Racy ‘Grace’ Made Mark by Creating Laughter

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

As “Will & Grace” headed toward the finish line this year after eight seasons, the debate began over whether the NBC sitcom was really as groundbreaking as some say or whether it merely excelled at the racy double entendre.

Well, the warring factions can feel free to meet amicably over cappuccinos now, because the answer is that both are correct.

“We honestly didn’t set out to make any kind of statements,” said David Kohan, who co-created the series with his KoMut Entertainment partner Max Mutchnick. “We set out to tell stories and be entertaining, relatable and identifiable, and whatever came of that, came of that. No agenda other than to entertain people.”

Mission accomplished. The show has won 14 Emmys, including outstanding comedy series in 2000 and acting honors for stars Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes-making “Will & Grace” the third sitcom ever, after “The Golden Girls” and “All in the Family,” to have each of its main characters win an Emmy.

“Will & Grace” premiered on a Tuesday but eventually moved to Thursday’s “Must See TV” lineup, where, following “Friends,” it attracted as many as 17.3 million viewers at its peak. But when “Friends” bowed out in 2004 after 10 seasons, “Will & Grace” lost more than 50 percent of its viewership. Season eight averaged 7.8 million viewers until 18.4 million people tuned in for the hour-long series finale May 18.

This year the series scored 10 nominations, including both Ms. Mullally’s and Mr. Hayes’ seventh for supporting actress or actor, Ms. Messing’s fifth mention for lead actress, and guest acting nods for Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner and Leslie Jordan.

“One of the reasons the show did great is that [the stars] are fantastic at what they do,” Mr. Kohan said. “I’m proud that, more than anything … there was a group of people behind and in front of the camera that all worked well together. Everybody can rightfully say that `I had a hand in this, and it was good.”‘

While the laughs kept coming, critics noted that in the later seasons the humor was sexed up so that it pushed the envelope in a more obvious way (e.g.. Jack’s tres glib response when Will points out Leo, Harry Connick Jr.’s character, whom he refers to as “the horse guy”: “Ooh, me likes the sound of that. Come on, intro-seduce me!”).

The series was honored with seven GLAAD Media Awards for outstanding comedy series for a reason, however. When “Will & Grace” premiered Sept. 21, 1998, it didn’t just feature two gay main characters. They were also characters for whom being gay was never an issue. Jack and Will weren’t in the closet; they weren’t trying to hide who they were. Instead, they were comfortable and happy in their own skin. The kicker, in fact, was that Will was more at ease with himself than Grace-the straight female lead-could ever hope to be.

Even in that rare instance when one of the characters is hiding his sexuality, it’s used as a device to emphasize how deliciously out-and-proud he is.

In one episode, Grace tells Karen: “Well, you’ve come on a good night. Jack’s mother is going to be joining us, and she doesn’t know Jack’s gay.”

And Karen says: “How could she not know? Is she headless?”


In addition to bringing a blend of provocative humor and relationship drama to the table, “Will & Grace” showcased an entire lifestyle-albeit a wealthier, better-dressed and more wacky, slapstick lifestyle-to an audience of millions every week.

Mr. McCormack told The Advocate in 1998, before anyone knew how audiences would react to Mr. Kohan and Mr. Mutchnick’s pioneering comedic concept, that the show’s lasting legacy would not be whether Will got physical with other men onscreen, but rather that the “week-after-week, year-after-year matter-of-factness of his sexuality” would be what made a difference in the cultural lexicon.

Before the series finale in May, GLAAD President Neil Giuliano issued this statement:

“`Will & Grace’ has given unprecedented visibility to gay, lesbian and bisexual people. This is a comedy that created an emotional connection between millions of viewers and its characters. Audiences laughed along with characters like Will and Jack and a door opened for viewers to have a greater understanding of our lives. For many years to come, `Will & Grace’ will continue to open hearts and minds as it lives on in syndication.”‘

And yet, at the heart of “Will & Grace” lay one of the most tried and true plotlines in the book-the epic love affair.

It was the intense, devoted relationship between the two title characters that set everything else in motion, although the frenetic activity swirling around them often threatened to eclipse their issues.

Ms. Mullally’s cocktail-swilling socialite, Karen Walker, and Mr. Hayes’ lovable narcissist, Jack McFarland, for instance, threatened to steal every scene they were in (and often did), but the general consensus is that the two of them wouldn’t have worked without the stabilizing force that was the connection between Mr. McCormack’s Will and Ms. Messing’s Grace.

“Will and Grace had to be somewhat grounded so that those other two could take flight,” Mr. Kohan said, referring to Karen and Jack as the “funhouse mirror, burlesque version” of the title characters.

While the series’ creators were not about to let their beloved characters end on a sour note, in order to pen a truly satisfying finale they realized that they would have to do the previously unthinkable-send Will and Grace in opposite directions.

“There was a built-in problem with a show like this,” Mr. Kohan said. “In order for the characters to achieve their goals-find love, live independently and have healthy relationships-the series had to be ripped apart.”

In the end, a solution was arrived at that could make everyone happy.

In order to seek their own brands of happiness, Will and Grace did have to cut ties for a while, but wouldn’t you know it, their teenage kids (a subtle makeup job placed everyone 18 years into the future) ended up living across from each other in their college dorm.

“We all wanted Will and Grace to be in each other’s lives,” Mr. Kohan said. “It was kind of a wish fulfillment for us. Literally, they could have children together. They’re a part of each other, yet they get to have their fulfilling lives.”

And, of course, little Will and little Grace fell in love, ensuring that big Will and big Grace would never have to be apart again.