Max Mutchnick is a big Queerty reader. “I feel like it’s my gay People Magazine,” the Will & Grace creator admits. He’s such a fan that when the influential NBC sitcom returned last month after 11 years, Mutchnick included a reference to the site in the premiere. “That was just for me, to hear Grace talk about that website that I look at every night when I go home.”
The show is as fun and fizzy as it always was, but Mutchnick and co-creator David Kohan aren’t shy about taking on tough issues. The premiere episode was a savage send-up of the Trump White House, and the latest took on gay “conversion therapy.”
Queerty got on the phone with Mutchnick earlier this week to talk about the second coming of Will & Grace, Mike Pence and whether it’s important for gay actors to play gay roles.
Whose idea was it to address gay conversion “therapy” in a half-hour sitcom?
We—David [Kohan] and I—had it in the basket of the episodes that we knew we wanted to do when we realized we were coming back. This was one of the episodes we knew we were going to do. For us, serious subjects are never a reason to not write a comedy around them. There are certain things that you shouldn’t write about, but this is not one of them. And we knew there was a story we could tell and we could put it inside the architecture of this show.
Of course, the way you do that is by making Jack a grandfather. How did Sean Hayes feel about that?
Oh, you know, Sean is the least neurotic actors that I’ve ever worked with. Actually, I have to rescind that statement: Sean is on the lower side of neurotic. Age is not an issue for him, and this was the right way to tell the story and this was the right way to get Will and Jack inside a conversion therapy camp, which I think are like modern day torture camps. The fact that they still exist and the fact that we have a vice president in the White House who has endorsed this method of “therapy”—and I say “therapy” in quotes because it’s not a therapy, I only view it as a form of torture.
Have you read that New Yorker piece on Mike Pence?
I have. Yes, I have. So when people have asked us, Is the show going to be timely? I certainly didn’t know that The New Yorker article was going to be written, but I knew when we wrote this story that we had a vice president that felt the way that Mike Pence feels, and I knew that this would be a relevant area for us to be writing to. But I never thought it would be this relevant.
Back to Jack as a grandpa. I’m curious about the way the new season is going to address gay men aging, that’s not something we’ve really seen much on TV. When the show was first on the air, we had lost so many gay men to the AIDS crisis that there really wasn’t a generation of gay men of a certain age. Now the generation that came after is getting older.
I think it’s the same way that I’m treating myself: with as much forgiveness and grace as I possibly can, and with as much humor as I can. I feel like David and I are still writing about a world that we know and a world that I live in and am an active participant in. It feels as if I’m writing about the stuff that I know and I don’t have any particular plan other than I’m gonna take it the same way that I take my life, which is one day at a time—except I drink.
What’s it like writing the show again after all these years? Are there things you can say and do now that you weren’t able to do in the original run?
I don’t know about anything other than what my own personal experience is of walking through the world. So if I start thinking too much outside of my own experience, I think I’ll get myself into trouble. So I’ll put it to you this way: in the last 11 years, I have gotten that much more comfortable in my skin. And so I am that much more accepting, but I also feel like I’m that much more accepted. So I’m doing a better job of being me, so I think the characters are doing a better job of being themselves. But there’s nothing special about my experience. If you’re not living in an oppressed environment, it’s possible to be a gay man or woman in 2017 and grow and to be embraced and loved.
Well just some of the things the characters have joked about in the first couple episodes, terms they’ve used like twinks and bears and Grindr, Grace even mentions Queerty—these are things that are part of gay men’s lives that I’m not sure a mainstream audience would have gotten ten years ago.
Yeah, Buzzfeed is available to everybody, you know? So is the Huffington Post. I believe that everybody’s getting hit. I don’t think that our language is rarefied, and words that we may use on the show, if you hadn’t heard them before, you understand them in real time. If you didn’t know what Grindr was before you saw the first episode of the show, you do now. You see a guy, a gay man of a certain age, on his phone looking for love in all the wrong places, and he basically explains it inside the joke.
Obviously, you couldn’t do this show without Eric McCormack, but I’m curious about your thoughts on having gay roles played by straight actors, especially when out actors still struggle to get any type of role.
Um…I feel like this question is a set-up. There’s no good answer for me. Honey, I think we’re on the same side, but I…
It’s not a set-up. I think it’s a conversation worth having. I think we’ve established that it’s inappropriate to give a transgender role to a non-trans actor when there are so many trans actors who struggle to find work. So, why is it ok to cast a straight actor in a gay role when just being out can hurt an actor’s chances of being cast in any role. Do you see what I’m saying?
Well, I’ll say this: It’s very tricky. I understand exactly the dilemma. But I’m also of the mind that the representation, if it’s a good one as is the case with Will Truman, there’s a greater good that comes of it, ok? But that doesn’t mean that I’m deaf to the real problem of trans actors and actresses specifically. With gay actors and gay actresses—that one’s a tougher call. But I do believe that if the character is a good character, and the character is and enlightened character, it is an art form and the actor needs to be able to just play it authentically. It’s better in the long run to have good representation on the air than it is to not tell the story because you couldn’t find an out gay actor to play whatever the part is.
I’m sure you’ve kept up with LGBTQ representation on TV. Over the last decade, shows like The New Normal and Looking ended prematurely. Why do you think these LGBT shows have struggled to find an audience in recent years?
There haven’t been good characters. There aren’t good scripts with good gay characters in them. And I don’t think that there’s any resistance to it. I just think that it hasn’t happened. Looking went off the air because it wasn’t getting eyeballs and it wasn’t getting eyeballs because it wasn’t good enough. I watched every episode and I am a fan of Andrew Haigh and I loved Weekend, ok? The show didn’t make for great television, and that’s why it didn’t stay on the air. HBO’s job was not to keep the show on the air because they wanted to do them a favor. They had to keep the show on the air because there were compelling stories that were being told every week that a large audience wanted to see, and I don’t think that that’s happening enough. That show should have been a lot better. I would love nothing more than for that show to still be on the air. But the episodes weren’t compelling enough. It has absolutely nothing to do with gay, straight or otherwise.
Well, where are those compelling scripts about LGBTQ people? Why aren’t more of them making it to HBO or Netflix?
Oh, I think they’re there! Look at the Armie Hammer movie that’s coming out, Call Me By Your Name. I’m excited about that. It looks like great storytelling. It’s not obvious, it’s surprising and that director [Luca Guadagnino] is spectacular, and it’s going to work. Nobody gives a shit about our gay shenanigans over here. People watch Will & Grace because it’s funny and they like the four [characters], and they like those relationships, and they either have that relationship or they want to have that relationship. And they project things onto the show. So that’s why we’ve had some staying power.
But if we stopped being funny, we won’t be on TV anymore.