Love for laughs

By any standards Will & Grace is a runaway success. But by many measures, it shouldn’t have been. There are plenty in the deeply conservative and risk-averse United States television industry who thought it impossible that a gay male lead would be accepted by Middle America, and the series came on the scene not long after Ellen was canned.

Yet, as the US gay marriage row lurches between depressingly predictable polarities, it is encouraging to note that, far from being stuck in the closet, Will & Grace has screamed into its seventh season in top form, second only to Friends as the most-watched comedy show among 18- to 49-year-olds in the US.

These days US television seems less scared of gay-themed programming — witness the breakout success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — and the creators of Will & Grace have become multimillionaires as the show has been syndicated around the world.
Now David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, friends from high school in Beverly Hills, are going to Britain to explain how to do it, in a comedy masterclass for the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Recalling the birth of their show, the pair remember less institutional scepticism than might have been expected — principally because of the involvement of James Burrows, an experienced director, with Frasier and Friends on his CV.

But the writers were careful not to frighten too many horses in the beginning — the experience of Ellen, which floundered after its star and creator Ellen DeGeneres came out, taught them to be cautious.

Mutchnick says: ‘We are here in large part thanks to her trailblazing — but right after she came out, the series quickly turned into a show that seemed to be preaching and teaching as opposed to entertaining.” This early caution has, in the past, been a focus of some of the criticism.

The lead characters, lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and his flatmate Grace Adler (Debra Messing), were said to be ‘safe”, with the wilder expressions of homosexuality and heterosexual dysfunctionality coming from the lead characters’ friends, Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally).

But Mutchnick defends the approach: ‘We really made a choice to take baby steps with the subject matter and to explore what the show is about at its core, which is a love story between Will and Grace,” he says. Yet, in later seasons, Will’s sexuality has been drawn more boldly, teased out by the increasingly outrageous Jack (‘Time to put the sex back into homosexual, Will!”).

And the biggest laughs continue to be drawn from the relationship between Jack and Karen — cemented with the ‘touching stomachs” scene in the second episode (if you need to ask, you don’t need to know).

Nevertheless, the foundation for the show’s success is its truthfulness.

The situation, for those unfamiliar with the storyline, is this: a gay man has a relationship with a straight woman before acknowledging his homosexuality. He comes out, the pair fall out, a mutual friend brings them back together and they become best friends — with a hint of unrequited passion. This is loosely based on Mutchnick’s experience in school at Beverly Hills High, when he went out with a girl called Janet Eisenberg — now a successful casting director in New York. At the time, she had expected they would get married — until Mutchnik revealed he was gay.

Eisenberg refused to speak to him for some time, but Kohan maintained contact with both of them and they were eventually reconciled. Life became art after NBC approached Kohan and Mutchnick to come up with a replacement for its ageing romantic comedy hit, Mad About You.

Kohan explains: ‘I used to work as an assistant to [filmmaker] Sydney Pollack, and he would always say the love story is over when the boy and the girl kiss — so the love story is only as good as the obstacles that prevent the lovers from consummating their relationship. And so that was our first question — what’s an insurmountable obstacle?” The answer was obvious.

A pilot was made, but while senior executives at NBC were enthusiastic about it, the marketing department was less certain. Mutchnick says: ‘There’s this guy named John Miller who runs marketing at NBC — he’s an uptight guy with a combed-over hairdo and he’s not hip in any way, and he did not know what the hell to do with this show.”

In the autumn screenings for advertisers, the NBC marketers ignored the lead character’s sexuality: ‘There was no mention of it at all, even though it was clear from the pilot, there was nothing ambiguous about it. But the [marketing] tagline was: ‘They’re not a couple, they’re a couple of friends’. More than anything, we had to overcome the marketing department at NBC.”

Kohan recalls the show being commissioned, but hidden away in a late slot at the beginning of the week. ‘It was buried on Monday night in what the marketing department called ‘must-she TV’ — it was all shows with female leads ... and Will & Grace.”

Gradually, in its low-profile but protected slot, the show began to attract a following. But Kohan and Mutchnick say they were so wrapped up in the first couple of series, they barely noticed the speed at which it took off.

The acceleration was extraordinary and, to date, the show has been nominated for 49 Emmys and 24 Golden Globes. Among its 12 Emmy wins, the show won Outstanding Comedy Series in 2000.

Under the Pollack rule of good romantic comedy, the show could go on for ever, but Mutchnick says they will call it a day after nine or 10. ‘I would think that nine seasons is certainly enough.

‘When we first wrote the thing, it couldn’t be more than six seasons because you hope these characters move on in life. But it becomes a machine, it becomes bigger than you are.”

He believes the ending will be happy: ‘I hope that when it does end, it ends because everybody’s fallen in love. That’s the good and the bad of the show. It can keep going until they all meet ‘the one’.”

With hindsight, the pair attribute the success of Will & Grace to the empathy of the audience with the characters.

Mutchnick says: ‘These are four people anybody would want to have at their dinner table — they’re fun and interesting and they have always got something to say, you’re always going to have a laugh.

‘And the Will & Grace relationship is an enviable one. Who wouldn’t want a relationship like that? Someone who can finish your sentences, someone who knows every feeling that you have before you have it and when you’re having it. Isn’t that the ideal in life?” —

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