will & grace

After Sparking a Sitcom Revival Frenzy, What’s Next for Will & Grace?

Photo: NBC/Chris Haston/NBC

NBC was so certain its revival of Will & Grace would work, it ordered a second season of the resurrected sitcom nearly two months before the first new episode even aired. The bet paid off: Critics raved, and nearly 16 million viewers checked out the September 2017 return of the show, giving the Peacock network its biggest comedy premiere numbers in a decade. While those sky-high ratings cooled over the course of the show’s seven-month, Olympics-interrupted run, the series still finished as one of the season’s top 10 scripted shows among the advertiser-coveted adults-under-50 demo. And NBC was so happy about the results, it ordered a third season of the revival back in March, ensuring Will & Grace will remain on the network through 2020. With season ten premiering Thursday night at 9 p.m. Vulture caught up with Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan to talk about the experience of raising the (sitcom) dead, why they no longer stress about ratings, and finding humor in the age of Trump. The following conversation includes very mild plot spoilers for season ten (and two different usages of the word “ball”).

Last year, the revival went better than even the most optimistic NBC exec might have imagined. Looking back now, is there anything that surprised you about bringing back this show?
David Kohan: Once we figured out how we were going to dispense with the finale and re-introduce them as four people who were not in other relationships and were not married, I’m surprised at how easy it has been to fall back into what it was. It felt more seamless than I thought.

Max Mutchnick: There is something about the original architecture that was so complete, that it made it possible for it to hold its shape, as it were. We sit in the same chairs around a table, as we did 11 years ago.

There were no real challenges then?
Mutchnick: The challenges that existed would be the same as any challenges that exist in a decade that goes by. I just think everybody got a little bit richer emotionally, and complex, and …

Kohan: And older. Except for Karen.

Mutchnick: I just look at this like it was a ten-year hiatus. But the show never went away.

You were basically defrosting the show after years in storage. Does this season feel at least a little bit different, because there’s a running start?
Kohan: This year the challenge is, how do we move these characters forward in their relationships, in their lives, professionally, personally? Defrosting is actually a good way of putting it. They’re fully thawed. Now we actually have to cook them.

Mutchnick: To use a sports analogy, this season we needed to move the volleyball down the field. [Pause] I hope that registered as a joke.

What are some of the ways you’ve moved things forward?
Kohan: Grace is starting a relationship with this guy played by David Schwimmer. Jack is engaged. Karen’s gotten divorced …

Mutchnick: And Will’s going to meet somebody. I think we can tell you that it’s Matt Bomer. He plays a character called McCoy Whitman, who Will accidentally meets at the gay coffeehouse that he and Jack go to.

Is it a tough balancing act to change those dynamics? When I talked to Friends creator Marta Kauffman earlier this year, she was against a reboot for many reasons, not the least of which is because she says that show was about a snapshot in their lives as single people.
Mutchnick: Yeah, it’s a snapshot of their lives until all six of them say to her, “Let’s do a reboot.” [Laughs.] But as to your question: If you do this the right way, you are just making the pilot over and over and over again. We just find new things for them to do every week, but we’re never going to break the fundamental relationships apart.

You’re already renewed for a season three, since your former boss Bob Greenblatt gave you early pick-ups. Does that security let you plan ahead in a way other network sitcoms can’t?
Mutchnick: We don’t know what we’re doing in the third season, really. But Bob gave us a luxury that you don’t get when you make these shows anymore. We’re allowed to creatively be calmer, because we know we’re not living and dying [by ratings] every week. Having that is an incredible gift from Bob Greenblatt, who’s the No. 1 reason that all of this has worked out.

Fear about ratings is one reason why creators like Ryan Murphy say they’re signing up with Netflix or Amazon. You premiered to huge numbers last September, then people started watching on a delayed basis so your same-day numbers took a hit, even if a lot of folks were still watching. How do you deal with Nielsen ratings in 2018?
Kohan: I don’t know if this is a function of getting older and hopefully wiser, but there’s no benefit in freaking out about ratings. There just isn’t. There’s nothing to gain from reading those tea leaves. I honestly try to avoid them. Every now and then, they’re thrust in front of my face, but it certainly doesn’t affect me the way it would have 20 years ago.

Mutchnick: The truth is, it doesn’t matter for us because we are not motivated by it. It’s never driven us to work less hard or harder, right? That wiring is already in place — the withholding mothers do that for you. [Laughs.] We don’t need ratings to make us deliver the best product we can every week. It’s nice when it goes well, and it’s deflating when it doesn’t go well, but I care much more that each week works, looks good, and is funny.

Kohan: My sister [Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan], who’s a Netflix person, she doesn’t know how many people are watching. She doesn’t know it. But they know, and I wonder if that would be even more crazy-making: “My overlords know what the ratings are, but I don’t know. I’m the one in the dark.”

Have you talked about that with her?
Kohan: I actually haven’t spoken to her about what that does emotionally to a person. I can’t decide if it’s better or worse. Ryan Murphy says one of the good things about being out of the network game is that you’re not so tied to the ratings report card. And I think, “But is it better?”

There wasn’t really social media when Will & Grace was first on the air. Now you get instant feedback to every episode, every scene, every joke. Does that make a difference in what ends up on screen?
Mutchnick: It doesn’t for me. I judge how well the show’s doing off of that studio audience. We can tell when stories work and when they don’t, and when they don’t, we make those adjustments in real time until they do respond in a way that seems to please them. Maybe it’s antiquated, but it’s the way I judge how well the show’s doing.

Kohan: I didn’t think that I was going to pay any attention to the social media, but I have. Sometimes I find it instructive and helpful, just in terms of what people really responded to. Every now and then I will think to myself, “Oh, this is the kind of thing that a lot of people singled out as being particularly good or particularly bad.” That can be instructive, actually.

How much of the staff is made up of veterans from the original run? 
Mutchnick: It’s probably 90 percent the old team. There’s one power hitter that we have that’s new, John Quaintance.

Kohan: But he’s worked with us on a number of shows. He knows our voices. Suzanne Martin is new, but she’s not. She’s so skilled and such a veteran. She’s become a key voice in the room.

Mutchnick: The rest of the staff was with us from the beginning. By having all of the vets in the room, they catch us and remind us, “We can’t do that story because we did that,” or “We can’t go in that direction because we did this.”

Kohan: Their sweat is in this. They’ve invested time. They have a sense of ownership of these characters just like we do.

Culture has changed a lot in the decade you were away. Gay people kissing each other used to be a big deal for TV, and now it’s pretty standard. Is there anything you can do now that you couldn’t do the first time around?
Mutchnick: Will and Grace sleeping with the same person is something that we could never have done in the first run of the show — and it’s one of the first ideas that we had when we came back. We also just shot something that we didn’t realize was a thing until we were in the editing room working on it: Jack and his fiancé, naked in the shower together, actually shaving each other’s balls.

Kohan: As you do.

Mutchnick: As boys do when they shower together. [Laughs.] We have these two gay men taking a shower together and nobody made mention of it. No one at the network, no one from the writing room, and none of the actors. It was only after it was over that we thought, “I wonder if this has actually ever been in a broadcast comedy? Two guys talking about their relationship while taking a shower?”

What’s your reaction to Hollywood going crazy with revivals? Since NBC gave the go-ahead to your show, we’ve had new versions of Roseanne and Murphy Brown. ABC is developing a new Designing Women. Fox brought Last Man Standing back from the dead. Is this a good thing?
Mutchnick: I’m all for it. The more of this, the better. There’s room for everyone, and if people respond, what’s the bad in it?

Kohan: I never thought of us being the vanguard of any kind of movement here. It’s funny, because when Bob Greenblatt said, “I think we should bring the show back,” my first thought was, “I don’t.” Why would we do that? The novelty has worn off. Then it occurred to me that it isn’t about the novelty. It’s about the comfort of it. It’s about the familiarity. There’s something very comforting about this show, for the fans of it.

Mutchnick: Or all these shows.

Kohan: Right. Once upon a time, problems didn’t seem quite as dire, the people didn’t seem so separated, and presidents didn’t seem like they were your enemies.

Is it a different vibe making Will & Grace at such an intense period in history?
Mutchnick: The only thing that we experienced that was even close to this sort of discomfort or unrest in the first run of the show was 9/11. We were filming a show that week. We decided that we were going to film the episode that week, so we loaded in an audience and addressed them before the show, which is something that Dave and I don’t do. We said, “We know what’s just happened in this country, and we are as profoundly wrecked by it as anybody could be, but it’s okay for you to let go of that pain for this very limited amount of time, and just allow yourself to laugh, be comfortable, and enjoy these characters that you know. Then, as soon as it’s over, you can go back to dealing with the seriousness of where we’re at in the world.” Everybody got a chance to let go of the pain that they were experiencing for the few hours that we shot the show.

Did the show ever make reference to 9/11?
Mutchnick: No.

Kohan: I don’t know how you make any kind of response to 9/11 funny.

Mutchnick: There just are areas that we can’t touch. 9/11 is an obvious one. Princess Diana’s death was another one. But, I will tell you, in the next [episodes] that we’re shooting, we’re going to be addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault. And it’s a big swing for us. We think we can tell a sexual-assault story about one of our characters, where you will care and be invested in that story and we can even find some humor in it — not in the actual event, but in the way that you recover from an event. So, we’re taking that on.

You got political in a few episodes last season. What’s it like making comedy in the Trump era?
Kohan: It’s difficult. With this administration, the divisions in the country are real. These are absolutely tragic circumstances, you know? That’s not funny. But the essential [nature] of this administration is funny. I mean, if it wasn’t so awful, it does feel like a Keystone cop situation. The biggest buffoonish joke, the least qualified person, becomes president? That is funny.

Mutchnick: We [shot] an episode last night where we built the wall on our set. Mrs. Walker bought a portion of the wall.

Oh, Lord.
Mutchnick: We tell a story at the wall in El Paso, Texas. We’re not giving too much away, but she does end up in jail with an immigrant.

Is this new run more political than the last one?
Kohan: Because everything seems to be politicized, because the flames of political division have been fanned so vigorously, you can’t help that almost anything you say feels more politicized now than it did. So in that sense, it’s a little bit more political.

Mutchnick: I actually think we deal with Trump a lot less this season. We talk more about how the world is impacting these characters. It’s less talking about this president, and more talking about people that are hurting, because our characters are hurting.

Kohan: Right, but we know who looms over it.

Mutchnick: You don’t need to talk about him anymore, because it’s so obvious what’s happened in this country.

Because of the early order, you shoot your episodes well before they air. That wasn’t the case in the old days, when shows would tape three weeks before they were on TV. Does that make it more difficult to do topical humor? Or do you just have to think ahead? Like, do you already have an A Star Is Born joke planned?
Mutchnick: We’re not doing stories about Jeff Sessions. [Laughs.]

Kohan: But we do have an A Star Is Born joke! And speaking of A Star Is Born, a highlight that is coming up this year on the show is that Karen Walker does the one drug that she’s never done before …

Mutchnick: We don’t know what hallucinogen she takes, but she downs a big gulp of something and we end up putting her in a nightclub, so you get the gift of hearing Megan Mullally singing “The Man That Got Away” from the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. And it’s fantastic.

Jack got engaged at the end of last season, and the promos for the show hint at a wedding. What can you tell us about it?
Mutchnick: Right now, we are writing towards a wedding. We’re trying to figure out exactly who is going to be at that wedding, what that wedding’s going to be about, and what’s going to happen there. It says on the board in the writers room, “The Wedding” — but it doesn’t say whose. If we knew, maybe we’d tell you!

So it’s not Jack’s wedding?
Kohan: Jack is engaged …

Mutchnick: … but someone loves Grace. Someone is going to love Will. And Karen is dating a serious person.

NBC has announced a ton of guest stars for the new season. You mentioned Schwimmer and Bomer, but you’ve also booked Minnie Driver, Adam Rippon, Chelsea Handler, Jon Cryer, and Alec Baldwin. Anyone else you want to tell me about?
Mutchnick: Leslie Jordan is back. Molly Shannon is coming back.

Is there anyone still left on your wish list?
Kohan: Honestly, no. I have very little interest in stunt casting. It’s not like, “Hey, if we go after this famous person, then we’ll think of an idea to write around them.” That’s not something that excites us.

Mutchnick: But I wouldn’t kick Michelle Obama out of bed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s Next for Will & Grace?