In “Coffee and Commitment,” the 11th episode of the third season of Will & Grace, the titular characters are setting up the A-story—their friends Joe and Larry are having a pre-marriage-equality commitment ceremony, which brings to light Will’s (Eric McCormack) growing tension over his relationship with Grace (Debra Messing)—when Jack (Sean Hayes) comes barreling in with the B-story.
“Hey, friends, lovers, mothers, and other strangers, you're never going to believe what happened to me!” the words coming at a million miles per second. “I have met—Are you ready for this? Mr. Right. Well, Mr. Right-Now, anyway. Ba-da-bum! Good night, folks, I'm here all week! Jack 2000!”
Jack’s infatuated with the barista at the Jumpin’ Java who gives him free iced coffee whenever he comes in—”which is every hour on the hour, thank you very much, and occasionally on the half hour!”—hence why he’s causing a caffeinated commotion.
Were it for that scene alone this would be one of my favorite Will & Grace episodes. As a performer, Hayes’s impressive physical and verbal dexterity is the stuff sitcom legends are made of.
“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,” WaG co-creator Max Mutchnick told Out for our 25th anniversary issue. “Nobody had any idea he was as inexperienced as he was. We thought we were working with an old pro.”
Watching Hayes and Megan Mullally as Karen bitch-slapping each other later on in the episode at the commitment ceremony—a series of blocks followed by a series of blows followed by shoulders slumped in exhaustion followed by a few more slaps for the road—is akin to watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide over the dancefloor in Swing Time or Top Hat.
The grace, the elegance, the impeccable timing. It’s all there. So “Coffee and Commitment” may not be just one of my favorite episodes of Will & Grace—when the dust clears, it might actually be my favorite—it’s also one of Sean Hayes’s. That, he says, and “A Chorus Lie,” featuring Matt Damon as an undercover straight (with a preternatural love of showtunes) competing with Jack for a spot in the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
The latter remains the highest-rated episode in the show’s history, but tonight, the gang returns (finally!) to make some more television history with its ninth season.
“I’m excited, personally, to be around my friends and be laughing everyday,” Hayes says, “but I’m also excited about giving the fans what they seem to want which is really, really great stories that dig even deeper into these characters’ lives.”
Jack, the 47-year-old actor insists, is the character “most unchanged, in the best way” since the show went off the air in 2006, though Hayes did reveal that his alter ego has picked up at least one new trick: “Jack has trademarked a new acting technique called ‘Jackting’ and he teaches that to a class.”
So what else can fans of Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen expect from a show that’s been sitting on the shelf for over a decade? According to Hayes, more of the same.
“The show has always been a wonderful mirror to society, so it is the same as it was,” he says. “It always explored storylines that had to do with society in the current state it was in and it still does that. It still comments on pop culture, politics, sex, religion, anything that’s under the umbrella of relevancy.”
NBC, at least, is all-in on the revival, expanding the ninth season from an initial order of 10 episodes to 16 and renewing the series for a tenth season, sight mostly unseen. In today’s oversaturated television market, that kind of assurance is rare, if not unheard of, even for a seasoned sitcom like Will & Grace. What led the Peacock Network to, how do you say:
“I think because of the fan enthusiasm, the proof of concept with the election video and the trailer that we shot back in May, and the confidence they have in the show,” Hayes says. “[NBC Chairman] Bob Greenblatt was so impressed with the first table read and saw that the writing was as good, even maybe better than before—you know, tight and still witty and fresh and had things to say about the world we live in today of which all these characters can be the messenger.”
Well, that’s certainly reassuring as I, and other Will & Grace devotees, have worried how the show would—and even if it could or should—adapt to a much different television landscape from that of 2006. Hayes himself expressed “fear and trepidation” about “whether this was going to work” but that first table read put all doubt to rest.
And the timing feels right, both in regard to society and its need for a funhouse mirror, and where we are in this era of peak TV. After word of its death was mildly exaggerated, the multi-camera sitcom is having something of a comeback—though it must be said, they only work with writers, actors, and directors who know how the format works, inside and out. On that front, Will & Grace is more qualified than anyone.
“We all have a big background in theater,” Hayes recently told Out. “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.”
Will & Grace also has a secret weapon in sitcom vet James Burrows, who has “had his hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist” and directed every episode of WaG’s original run. Since that run, McCormack, Messing, Hayes, and Mullally have had a pre-show ritual that they keep furtively under wraps.
“I can’t tell you,” Hayes says with a laugh when I ask him what said ritual entails. “We get together before every single show and have a ritual—since the very, very, very first show. We still do it and it is to remain only among us.”
A part of me hopes it involves them in hooded robes, standing around a bubbling cauldron, slapping the schtick out of each other, but whatever it is, thank the television gods (and Bob Greenblatt) the gang’s back.