In 2012, in the midst of a North Carolina ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in the state, then-Vice President Joe Biden went on Meet the Press to discuss the bill. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done,” he told host David Gregory. At the time, the show had been off the air for six years, yet remained a cultural landmark for its depiction of openly gay characters to a nationwide audience not yet accustomed to hearing lines like, “Commandment number one in the gay bible: Thou shalt not covet my ex’s ass.”
At its peak, it made Nielsen’s Top 10 with over 17 million weekly viewers. And while the series received as much hate mail as adoration – an inevitable byproduct of being the first show to have an openly gay male lead character – it lasted eight seasons before ending in 2006. Last week, NBC announced that it would revive the show for a 10-episode run during the 2017-18 season, bringing back the series’ main stars Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally.
As Mullally, who played alcoholic socialite Karen Walker, tells Rolling Stone, “People are going apeshit! It’s very poignant in a way. I honestly don’t understand.”
The cast reconvened last September to film a mini-episode about the presidential election, pitting Hillary-loving Grace and Will against Mullally’s Trump-supporting Karen in an effort to sway undecided voter Jack. The video received 7 million views.
“That was all done secretly, without NBC’s knowledge,” Mullally admits. “The creators of the show had had that idea and mysteriously, everybody immediately said ‘Yes.’ It was top secret and it didn’t leak at all, which is crazy.”
Mullally received the script for the episode the night before filming and the cast shot the nine-minute clip in one day. A thought echoed by many of Will & Grace‘s fans formed. “I immediately emailed one of the creators and said, ‘Why can’t we just do the show again?'” she says. “And he emailed back, ‘We can!'”
It wasn’t that easy, of course. But Mullally says the cast camaraderie hadn’t changed from the original series. “It just seemed like we could [reunite] because the script [for the election short] was hilarious and the cast was all still around and out there,” she says. “We’re all still in good working order.” NBC “popped up out of the woodwork” a few days after the video’s release and began talks for a reunion.
Looking back on the show’s cultural impact, Mullally stresses that humor superseded politics. “Nobody knew if the pilot would even get picked up because it had two gay lead characters, which has never happened before. And now every show has at least two gay characters, if not many more,” says the actress-singer who recently released the lead single off her bluesy upcoming album. “It was successful because it was funny and we didn’t try to politicize anything. These two gay characters, that was just one of their many attributes, among others. Since we weren’t trying to hammer people over the head with anything and the gay bashing was sort of built into the show, your work was already done for you if you were so inclined.
“As the show went on, I think slowly but surely – because the show was funny and entertaining – people who maybe had been closed off before to the idea of homosexuality loosened up a little bit and people’s tolerance levels started getting shored up,” she adds. “And then, lo and behold, it seemed to ultimately have some kind of actual impact as the years went on.”
Mullally says she’s “not at liberty to disclose” anything about the new episodes’ plots yet, but she says shooting may begin at the end of this summer. While cast members maintained, then and now, that the series was always about being funny first and making a statement second, it’s impossible to view the reunion in apolitical terms given Vice President Mike Pence’s past policies that critics have derided as virulently homophobic.
“The general idea is to make the show as funny as it can possibly be, but I think the show was always topical,” Mullaly says. “So I’m sure we’ll be addressing whatever craziness is happening, if we’re not all living in work camps by then.”
Additional reporting by Jon Freeman