Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes had a lot to celebrate this weekend. Not only was their hit sitcom Will & Grace in the spotlight at Los Angeles’ PaleyFest, and not only did they announce there that NBC, ahead of the revival’s season 1 finale, has renewed the comedy for a third season (and added five additional episodes to season 2), but they were also commemorating the 20th anniversary of filming the comedy’s pilot episode — March 17, 1998.
Sixteen Emmy wins (from 79 nominations!) and 222 episodes later, they shared with EW their memories of that day.
“I remember being sick in the morning — and not sick with fear, but sick with actual fever — getting a B-12 shot, and somehow we all rose to the occasion,” McCormack told EW. “I just remember it being easy — we didn’t change a lot. When we shoot now, we change a lot of jokes, we move things around, we do it live in front of the audience, but that night we kinda did a play that we rehearsed and it worked, and it worked in a way that the audience was reacting as if they already knew these characters, which is the sign that the pilot lands. And I remember sitting with Debra on the couch afterward and going, ‘I think we’re going to be on this couch for a while.’”
“The thing that is so vivid in my memory is that, as soon as it finished, Eric and I were seated in the little two-seater couch in the nook with the TV, and he just turned to me like a Buddha and just very calmly looked at me and said, ‘I think we’re going to be sitting on this couch for quite a while,’” Messing recalled. “And I turned to him and I was like, ‘What?!’ Because all I was thinking was, Please let this pilot get picked up, just give us a chance! And he was like, ‘Yep, yeah, that’s what I believe.’”
It wasn’t until the show’s second season — for which the sitcom scored 11 Emmy nominations, winning the top prize, Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as Outstanding Supporting Actor and Actress honors for Hayes and Mullally — that Messing realized McCormack was right.
“It was a provocative show, and sort of the core of what it is, it pushes boundaries, and we didn’t know if people would go on that ride with us 20 years ago,” Messing said. “So second season, it became clear that everybody was really responding to our brand of comedy, and then I felt like, okay, we belong here.”
“The thing I remember the most was Sean Hayes,” Mullally said, “because he was only 27 and he had never done a television show, and he walked out and he said his first line and the audience just went apesh—, and they just went completely out of their minds. It was like that for the whole pilot. We were just holding and holding and holding — everything he said, then holding for laughs for like 30 seconds. And I thought, ‘Wow! I have never seen anything like that happen in my entire life.’ It was really cool.”
“I remember being very, very sick the day we shot it because I had so much anxiety and I think I got myself sick,” Hayes said. “But I didn’t stop, obviously, and I didn’t want to be that actor who complained like, ‘I’m sick,’ but I had never done a TV show and I remember sitting at Will’s table and looking at the monitor and seeing my face on the monitor, and it looked like I was on a TV show. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on a television show!’ I remember saying that. ‘Oh my God, that looks like all the shows I watched when I grew up, and I’m on it!’ It was a very surreal moment, because I had never done a TV show before. That was an incredible moment for me.”
There are two episodes left in the Will & Grace revival’s first season (or, technically, season 9), which sees the return of Alec Baldwin as Karen’s former lover Malcolm Widmark — plus the sitcom will pay tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds and her character, Grace’s mom, on what would have been the hilarious and wonderfully theatrical Bobbi Adler’s birthday.
Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.