled with for weeks, ultimately deciding to hit the backspace on that ending.
‘Jackting’ and more
In the 2017 version, Will and Grace are single and living together in the same apartment. Jack lives across the hall, in all his no-knocking glory, and has created his own method of acting, trademarked as “Jackting,” since we last saw him. And Karen, her high pitch voice intact, is as inappropriate as ever.
“I always say, we never mature past high school,” Hayes says. “We all may look a little older, but at the core, the characters are the same, and they’re going to react the same to certain situations.”
While the revival was born out of a political idea, Mutchnick and Kohan say audiences won’t be hit over the head with politics.
“The show is as political as these characters are,” Kohan says. “It wasn’t about talking about the current administration. There are plenty of shows that do that and do that really well.”
The focus, instead, is on producing a show that will satisfy fan expectations. So don’t ask if the creators see a life for the show beyond these two seasons.
“If we started to think about a third season, it would be the fastest way to shut us down, because you would panic about ‘How am I going to think of things to say in Year 3 when I just want to say the right things in Year 1?’” Mutchnick says.
Maybe with some will and grace?
‘Will & Grace’ debuts at 9 p.m. Sept. 28 on NBC.