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Will & Grace has been pulling in solid numbers ever since it returned in late September following an 11-year hiatus. But perhaps even more impressive than the 5.0 live-plus-seven-day rating in the adults 18-49 demo or the 15.8 million total viewers the premiere drew is the $421,000 the series has already raised for various charities as part of the Will & Grace charity initiative.
Founded by Will & Grace co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick with NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, the campaign donates a certain number of seats from every episode taping to various charities. Those organizations then use the tickets to raise money, whether it be through an auction or a lottery system. Those who win tickets through these organizations then not only get to attend a live taping, but also get VIP access on set and have their picture taken with the show’s stars.
“We’re both guys that are focused this way to begin with and when this came to light, that we would have the opportunity to give back, we just thought it was an obvious fit,” Mutchnick tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There was so much interest and people wanting to see the show.”
The seed of the idea first came from star Eric McCormack, who was approached by his son’s school about getting two tickets to use for a silent auction last spring “long before we even had a production office,” he recalls. “We put that on auction and two tickets went for $25,000.”
That was the moment the creators realized “this could be something,” Kohan says.
The series and its creators are no strangers to giving back. During the Must-See TV mainstay’s original eight-year run, they auctioned everything from martini glasses to walk-on roles on the series (the latter is no longer available). In 2004, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the hometown of recurring actor Harry Connick Jr., “everybody stepped up because it’s just been something that we’ve always done,” Mutchnick recalls.
The same is true at NBC. Over the last three years, the broadcaster has raised $100 million for various causes through Red Nose Day. And the network has also taken part in recent fundraising concerts like Somos Live for Puerto Rico relief and the Hand in Hand telethon, which aired across the Big 4 broadcasters to help aid those affected by Hurricane Harvey in September.
“As a network, we support many causes that no one will ever even know about, ranging from City Year to Heifer International to Operation Smile,” Greenblatt says. “Giving back is in the DNA of Comcast and NBCUniversal.”
With everyone on board for the initiative, the question then became which charities to team with. While the original Will & Grace had been a “conduit for causes in the gay community,” as McCormack notes, the group decided to target a much more wide-ranging group of charities — totaling more than 25 thus far.
“We just thought to take it to the next level with this new show,” Mutchnick says. “Why don’t we really put this thing on steroids a little bit and see if we can be a little more aggressive in the way we raise money for causes?”
To do that, other key players from Will & Grace were invited to select charities that had special meaning for them. For McCormack, that was Project Angel Food, which helps those with life-threatening illnesses, and Stuart House, a rape center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. For Universal TV president Pearlena Igbokwe, it was the female-centered nonprofit Girls Inc. And even writers were invited to suggest organizations, which is how The Trevor Project was added to the list.
“But not the Mike Pence legal defense fund,” Kohan adds. “They won’t be getting anything.”
In addition to giving to a worthy cause, those lucky enough to score tickets get to witness a truly special experience separate from the final product viewers watch at home.
“At Will & Grace tapings you see how brilliant this cast really is, how raucous and loud the studio audience response is, and how impressive the writers are because they will add new jokes and do instant rewrites between takes,” Greenblatt says. “You can’t believe how well-oiled the machine is, and at the same time everyone is having a blast.”
The demand for Will & Grace seats is also at a high because the sheer number of scripted comedies that shoot in front of a live audience has plummeted since the series went off the air in 2006. Back then, there were more than a dozen multicams spread across the broadcast networks. Now, there are just a handful (see: Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Superior Donuts, Marlon and 9JKL).
“I think that there will continue to be a hunger to be there because there’s not a lot that shoots in front of an audience,” says McCormack, who himself recalls going to tapings of Cheers and Wings, among others, when he first came out to Hollywood. “The audience is really seeing a living, breathing thing and not just a performance of something that we rehearsed four days ago.”
As McCormack points out, the reunion of the core Will & Grace ensemble 11 years after the original series finale also gives the tapings an extra special feel. “It’s like they’re seeing a band together that they never thought they’d see perform live,” he says.
And the Will & Grace charity initiative is just getting started. As of the publication date, the money raised for several tape days had yet to be factored into the season total, and the multicam has already been renewed for a 13-episode second season.
“I don’t see why we’d stop,” McCormack says. “We’re going to try to, over time, make sure that we can share the wealth as much as possible.”
Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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