How ‘Will & Grace’s’ Relatable Vibe Helped Audiences Accept Gay Characters

'Will & Grace' Helped Build Acceptance
Kris Connor/Getty Images

During its eight-season run on NBC, “Will & Grace” was nominated for 83 Emmy Awards, nabbing 16 statues, plus seven GLAAD Media Awards. The comedy was honored in the Smithsonian’s LGBT history collection, and was recognized by Vice President Joe Biden for helping to educate the American public about the gay community. But getting the sitcom on air in 1998 was an achievement in and of itself.

“It wasn’t easy. You got the sense that there was some anxiety about it,” recalls David Kohan, who co-created the series with Max Mutchnick. “I remember one time our agent asked us, ‘Hey, can you make Will straight?’ ”

Kohan says Showtime’s David Nevins, then at NBC, was an early champion of the project, thanks to the characters’ dynamic — not their sexual identity. “If you set out to make a political statement, you’re just making a political statement, and political statements are boring,” Kohan tells Variety. “You want to write about characters that people care about and want to hang out with. That’s your job, and all the other stuff that comes with it is gravy.”

Showcasing gay characters on TV was not then the norm, though Ellen DeGeneres had come out a year prior to “Will & Grace’s” debut, and incorporated that storyline into her ABC sitcom. Surprisingly, “Ellen” didn’t change the landscape. “That was a blessing and a curse,” Kohan explains. “That episode did really well, and then the numbers started to fall off.”

When “Will” became a hit, with over 17 million viewers, he says, more than anything, it opened the eyes of naysayers who saw things that were considered taboo, and didn’t think they could attract viewership. “The public was probably a lot more accepting than they were being given credit for,” Kohan says.

Kohan, whose sister Jenji created “Orange Is the New Black,” says there’s a reason why content has progressed. “In television, there are so many (more) outlets. Back when I started, you had to reach 15 million (viewers) … now, you can reach fewer than 1 million, and be an important cultural touchstone.”

Still, Kohan doesn’t attribute “Will & Grace’s” success to being revolutionary. In fact, he says, it was wonderfully ordinary.

“In a way, ‘Will & Grace’ was not unlike ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” he says, citing the comedic tone and relationships among the lead foursome. “It had familiar tropes, which is one of the reasons why people were responding to it. In television language, it was a familiar, understandable and comfortable thing.”

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