NBC's new hit comedy ''Will & Grace'' finds the climate for a gay leading man just fine - as long as he's got a good (straight) woman by his side
Will & Grace

What’s the most shocking thing about the fall TV season? Could it be Calista Flockhart’s incredible shrinking waistline? Or the bizarre Abe Lincoln-bashing sitcom The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer? Nope. The biggest eyebrow raiser has to be that NBC debuted a sitcom about a proud, openly gay man and — get this — no one made a fuss. No boycotts. No advertiser defections. No Bible-thumping jeremiads by Jerry Falwell. Instead, the cleverly written Will & Grace has gotten to-die-for reviews and tasty ratings; it’s one of the new season’s few freshman hits (albeit a modest one).

What the heck? Is this the same country that threw a massive conniption over a little show called Ellen? Has the Moral Majority up and moved to Ecuador? Where’s the controversy we journalists so love? Just a thought, but maybe the eerie calm has something to do with the Grace half of Will & Grace. That would be Will’s dizzy, single, Regis Philbin-lovin’ live-in best friend who just happens to be straight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Sound familiar yet? Yes, zeitgeist watchers, the gay-man/hetero-gal duo has become the pop-culture relationship du jour, the screwball comedy match for the millennium, a safe, lucrative way to package gay characters for the heartland.

Let’s go to the videotape: Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett waltzed through the $127 million hit My Best Friend’s Wedding. Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear heart-to-hearted in As Good as It Gets. Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd tangoed in The Object of My Affection. Lisa Kudrow and Martin Donovan road-tripped in The Opposite of Sex.

And that’s not to mention the high-profile projects in the Hollywood pipeline, including a possible sequel to Wedding for real-life buds Roberts and Everett; a second potential pairing for the duo called Martha and Arthur, about a gay movie star and his marriage of convenience; and a Paramount project, The Next Best Thing, for Everett and his other gal pal, Madonna.

Gay men and straight women are to the ’90s what Oscar and Felix were to the ’70s. They’re certainly the dream odd couple for nervous networks. On one hand, there’s enough gayness to grab some hipster cred and lots of Oscar Wilde-ish repartee. On the other, the straight gal keeps the scripts from drifting into Joe Six-pack-alienating Ellen territory. ”It’s attractive because it allows a sort of ersatz hetero relationship,” says Armistead Maupin, whose book-turned-miniseries Tales of the City revolved around a homo-hetero pairing. ”It also assures the networks that they won’t have to spend too much time on that icky man-to-man kissing.”

It’s a warm October Monday in Studio City — rehearsal day on the set of Will & Grace — and this gay stuff is starting to cause some confusion.

Eric McCormack, who plays New York lawyer Will, stops mid-scene, looks up from the script he’s holding (which, interestingly, happens to be pink), and asks for a clarification: ”Is it faygel or faygeleh?”

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Will & Grace
Will and Grace
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