Will & Gays

From the April 28th issue of Entertainment Weekly

Top 10 staple Will & Grace can lure any guest star it wants. (Welcome aboard, Madonna!) So why can't it find Will a boyfriend?

By Michael Joseph Gross

Tuesday-night tapings on the set of Will & Grace, says Debra Messing, can seem like "a frat party gone bad. Eventually, people start stripping." But the show had never seen anything like the crowd that showed up on March 18 to witness the taping of Madonna's network series debut. When the Material Mom appeared on set, the audience stood and screamed, and yes, one fan (Travis Oteri, a 20-year-old Starbucks barista from Boston, who later called this "the best day of my life") flashed some skin -- the small of his back, tattooed with Madonna's Drowned World Tour logo. After the first take of Madonna's first scene, Megan Mullally grabbed a microphone and tried to calm the house down: "Laugh, but not so loud! Not so much screaming! Except if I'm funny." More laughter. More screaming. Mullally shrugged, threw her arm around Madonna, and mugged for the audience: "Stars, living big."

Even more so now. A month later, the cast of Will & Grace inked a deal that boosted their paychecks to at least $250,000 per episode. NBC has good reason to pay up: W&G, which pulls in 16.6 million viewers a week, is the second-most-popular comedy in the 18-49 demographic; impressive for a show in its fifth season. Plus, W&G has been hailed by such political groups as GLAAD for its positive portrayals of gay people.

Lately, however, W&G's groundbreaking depiction of friendships between gay and straight people, and the outstanding work of its ensemble cast (love and insult haven't been played so seamlessly since All In The Family), have been overshadowed by the show's parade of A-list guest stars. Above-the-title names like Matt Damon, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Macaulay Culkin, Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Gene Wilder and Cher have all made rare TV appearances for the chance to banter with Will, Grace, Jack and Karen. (Sometimes they decide to stick around: Insiders say Driver returns for a major story arc next season.) "All of a sudden it was a cool thing to do," says Eric McCormack, as he gazes across his dressing room toward an orchid sent to him by another recent guest star, Elton John. "Sometimes I think we feel like The Love Boat."

Madonna is by far the most famous passenger to board the good ship W&G, although her manners, by some accounts, were less than impeccable. "She did ask me my name a couple of times, and I said 'It's easy, just check the opening credits of the other 120 of these that we've done'", says McCormack. "She sort of laughed, but I was sort of only half-kidding. And then she sort of made up for it at the end of the week, when she sent me the most expensive thing of roses I've ever seen, and a card from her saying 'Eric, thank you so much. I'm gonna have your name tattooed on my arm, if Guy [Ritchie, her husband] will let me.'"

But McCormack believes that Madonna and other high-wattage guest stars may bring W&G a more enduring gift than flowers -- a consumer-friendly way to give Will a boyfriend, finally. (And by boyfriend, we mean a guy who sticks around for more than a couple of episodes.) "[Madonna's guest appearance] will probably be our biggest episode. Let's have that number of people show up to watch me hold George Clooney's hand, or whoever's up for doing it... maybe that's what it's going to take to really make that next big, bold move -- an actual relationship where we know, when [Will and another man] walk out of a room, they've probably just had sex. It might take a big celebrity name to make that work. I think we're debating it now."

The show's creative team has been debating Will's romantic fate for some time, actually. Here's a bit of an oral history: 1999: "I'd fee better keeping Will Truman on the air for 100 episodes without showing him in bed with a man than showing something that will offend people and have it pulled off the air after 30 episodes. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to write something because of pressure," cocreator and exec producer Max Mutchnick told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette; 2000: "We're doing our best to find love interests for both of them," W&G cocreator and exec producer David Kohan told EW; 2002: "We're going to try and give [Will] a real boyfriend this year," exec producer Jeff Greenstein promised EW. "I know, we say it every year, but we're gonna do it."

Today, Mutchnick says that while celebrity may be the sugar that helps Will's love affair go down, there's no plan to make that happen. "W&G is on the air every week. That's the big deal for the gay community. But I really have a problem, and I'm one of the gay writers on the show, making it like we're working toward [putting Will in a relationship]. All I care about is, I don't want to go backward."

Later, he continues: "I don't think sex has a very comfortable life in a sitcom format. I always feel that it fights the humor of the genre." Why, then, have audiences seen Grace cavorting under the sheets with her boyfriends? And how come *she* got married this season? "It seemed very right for a 30-year-old Jewish girl in New York to desire to have a mate. And that's not to say that a 30-year-old gay male in New York shouldn't have it. But it seemed much more organic to tell [Grace's] story than it's been to tell the story of Will falling in love ... we haven't found a great way to do it, so we haven't done it yet. It's that complicated."

And personal: Mutchnick, who is single, adds: "I feel very connected to [Will] ... and I would imagine that the next time I fall in love will probably be the time Will falls in love."

So until that happens, Will Truman and his fans will have to content themselves with highly charged brushes with gay icons like Madonna. {Hey, at least Karen got a handful of Madge's mammaries.) Still, gay fans in particular are sensitive to whatever actions (or inactions) the show takes because it's one of the few places they see themselves reflected on TV. It's their fear that the program's own coming out -- in the form of Will finding love -- has been stilted by its promiscuity in stunt-casting guest stars. "Will's romantic life has been very disappointing," GLAAD entertainment media director Scott Seomin says. "A man as good-looking, in shape, funny, and well-off as Will, living in New York, would not live that celibate of a life."

Mutchnick disagrees, saying that it's not a sitcom's responsibility to make the country a gayer and friendlier place. "I don't want to show Will as some provocative, promiscuous [person] because he does represent something to people," he says. "There's only one agenda in the making of W&G -- that it should be the funniest it can be and the most entertaining it should be. If a kiss comes out of that, then great."