Roundtable: 'Will & Grace' producers
An unrequited high school romance inspired the show that broke ground in primetime.
In high school, Max Mutchnick seriously dated Janet Eisenberg. That is, until he informed her he was gay. But eventually, they repaired the rift and became close friends. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the kernel of the story line that's been airing as "Will & Grace" on NBC for nearly 200 episodes -- and in the process, making co-creator/executive producers Mutchnick and straight partner David Kohan (whom Mutchnick also knew from Beverly Hills High School) among the most successful comedy producers of their generation. Having veteran producer-director James Burrows ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Friends," among countless others) helming every single episode of the show since its 1998 debut also was a major assist. As the fictional Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) prepare to take their final bows tonight, Mutchnick, Kohan and Burrows recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond about their feelings on the end of their comedy classic -- a series that struck a significant blow for truth, justice and the American gay.
The Hollywood Reporter: So why end things now, at only eight seasons?
Max Mutchnick: It just feels like a good time to do this. It feels right. We'd all made the decision a year ago, and it was entirely natural. It wasn't even a big conversation.
James Burrows: We accomplished everything we set out to do, beginning with making the show mainstream.
David Kohan: Yeah, you know, in the end, this show ultimately appealed to everybody, even the little old lady in Kansas. We're really proud of that. It's almost a miracle that straight men would begin to identify with Will -- that his sexual orientation became secondary to their wanting him to have an emotional involvement.
THR: When "Will & Grace" premiered, "Ellen" had just been canceled, and the perception was that Ellen DeGeneres' character and the show itself went overboard with being strident after she came out of the closet. Were you afraid coming out of the box of making a similar mistake?
Kohan: No, because we pretty much knew going in that we were writing a show about people, not sexuality. You want to learn about characters, not issues, because the bottom line is, it has to be funny. Our marching orders had been to make this a fairly traditional romantic comedy with an untraditional core.
Mutchnick: We were able to get this show on the air in large part thanks to Ellen's 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. We really made a choice to take baby steps with the subject matter and instead explore the core love story between Will and Grace.
THR: It's just great that you can even call that kind of relationship a "love story."
Kohan: What it always was -- through to the end -- was a love story with an insurmountable obstacle.
THR: James, you directed every single episode of the show, which might be the first time in TV history that one director has handled every installment of such a long-running series. Was it about needing the money?
Burrows: (Laughing) No, I can honestly say it wasn't money-related. The only reason I work now is to have fun. I knew from the time we did the pilot for this show how fun and special it was. There was a touch of Diane Chambers (of "Cheers") in Grace. It was like doing a whole new brand of humor for me that was much more topical. I think, in the end, it's been the funniest show I've ever done.
THR: Considering your resume, that's saying something.
Burrows: The difference with "Will & Grace" is that even without the agenda, we were able to make gay people appealing. We pushed the envelope in terms of risque humor, but I don't think we ever crossed the line to proselytizing. I was fortunate to work with such brilliant comic minds as those of Max and David.
THR: Was that the show's secret, the brilliant comic minds of you two guys?
Mutchnick: I think it's more people like Jon Kinnally and Tracy Poust, writer-producers who were with us from the beginning. They're a gay guy and a straight girl who were best friends growing up in New York. Having them on staff allowed us to have the Will and Grace sensibility right there in the room. We owe a great deal to them in particular, as well as others like (writer/co-executive producers) Jhoni Marchinko and Jeff Greenstein.
THR: It was nice to have a romantic comedy where the question of "Will they, or won't they?" never even had to be addressed, because we knew they wouldn't.
Kohan: I remember working as (director) Sydney Pollack's assistant way back, and I always recall him saying how the love was over once the boy and the girl kiss. It's all about the obstacles you put up that keep them from consummating their relationship. We had the ultimate barrier in place, but it was also one that never seemed artificial because of who they both were.
THR: Did you ever feel a responsibility to speak for the gay population?
Mutchnick: It's hard to speak for gay America, and we never purported to do it. All in all, I think we did a fine job of expressing what a gay man is all about. We handled it the same way I did when I came out to my family at the age of 22: by taking baby steps. I did it with respect for my audience, both when I came out at home and when writing this show -- though thankfully I've had a longer run.
Kohan: Will and Jack (Sean Hayes) were a spice in this show -- a very important spice -- but the truth is, we love all of our children equally. We lucked out in a lot of ways, but particularly in terms of our cast. People don't realize how hard it is to get a cast together that's this talented and has such amazing chemistry. You can never plan for that. And when your stage is being taken care of by Jimmy Burrows, capturing magic automatically becomes more likely.
Burrows: I won't argue the point. (Laughter)
THR: It's a cliche, but in order for a show to work well for so long, you really do have to become a family and get along well. Dysfunction doesn't seem well-suited for a long run.
Kohan: That really is true. The egos never got in the way of the product. If something didn't work, we all acknowledged it. There was a consensus. The actors trusted that the writers would get it right by the time they shot it, and the writers trusted that the actors would execute what they wrote brilliantly. And most of the time, that's how it turned out.
Mutchnick: One thing we did that really seemed to bring us together was we brought in a cook, and we'd all sit down every day to eat a good meal together. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.
THR: So the family that dines together doesn't whine together?
Mutchnick: Let's just pretend you didn't say that.
THR: It's probably been tough the past few seasons to see the ratings drop and the perception of the show drop from a critical standpoint.
Burrows: It hasn't been easy. I think the network hurt us when they started moving us around the schedule, like to 8:30 on Thursday a few years ago, then to 8 (p.m.) this year. But that's the nature of the beast. I still feel like we've done great work all the way through.
THR: So will viewers see anything dramatic or disturbing when the series wraps? Do they all get killed in a plane crash or anything?
Mutchnick: I know a lot of people have been predicting that Karen (Megan Mullally) will bite everyone on the neck, turn into a bat and fly away. But I can assure you that won't be happening. David and I are sentimental Jews. We're going to take good care of these people. We certainly aren't going to make fun of what we've been doing. We have too much respect for our fans to do that.