My Night with Will & Grace
An evening in the live studio audience of the Will & Grace revival left me reflecting on the sitcom’s legacy, the hot trend of reviving classic sitcoms, and the fading art of the multi-camera comedy.
Author’s Note: This is the first article in the author’s series about Will & Grace. Click here for Part Two, which recounts the cast’s appearance at PaleyFest to celebrate the success of the revival. Click here for Part Three, which reviews how the revival wrapped up the series in May 2020. Click here for Part Four, which reviews and ranks all of the holiday episodes.
The Return of Will & Grace
On September 26, 2016, a 10 minute reunion special of Will & Grace was released online, a full 10 years, 4 months, and 8 days following the airing of the series finale. The special brought back the four principal actors — Debra Messing as Jewish interior designer Grace Adler, Eric McCormack as WASPy gay lawyer Will Truman, Megan Mullally as Grace’s exceedingly wealthy and substance abusing assistant Karen Walker, and Sean Hayes as Will’s flamboyantly gay longtime buddy and aspiring actor Jack MacFarland. The purpose of the reunion was to encourage people to vote in the 2016 election (with a not-so-subtle nudge toward Hillary) and was met with a great deal of buzz. The reception was so positive that the following January, NBC announced that they were bringing the series back for a 9th season in the fall of 2017.
I was a faithful fan of Will & Grace during its 1998–2006 run, but nevertheless I was quite skeptical about this revival for two reasons. First and foremost, I was skeptical of the whole revival craze in general. The revival was coming in the wake of a host of others, including Arrested Development (airing a 4th season of the wacky single-camera comedy aired on Netflix in 2013, 7 years after the original went off the air), The X-Files (a 10th season of Fox’s iconic sci-fi series started airing on the network in 2016, about 14 years after the original series ended), Fuller House (a sequel series to the family sitcom began airing on Netflix in 2016, a full 21 years after its predecessor went off the air), Gilmore Girls (a quartet of specials continuing the storyline of the dramedy aired on Netflix in 2016, 9 years after the series originally bid adieu), and Twin Peaks (the iconic David Lynch series was revived by Showtime in 2017, a full 26 years after the end of the show’s original run). These revivals — and additional ones not mentioned here — garnered big media buzz and initially excited fans, but none matched the commercial or critical success of their previous installments.
The second reason I was skeptical because I was concerned about reviving Will & Grace specifically. Since the series wrapped a decade ago, there have been profound changes in the entertainment industry and American society. I questioned whether the broad farce would play like a throwback to a bygone era and whether the topical humor could possibly feel sharp in an age when the best comedies tend to air on uncensored cable networks. I wondered if the revival would be able to capture the spirit of the series’ halcyon days (namely its first four or five seasons) or whether it would resemble the fading quality of its final years. I also questioned whether there was room for Will & Grace in the changing conversation regarding LGBT equality. Would a show that focused on fairly stereotypical portrayals of white and affluent cisgender gay men be relevant in an era when conversations on gender identity, intersectionality, and marginalization dominate? How would audiences react to the revival if it continued the trend of avoiding more controversial or serious subject matter, such as HIV/AIDS, drug use, and discrimination within the LGBT community? Nevertheless, I found myself eventually eagerly anticipating the reboot because of my affinity for the series during its original run.
The Legacy of Will & Grace
Will & Grace premiered on September 28, 1998. For historical context, it premiered four months after classic sitcoms and pop culture behemoths Seinfeld and Murphy Brown aired their series finales, during the commercial and critical peak of long-running mega-hits Friends and Frasier, and one year after the launch of arguably the first successful mainstream single-camera comedy series on broadcast television (Ally McBeal). Thus, a multi-camera comedy about young attractive white people in New York City was poised for great success as long as there was a hook to get viewers to tune in and quality writing and acting to keep them watching. However, it also premiered just months after Ellen DeGeneres’s eponymous sitcom Ellen was canceled due to increasing controversy regarding its LGBT-focused subject matter and decreasing viewership. Will & Grace seemed like it had the right elements to be a hit, but there were pervasive doubts in the industry regarding whether a series focused on LGBT issues could be a mainstream hit.
It was slow out of the gate, ranking as only the 40th most watched series on television and snagging only one Emmy nomination (for Outstanding Directing) in its initial season. It became a critical and industry darling in its second season, culminating in an Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series. In its third season it finally became a commercial smash as well, as it leaped into the Top 20 most watched programs on television, where it would remain for four years. It remained a force in the Nielsen ratings and at the Emmys until its 6th season, after which it began to fade.
Throughout its run, Will & Grace amassed an astonishing 83 Emmy nominations, which remains the fourth highest tally ever for a comedy series (behind Cheers, Frasier, and The Simpsons). It won a total of 16 Emmys, including 8 acting wins. It remains one of three series in history (alongside All in the Family and The Golden Girls) to have each of its regular cast members win an Emmy (Messing, McCormack, and Hayes won one apiece; Mullally won two). It also won 7 Screen Actors Guild Awards and received a striking 29 Golden Globe nominations, despite never winning a single one.
In my opinion, the series never quite reached the consistent height of quality that its contemporaries like Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier did. For me, the quality tended to shift a bit too much episode by episode and, especially toward the later seasons, it relied a bit too heavily on caricatures, slapstick, and cameos by A-list guest stars. However, it kept me watching for eight years because it was always amusing and when it was great, it was brilliant. In fact, the series produced four episodes (or five depending on how you count the one that runs double length) that I would rank on any list of television comedy’s finest half hours. These include:
- “Homo for the Holidays” (Season Two): Jack’s mother (guest star Veronica Cartwright) spends Thanksgiving with the gang, who are shocked to find out that she is unaware that her flamboyant son Jack is gay.
- “Lows in the Mid-Eighties, Parts One and Two” (Season Three): Perhaps the show’s strongest hour, this episode flashes back to how Will finally decided to come out (with Jack’s help), breaking then-girlfriend Grace’s heart in the process.
- “A Chorus Lie” (Season Four): This fantastic farce finds Jack competing with a straight man posing as a gay man (guest star Matt Damon) for a spot in the Gay Men’s Chorus while Karen concocts an elaborate lie to her society friends that Will is her gigolo.
- “The Kid Stays Out of the Picture” (Season Five): This change of pace episode culminates with a wrenching showdown between Will and Grace after their plans to have a baby together fall apart. It demonstrates the show’s skill at producing powerful dramatic moments and won Messing a well-deserved Emmy.
But when it comes to the legacy of Will & Grace most think not about where it fits in the pantheon of great television comedies, but where it fits in the progress of LGBT representations in media. And, despite the criticisms lobbed against it that I highlighted above, it’s hard to deny its impact when you have statements like this one from Vice President of the United States Joe Biden: “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public [on LGBT issues] than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand."
The Hot Trend of Reviving Classic TV Sitcoms
Officially premiering on September 28, 2017 (exactly 19 years and 1 week after the pilot aired), the revival of Will & Grace has largely been a critical and commercial success. Its initial season does not wrap for another month and it has already won a key industry award (in February it picked up the Writers Guild of America award for the best written episode of television comedy in the past year) and been commercially successful enough to lock in an additional season (slated to premiere on NBC this fall). It also has created a classic episode that ranks alongside the best episodes of the original run (“Rosario’s Quinceanara,” the aforementioned WGA award-winning episode about the death of Karen’s best friend and maid Rosario, who was written out of the show due to her portrayer Shelley Morrison’s retirement from acting).
It was hard to tell what to expect after the revival’s premiere, which was a risky outing for two key reasons. First, in a couple of clever jokes it erased the developments of the entire series finale. It was a bold move, but ultimately a necessary one considering how utterly abysmal the series finale was. In the final episode of the original series, Will and Grace got married, grew apart, and reunited years later when their kids became friends at college while Karen lost her fortune after her husband’s death and Jack had to enter a loveless marriage to provide for her. It not only failed as comedy but it was arguably the least satisfying way possible to conclude the characters’ relationships. Second, the revival’s premiere focused very heavily on Trump as opposed to what has been up with these characters for the past eleven years. Thankfully, the following episodes have shifted away from this and delved into the dramatic personal developments in the characters’ lives since the initial iteration and find them increasingly addressing issues of aging (well except Karen, who remains utterly ageless). The quality is still a bit uneven, but it definitely feels to me more akin to peak Will & Grace than the fading final seasons. And that’s no small feat considering how recent revivals have fared.
It is natural to look a the revival of a series like Will & Grace and think “Hollywood has run out of ideas!” But actually, I believe that it reflects an overabundance of ideas in Hollywood. There are more original scripted programs being produced than ever before in history. This is due to several factors, including the proliferation of streaming platforms and the trend of producing shorter seasons. In a landscape where high profile new comedy series are being launched almost weekly, it is vital to have a “hook”; something that gets enough media attention and fan excitement to get people to turn into the first episode. One of the best ways to do that is to use a known property with a built-in fan base. And the fact that this worked for Will & Grace means the trend is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Of course the decision to revive the show was in large part commercial. If any of the four principal actors were currently headlining hit shows or NBC’s schedule was filled to the brim with big hits, the revival probably would not have occurred. The narrative among the cast and behind the scenes talent, however, is that the time was right for a revival due to the current political climate. They argued that as we face a massive step backward in LGBT equality with Trump’s election, it is time for the return of the beloved gay characters and their topical comedy. There is definitely some merit to this argument and interestingly it is the same argument that is being used to revive envelope-pushing comedies such as the blue-collar realism of Roseanne (the revival premieres on ABC in a few weeks) and the political satire of Murphy Brown (the revival premieres on CBS this fall). It will be interesting to see whether the revival of these shows and the subject matter they tackle will be able to steer national conversations as they once did or if it just makes a convenient excuse to bring them back.
The Fading Art of the Multi-camera Comedy
Tonight on NBC at 9pm, the 13th episode of the revival will air. I had the privilege of sitting in the live studio audience for this episode and, unless something went horribly awry in the editing room, it is one of their strongest of the season. I ended up in the studio audience not due to some impressive Hollywood connection, but rather by routinely checking www.1iota.com, a website that connects regular folks with free tickets to entertainment industry events. Attending the live taping of a television sitcom is a lengthy process (roughly 6 hours from check-in at security on the NBC Universal lot to leaving the studio after filming). It is also one that you cannot have access to your cell phone during (the horror!). Nevertheless, it is an extremely interesting and entertaining experience.
Few comedy series film in front of a live studio audience anymore. From the 1950s to the 1990s it was the norm, but in the last two decades single-camera comedies (those not filmed in front of a live studio audience, e.g., Modern Family, The Office, Veep) have become dominant. Prior to the revival craze, it was really just a handful of CBS sitcoms still utilizing the format (namely Chuck Lorre’s slate of Emmy winning hits like The Big Bang Theory and Mom.) Although the format may be passé, it is a unique art form and allows fans a fascinating look into how television gets made and what their favorite stars are really like.
Sitting in the studio audience of a show like Will & Grace, you cannot help but truly appreciate the tremendous details of the sets and the vast array of individuals it takes to put the show on. The most interesting aspect, however, is how the cast and creative team utilize audience feedback to shape the show. Nearly every scene was filmed a second (or in some cases, third, fourth, and fifth) time. They tried out different punchlines and different blocking if the laughs were tepid or the flow was awkward. The writers would huddle with the actors after the take and after just a moment of consultation they would produce a thoroughly revised scene. In one case, they even added new lines for a couple of background characters who knocked their one-liners out of the park. The rhythm that gets established between the talent and the audience is a truly special one and seems to significantly strengthen the final product.
Given the intimacy of the sound stages, members of the studio audience also get a chance to see the series’ stars float in and out of character. The most powerful moments on this particular night involved Megan Mullally. The script required her to deliver dense dialogue, interact with a host of children, and even do a very elaborate tap dancing number. It would have been a challenge for most performers, but Mullally was suffering from the flu and was clearly feeling like utter hell. In a deeply poignant moment, she audibly asked the producers to inform the audience of her illness because she felt so badly about how long it was taking her to get things right. When she successfully nailed her big tap dance number, the audience and crew erupted in applause and her husband (Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman) emerged from backstage to take her home early to rest. Throughout the rest of the night, we were treated to other great moments. We saw Debra Messing sneak off to a quiet corner of the set to rehearse her climactic speech. We saw the strikingly energetic Sean Hayes improvise like crazy, entertain the audience, and engage with nearly every member of the cast and crew. (We even saw him horsing around with Veronica Mars, The Good Place, and Frozen star Kristen Bell, prior to the taping in the lot.) And we saw Eric McCormack lounging around the set with tremendous confidence and charm. He was the epitome of a professional and prepared actor.
As the audience was growing restless toward the end of the taping, the man responsible for engaging the audience called the set decorator over and they conducted a quiz for the audience. They announced that the person who could answer all four questions would receive a prop from the set of that night’s episode. The quiz required an audience member to name the guest actors that played the following recurring roles on the series’ original run: 1) Grace’s mom Bobbi Adler, 2) Karen’s nemesis Beverly Leslie, 3) Jack’s acting teacher Zandra, and 4) Will’s dad George Truman. I was apparently the only one who could correctly name them as Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Jordan, Eileen Brennan, and Sydney Pollack, respectively. As a reward for my obscure knowledge, the set decorator handed me a piece of Karen Walker stationary with Megan Mullally’s own handwriting that features hilariously into one of the episode’s best jokes.
As I walked up to receive my prize, two things occurred to me. I realized my vast array of Hollywood fun facts might be more than just a party trick after all; it could actually snag me a tangible reward. More importantly, I realized that maybe Will & Grace had impacted me more than I had ever previously realized.