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1998: Will & Grace Premieres

1998: Will & Grace Premieres

Will & Grace
Courtesy NBC

“Just Jack” and the show’s creators discuss its seminal first episode and their plans for its highly anticipated reboot.

For 25 years, OUT has celebrated queer culture. To mark our silver jubilee, we look back at some of the biggest, brightest moments of the past 9,131 days.

On September 21, 1998, NBC introduced the world to Will Truman, Grace Adler, Jack McFarland, and Karen Walker. This funny fab four would become a part of TV history, garnering numerous accolades and devotees, but at the time of its premiere, Will & Grace wasn't a surefire hit. Earlier that year, Ellen had been canceled after its titular heroine, played by Ellen DeGeneres, came out, and its tone became "too gay" for audiences. Will & Grace, then, was uncharted territory: An openly gay man had never been a protagonist on a network show. But under the stewardship of creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the assured direction of veteran James Burrows, and the stellar cast of Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally, Will & Grace broke ground and won hearts. So much so, the show is returning for not one, but two new seasons, nearly 10 years after its final bow. Here, Hayes, Kohan, and Mutchnick reminisce on bringing their trailblazing comedy to--and back to--life.

On the Show's Origins:

David Kohan: NBC came to me and Max and said, Mad About You is off the air. We could use another romantic comedy.

Max Mutchnick: So, we wrote a show about three couples, but Will and Grace was the couple that David and I understood the most. He and I have been hanging out since we were about 14, and Janet, my Grace, was my girlfriend, for all intents and purposes, throughout high school. And then in college I told her about a little secret I'd been keeping.

DK: I remember in the original pilot, the idea was that there were these two other couples and they had their problems. And the best--the two that were the most communicative, that had the most solid foundation, that had the most in common, and genuinely adored each other the most--were Will and Grace. They were the ideal couple. But the problem was that it wasn't going to be a romantic relationship.

MM: In the very first draft of Will & Grace, in the very first act, Will and Jack were one character. But when we finished that act, we realized that he was too schizophrenic. He was two people. He embodied too much. So we went back to the drawing board. We started over, and that's how Will and Jack became two people.

Finding Jack:

Sean Hayes: They were interested in me for Will way, way early on.

MM: We didn't know they'd talked to Sean about coming in and reading for the part of Will. We thought he was coming to read for Jack. Our audition with Sean was a once-in-a-career experience where you've written a character and an actor walks in and really brings it to life in exactly the way you imagined it, in its best possible form.

SH: I'd never done a television show before. I'd done a lot of commercials and little spots. I was just happy for the pilot. I was a young actor in Los Angeles, and I could say, "I booked a pilot. I'm fancy." I was just happy to be working.

MM: Nobody had any idea he was as inexperienced as he was. We thought we were working with an old pro.

SH: I think the common denominator for us is we all have a big background in theater. People forget that multi-cams are theater. They're just filmed. I think if you have that background, it makes you feel relaxed around the sitcom form. You use the tools you learned.

On Creating the Pilot:

MM: The first time we read the script was at my house in the Hollywood Hills. I remember being told by business peers that we couldn't read the script that day unless Debra Messing signed her contract, so Debra signed for the part of Grace in my second bedroom. They all came over, we ate a little bit, and we read around the dining room table. From the start, it was very clear that this was going to work.

DK: Jimmy [director James Burrows] also knew early on that we had something. He'd been around for so long. There's the old joke that he's had his hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist. [Laughs]

MM: In fact, when we shot the pilot, he came to us one day after rehearsal and said he thought that we should shut down for a couple of days. And this is an absurd notion if you're making a pilot. Your days are so valuable. You want to use every minute of every day. But Jimmy had been watching the thing and the script process and the actors, and he felt if we used every single day, the show would be overripe by the time we filmed.

DK: I think he was a little nervous about it, too, because we were not flaunting the gay aspect of the show. I remember the tagline was "They're not a couple. They're a couple of friends."

MM: When we tested the pilot, some people didn't know Will was gay. Half the test audience filled out their questionnaire and said, "I really hope the boy and the girl get together." It was just unbelievable to us how unfamiliar this dynamic was to them. So, we worked in Will's boyfriend, who was a person named Michael.

DK: I remember we also wrote in the cold open a scene where it's just Will and Grace on the phone --

MM: Poring over George Clooney. And people still didn't pick up on it. It was only when it was pointed out to them that they remembered to hate. It didn't come naturally to them.

On the New Will & Grace Reboot:

MM: In times like this, you want to be laughing. You want something that takes you away from the seriousness of life. And we've always thought of this show and the experience of watching this show as comfort food. And we've really not changed the recipe. We're serving up the same dish, just doing it in 2017.

DK: I'm just excited that these characters get to be resurrected. I feel like Max--you want a familiar face and a familiar sound now, as things in this country seem increasingly unfamiliar.

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