In the summer of 2016, Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick was on a trip to London when he told his husband how frustrated he was with the election and how powerless he felt. He lamented that if Will & Grace was still on, they would’ve found a way to talk about it. He even pitched a couple of jokes. His husband reminded him that Will & Grace’s set, which had been on display at Emerson College, was on its way back to Los Angeles. That was the spark that resulted in the Will & Grace reunion election video that in turn led to new seasons of the Must See TV series.
Eleven years after it had ended its original, Emmy-winning eight-season run, Will & Grace returned to primetime to quickly re-establish itself as NBC’s highest-rated comedy. It also opened the door to other revivals of classic sitcoms with their original casts including Roseanne on ABC and Murphy Brown on CBS.
Now, creators Mutchnick and David Kohan reflect on what convinced them to revive the acclaimed comedy at NBC, returning to the network a decade after their drawn-out, contentious legal battle with NBCUniversal over profits from the show ended in a settlement. They discuss the reasons behind the ratings and critical success of sitcom reboots like Will & Grace and Roseanne, and have harsh words for the network system that they blame for the current lack of great, distinct broadcast comedies. The two also address the political references on the show, share their favorite episodes and provide a glimpse into next season. The interview was conducted before ABC’s abrupt cancellation of Roseanne following a racist tweet by star Roseanne Barr.
How quickly was the election mini-episode written? Was it easy for you to get back into the groove?
Max Mutchnick: We had not written this show in 10 years but we sat down and wrote that scene in one day, right?
David Kohan: If that. [For the show], once we figured out how we wanted to approach the season without marriages and children, and once we figured out what the shorthand was to lose that last incarnation, then it all came quickly. The voices came quickly because one of the great joys about coming back is, in the intervening 11 years you realize just how good you had it with those four actors. There was a kind of excitement having just written for them for the get-out-and-vote video that we had done. Their voices were in our heads, they were like old friends that we knew intimately, so that it wasn’t that difficult for us to re-create it and to find those voices again.
Mutchnick: We were very lucky with this reboot because we had essentially conducted a laboratory test on this show and that was #VoteHoney. That was just something that we did with our own free time on our own dollar. But because of that, as Dave said, we got a chance to see how everybody looks and functions and what they sound like. Can they still do it? It just is a labor of love, and it was an effortless experience. It was soon after that, after we uploaded it and we got a lot of attention online, that we heard from [NBC chairman] Bob Greenblatt, who asked us to come to NBC for lunch. We had not been in the building for 11 years and you know why.
Why, because of the lawsuit?
Mutchnick: We hadn’t worked at NBC. Bob Greenblatt gets all the credit for this happening but up until this, I think the stink of [former NBC boss] Jeff Zucker’s lawsuit against us had reverberations and kept us out of business at NBC during the 11 years between the Will & Grace finale and the first episode back.
Were you tempted to do Will & Grace on a different platform, where you can say things that you cannot say on broadcast?
Kohan: We really didn’t intend anything, that was the thing. We thought that was a one-off. It wasn’t an audition, it wasn’t a test run. We thought it was one chance, a last hurrah on this set that was going back to NBC. Our way of thinking about it was, I don’t know that it would be as effective on a different kind of platform. I think the fact that there are certain things that you can’t say on network television works to the benefit of this show.
Mutchnick: We’re as much a part of this network as the gay bird that represents it. Will & Grace isn’t supposed to be anywhere else but at NBC. We can’t speak for NBC but we feel like we’re a part of this company because we built this show under this roof. So it feels like it’s there’s and it doesn’t feel like it should be anybody else’s.
David, I read somewhere that you were the person who needed the most convincing that the show should be revived. Why was that?
Kohan: It’s not that I required a lot of convincing, it was more internal than that. It was more a question of why. Why should this show come back? What didn’t we say? What would be the purpose of it for us? When I saw reactions from people that the show was coming back, it became clear to me that people want old friends back on their television sets who are comforting to them, who are familiar to them and that will provide a kind of antidote to these uncertain, nervous, not normal times. You know what I mean.
Mutchnick: He also didn’t know when he was asking these questions that Donald Trump was going to be president. Because when we met with Bob, the election had not happened yet.
Kohan: Look, I’m a nervous person, right. There’s a legacy here, and there are people who really care about this show, and are we going to do justice to it, in addition to what is the purpose of bringing it back? And all of those questions were answered within a short period of time.
Back when it started, Will & Grace was groundbreaking, introducing lead gay characters to mainstream comedy series. What is the show’s purpose today?
Kohan: My initial impetus was, things started to feel so abnormal and so uneasy and so stressful, and there is something about a television show with characters that you care about and enjoy that almost acts as an antidote, at least for a very brief period of time, for half an hour on a Thursday night.
Mutchnick: But it also should be on the air because it’s worthy of being on a primetime schedule still. Because it’s a very unique sitcom in that it has what I believe is the best four members of a sitcom cast that have ever been. I believe that the talent of Eric [McCormack], Debra [Messing], Sean [Hayes] and Megan [Mullally] is so extraordinary that, just for that reason alone, we should still be making shows. But I also think our job is the same as it was the first time around. You’re putting it in context of a political meaning and its import in terms of the gay movement and all that stuff, which is none of our business. We still feel now like we did then, that our job is to entertain as many people as we can on the night that the show is on the air. That’s really what it’s about.
Will & Grace was one of the last multi-camera sitcoms to win an Emmy for best comedy series—Everybody Loves Raymond was the last and it’s been 13 years since a multi-cam series has won best comedy.
Kohan: Oh wow, I didn’t know that.
Did that play into your decision, trying to bring luster back to the multi-camera sitcom?
Kohan: Ultimately it rises or falls on its merits, and on the way audiences respond to it, but we certainly believe that there’s still life yet in a multi-camera sitcom. It provides a certain kind of experience that other shows don’t. If you’ve grown up with television at all, it has just seeped in over the years. The rhythm and the tone of it, and if it’s done well it’s good, and if it’s done poorly it’s bad.
Mutchnick: Another reason why there haven’t been good sitcoms on TV is because the system no longer supports that. We may very well be one of the last good ones, along with Roseanne and Raymond, because we’re the gamble of a television show that was created where a network largely laid off. They let us cast this show, and they let us find its voice, and they allowed us to stick with our voice, just as CBS did with [Raymond creator] Phil Rosenthal, and NBC with [Seinfeld co-creator] Larry David, and ABC did with Roseanne Barr.
Those are the examples of shows that worked and stayed on TV, and I hope that the networks take a look at that and realize that the system has gotten so mucked up with mid-level management weighing in on drafts and casting, and they’re taking so much power away from the people who write the show that it waters down a vision. It would be very nice to see the sitcoms reemerge, but that’s only going to be if networks keep executives away from the pilot process.
What do you make of the fact that Will & Grace is NBC’s highest-rated comedy right now, and Roseanne is ABC’s highest-rated comedy so many years later?
Kohan: I guess it shows that you have an advantage when you have a known quantity, and it’s harder to build an audience on network television these days; to put something out there. To have it find its voice, to nurture it so that it gains traction, so that people feel a relationship with these characters and to the tone and the voice of the show. That takes a little time, and it seems like nowadays it’s harder and harder to afford that time.
Mutchnick: If it’s not there in two weeks, it’s over.
Kohan: So, when you have something that has a built-in, nine-year head start, it’s an advantage.
Mutchnick: It’s unbelievable if you come to the tapings of the show, to see what it’s like to experience an audience that knows the characters, and the investment. But the only way that happens is if you give a show an initial run. And that’s just a luxury no one is afforded any longer.
Is there a specific episode or storyline this season that you’re particularly proud of?
Mutchnick: For me, it was the episode titled “Grandpa Jack,” when Jack’s son came back into his life with his son, Skip, and Jack and Will went to a conversion therapy camp, to explain to him that that’s not a place. Those are torture camps, and that he did not belong there, and needed to leave, as soon as he could. That was my favorite episode of the year.
Was it based on or inspired by anything?
Mutchnick: Yeah, based on the fact that we have a vice president who supports it as an acceptable form of therapy. Mike Pence is on the record, in his stint as governor in the state of Indiana—and he’d like to believe that he didn’t do this—he supported it as a form of therapy, and it’s a form, actually, of torture. And it’s a form of assisting a person, growing and figuring themselves out, to doubt themselves. And because that was going on, it aligned itself just beautifully with the show, because the architecture of the show, and the fact that this guy with these monstrous views is in the White House, it felt like it was the right thing for us.
Let’s talk a little bit about the politics of Will & Grace. There’s a lot of references that seem added at the last second, because they’re very timely. What drives that?
Kohan: If it matters to the characters, that’s the thinking. It isn’t just, we want to put this issue out there in public consciousness for whoever is watching the show. It’s not like we have an axe to grind, and we’re going to use these characters as our vehicle. It’s more about, this is what the characters are concerned about, this is what the characters are thinking about, this is what matters to them.
Mutchnick: In fact, going into Season 10, we’re really not as focused on any of that, because the characters have come to terms what’s going on in the world, and if things are organic for them, to be talking about what’s happening in Washington D.C., and it speaks to the show, we’ll probably write to it. But it’s not what’s driving us.
Since you mentioned Season 10, anything more you can say about the direction the show is going, the main themes and storylines?
Mutchnick: We’re trying to open up the series this year. Last year was about coming back and seeing how the audience was going to respond, and they embraced the show, and that was thrilling. Now, we need to move forward.
Kohan: With relationships, with work. Those things will probably be new. And also, when the show was first on the air, the characters were 30, and now, they’re much older, and what does that do? How does that affect them? Those are some of the episodes in the last season. The ones that I liked were the ones when they realized that they’re at a new phase of their lives, dating Ben Platt, or Will desperately trying to rekindle things with Michael, to expedite the whole relationship process, because time is running out. Grace dealing with her aging father. All of these sorts of things that are issues of where these characters are today, as opposed to 15 years ago.
Mutchnick: No one’s going to convert to Hinduism. But we’re going to make an effort to grow the characters. Because they are, like us, 11 years older, and now we should be talking about some of the issues that these characters would have, at the ages that they’re all at, respectively.
Any big surprises in store for next season? Any other favorites from the original run coming back?
Mutchnick: I think we can give you one exclusive. And that’s the title of the first episode of Season 10. The first episode that Dave and I are writing is titled, “Where in the World is Karen Walker?”, and we can let you read into that as much or as little as you want.