'Will & Grace' Creators on Bringing the Autobiographical 'Partners' to Life, Several Versions Later
David Kohan and Max Mutchnick tell THR about their long-gestated project, what went wrong with "$#*! My Dad Says" and how Steve McPherson was "too insane" to work with at ABC.
During its eight-season run on NBC, Will & Grace was nominated for 83 Emmys and won 16. At its peak, it averaged 17.3 million viewers every week and ranked in the top ten shows on TV. It's also been credited, most recently by Vice President Joe Biden, with helping educate Americans on gay issues.
The years since haven't brought that same level of success for co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick -- follow-ups Four Kings and $#*! My Dad Says both lasted just one season -- but with Monday's premiere of Partners, they're making another play for sitcom success.
Partners follows the comedic trials of best friends Joe (David Krumholtz) and Louis (Michael Urie), one straight and one gay, and it's a project Kohan and Mutchnick (also straight and gay, respectively) have been trying to make since before Will & Grace even premiered.
The childhood friends and longtime writing partners met with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of their CBS debut and sounded off on the enduring appeal of their previous hit, the evolution of gay TV and the obstacles of getting their self-referential series to air.
The Hollywood Reporter: This is your third or fourth attempt at making a show that sort of mirrors your own friendship. What about this version made it work?
David Kohan: It's the right cast and the right network.
Max Mutchnick: Finding the guys to play Joe and Louis was the thing that really made it “work” work. The first time we tried it, the script didn't work, so it went away, We did it again and casting really wasn’t there. To his credit, Peter Roth, who we’ve been with at Warner Brother Studios for over a decade, told us, “This is a show I want to make. I want to see a buddy comedy with a gay guy and straight guy who are best friends. I want it to be you two.”
Kohan: And he wanted it to mirror the important parts of our dynamic.
Mutchnick: When Nina Tassler got on board and was the first one to step up and say, “I want it and I want it on my network,” it was a really good feeling, so we went forward and I think we finally wrote the right version of it.
THR: How long have you wanted to do this?
Kohan: Going back really far, before Will & Grace.
Mutchnick: The year after Will & Grace wrapped, we did the first one. It never had a title and Brian Austin Green was on board. We did it again for Steve McPherson, but he was too insane to make it happen.
THR: How sensitive were you to casting, given people will draw comparisons to both of you?
Mutchnick: Well David Krumholtz is that good-looking male lead who can do comedy and do everything in front of four cameras the right way. He's on that very short list and we met with him early on. He wanted to play Louis, but I took one look at the cut of his suit and said I would rather put a fork in my eye then watch you play a character based on me.
THR: What was your biggest takeaway from $#*! My Dad Says?
Kohan: $#*! My Dad Says was a perfect example of something that was far from what we knew. You’re writers, so hopefully you're able to imagine yourself in that situation, but it was a voice and a zone that didn’t come natural. As soon as it was done, we said to each other lets do something closer to home. The guy who created $#*! My Dad Says [Justin Halpern] is fantastic. He’s a really funny, really good guy, and his voice is there -- but it was hard for us to really wrap our heads around it.
THR: How are you different from Joe and Louis?
Kohan: I feel like we fight more! We’re more heated.
Mutchnick: He’s going to make sure that Joe never crosses a line that he’s not comfortable with personally and I’m going to do the same thing with Luis. I hope it makes for a better script because we care a lot more about these two than, say, William Shatner and Jonathan Sadowski [$#*! My Dad Says].
THR: 8:30 on Mondays has been a huge launch pad for so many series -- How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Big Bang Theory. What do you think of being put there?
Mutchnick: Being the negatively bent human that I am, I focus much more on “Please God don’t put us after Big Bang on Thursday night!” I was just relieved that that was the time slot we didn’t get that I haven’t taken the time to be thrilled about the fact that we have that time slot.
Kohan: Tell him why you didn’t want to be after Big Bang.
Mutchnick: It's the kiss of death.
THR: Gay characters are much more prevalent on television than when Will & Grace first premiered. What did you think of Joe Biden crediting the show with opening up Americans' minds?
Kohan: When I had hear that, I was stunned -- and very flattered that he would even say something like that. It was kind of thrilling.
Mutchnick: I just hope that Partners will do for Obama what Will & Grace has done for Biden. Maybe he's home on a Monday night, beginning of the week, it's a slow news day and he'll watch it with Sasha and Malia.
THR: Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom hemorrhaged viewers when her character came and was canceled just a few months before Will & Grace premiered. Why do you think audiences were more responsive?
Mutchnick: We are very very careful to not teach. We just write characters that we feel that we know well and we think we can make them funny and we go out of our way to not teach anybody any lessons about the subject matter or the politics of it..
Kohan: In terms of Ellen, I remember we had these discussions, supposing it was something else. Supposing she’d come out and said, “I am now.. a nun!” She changed the entire focus of the show. The fans of the show at that point were like, “What? Your changing the show.”
Mutchnick: It’s like if Seinfeld decided in the fifth season he wanted to be Hindu. You’d probably not be that into that as an audience member. You want to see the Jerry you’ve come to know.
Kohan: When we thought to ourselves.. “Uh oh, are people going to be receptive” I didn’t necessarily think it had anything to do with her coming out.. I think it had more to do with the fact that she was shifting the focus of her show that was working.. or was working pretty well at least..
THR: You've gotten some flack for comparisons to short-lived '90s buddy sitcom also called Partners.
Mutchnick: It’s so hard to talk about something and acknowledge it without giving it any weight. We're all so savvy now, and everyone thinks there something under something. It wasn’t on our radar. Some great reporter just pointed out to us there are currently 39 shows plays and movies on IMDB with the title Partners.
Kohan: That’s a lot… It’s more a testament to a lack of originality.
Partners premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS