How 'Will & Grace' Will Mine Trump for "Tension"

Creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick explain why they decided to finally revive the NBC series and what viewers can expect this time around.
Courtesy of Robert Trachtenberg/NBC
Standing, from left: Max Mutchnick, David Kohan and executive producer and director James Burrows

When Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick reunited the stars of the NBC comedy in fall 2016, more than 10 years after its finale, a reboot was not on their minds. "There was not one word about, 'Let's figure out a way to do this again!' " insists Kohan, 53. The pair were so sure that the project — a video in support of then-candidate Hillary Clinton — would be their last with the gang that they hired a film crew "as a way to memorialize the event for our daughters," explains Mutchnick, 51.

But NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt had other plans. Less than two weeks later, the creators were back at the NBC commissary discussing a revival. The multicam returns Thursday, Sept. 28, for season nine, with a tenth season already greenlighted.

Picking up "11 years later," as the season premiere title suggests, the new episodes will largely ignore the events of the series finale, in which Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) both married, had kids and went their separate ways. Instead, the two are single and living together, still, with Jack (Sean Hayes) across the hall and Karen (Megan Mullally) just as rich and outrageous as ever.

The other big change since the foursome last graced the small screen? The new president in the White House — despite Kohan and Mutchnick's best efforts on Clinton's behalf. "There's a lot of tension in the air, so there's a lot of things to write and there are a lot of reasons to make an audience laugh," Mutchnick says.

The pair talked with The Hollywood Reporter about why they (finally) said yes to a reunion, returning to NBC after their "unhappy" past at the network, a possible "wink" to the first series finale and more.

When and how did the idea to do a bigger revival come about?

David Kohan  From Bob Greenblatt in response to what he saw and heard from the "#VoteHoney" piece. He said, "Why not do this? Why not do this as a series [again]?"

What made the two of you want to do this again, and specifically as a series instead of a one-off special or reunion?

Kohan  I will say this: Being away from it for a long time and then living our lives and experiencing television production without them, you realize how good you had it with this group of actors and with this crew and all the department heads, the writers that we had. That doesn't happen very often. You kind of think you can re-create it, but it was a really great experience for us and the opportunity to have it again was pretty irresistible.

There are so many revivals these days, but what do you think makes Will & Grace specifically ripe for a revival?

Max Mutchnick  It was all about timing, and it's not much deeper or more complicated than that. We really don't even think of ourselves as one of those shows that's rebooting, even though we fall into that category. But this really came to us because we felt a responsibility to act on behalf of the person that we were supporting in the 2016 election and as a result, this other thing came to light and it is the perfect time. The irony is that we did the "#VoteHoney" [video] to help Hillary Clinton — and you know what happened there. But [during the original run] George [W.] Bush was in office for most of that time and it made for a lot of tension — and when there's a lot of tension in the air, there's a lot to write. And lo and behold, look what happened again. There's a lot of tension in the air, so there's a lot of things to write and there are a lot of reasons to make an audience laugh.

Kohan  When Bob Greenblatt saw it, I think his feeling was, "It doesn't feel like a retread, it doesn't feel dated; it feels current." It feels like, "Oh, these characters have been off living their lives and here they are living their lives again; as a continuation of what it was but 11 years in the future." When we saw them talking about contemporary issues, it didn't feel like they were talking about topics that felt 15 years old.

Going off of that, how much will the new episodes lean into where we are as a country and the current tensions in the country?

Kohan  Very much so, but we're not just talking politically, we're also talking culturally and down to the real particulars about how people live their lives, about what they're looking at on their phones and what they're into. That's always been what the show has concerned itself with, with just sort of the minutiae of contemporary life — and that exists, it's just that the minutiae have changed.

Had you ever been approached about doing reunions or revivals in the past?

Mutchnick  We had been asked a couple of times to reunite the cast for various things and we said no to everything that had been put in front of us. And they actually weren't even together the night that the Jimmy Burrows special was shot in Los Angeles where all of the casts reunited, but the Will & Grace cast, they weren't all able to be in the same room at the same time.

What made you say no to those other offers?

Mutchnick  They weren't right and it wasn't organic. It was for money reasons — we were being asked to do it for the wrong reasons. That's not to say we're not getting paid this time around — we're definitely getting paid. But it's not the way that it started, so it felt very pure. And in the way we wrote the first draft of this script, it was very pure because we didn’t know that we were writing something that was going to be on TV for 200 episodes. Once again, when we made "#VoteHoney," we had no idea that we were going to be returning to this.

Speaking of the financials, you sued NBC over rights when the show was originally on the air. So how hesitant were you to come back to the network for the revival given what had happened in those later years?

Mutchnick  We weren't hesitant because [then NBC Entertainment president] Jeff Zucker wasn’t on the other end of the call, so it really didn’t matter to us. Jeff Zucker was the only reason we had a problem at NBC, and he was the guy who was behind taking us off of the show as a way to punish us and to punish a show that he had on his network, and it's certainly not the way we would have done things. It was an incredibly unhappy time for us, and we did everything we could to ask him to not make it go down the way that it did, but he felt that litigating the creators of one of his comedies on "Must See TV" was the way that he was going to not pay us. And it just didn't work out very well. And I think the lore of it has taken on a little bit more life because we weren't gone for that much time — I think we were only gone for a few episodes.

Given that time away from the show, does that make you appreciate being able to be on set and work on the revival?

Mutchnick  We appreciate being in that room just because we have been in other rooms writing for other actors. We don't appreciate this show any more or less because of the lawsuit. If anything, that lawsuit made me more committed to the legacy of the show and made us do right by all of these characters. For what it's worth, I remember speaking to the actors every week before they went onstage to film on the weeks that we weren’t around. … That lawsuit was just something that was generated by a toxic guy, and it didn’t work out at all for him with the lawsuit or at the network really.

There are so many more platforms for TV now than when Will & Grace was on. Did you ever consider doing the new episodes at a Netflix or another outlet where you would be able to say more and do more?

Kohan  We really like the parameters. That's what good about this half-hour, broadcast multicam format is that you have to write within certain parameters. We want the tone to be what the tone is. We don't want to change to some sort of gritty realistic thing or some vulgar, over-the-top [thing] with nudity and graphic anything. We want it to be what it is. It wasn't like we wanted to necessarily open up the world to make it something other than what it was. We didn't want to do that.

Mutchnick  And the muscle behind a broadcast network you really won't find anywhere else. It's most wide-reaching and it feels the strongest. This is the only place we are supposed to be and NBC is the only place that Will & Grace is supposed to live. It was talked about by other people and it was never accurate because the voice of the show was created within that sound of Thursday night and in that sound of scripted comedies on NBC.

Kohan  I couldn’t image doing it in another context.

You've talked previously about your decision to essentially ignore the original series finale you wrote back in 2006, but how concerned were you about potentially upsetting the fans?

Kohan  I think if you acknowledge it and you let the fans know, "We see you, we hear you, we know, we all know, and if you would be so kind as to let us get away with this, we will carry on with making the show."

So is there a wink in these upcoming episodes that lets the audience know that you know that they know?

Kohan  There may be … wink, wink.

There are already 194 episodes of Will & Grace in the bag. What made you confident that, given the characters are in the same places as they were before, that you could find new plot points and stories and territory to explore?

Kohan  They're in different stages of their lives. People deal with different things in different stage of their lives.

Mutchnick  As writers, it's been incredible because we've had an 11-year hiatus, so there's been a lot of living that's gone on between the two of us. And as the guys that are kind of putting lives into these characters, we have 11 years' worth of life and stories and experience that we can share with the four of them.

Speaking to that, are there specific things that the two of you are excited to explore in these upcoming episodes?

Mutchnick  I can give it to you this way: The night that we wrapped the show, I went home and couldn't sleep and I watched an I Love Lucy marathon, and you will see in the first run of the first season an homage to a classic scene shot with Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. I watched this episode the night we filmed the finale, and when I watched this at home that night, I thought to myself, "Damn it, how could we not have done that episode for Karen and Grace?!" And we have found a way to pay our respects to those comic greats.

The revival has already been picked up for a second season. How far down the line are the two of you planning?

Mutchnick Right now, we've only computed the stories up to the first episode of the second season because we know how we're going to end this year. We really haven't gone much further than that. We really started out thinking that we were just writing one year of this show and that's how we came at it as writers, and it was only very late in the game right, before the TCA [panel], that we discovered that we were going to be two years.

Kohan I will tell you this much: One of the dragons is undead.

Mutchnick And one of them is gay.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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