A gay kiss and an NCIS diss: Will & Grace stars, creators break down two memorable jokes
Over the course of 246 episodes and 11 seasons, Will & Grace delivered plenty of laughs through the years — be it via Will's sarcasm, Grace's neurotic tendencies, Karen's pill-popping and biting wit, or Jack's crazy antics. Airing in four different decades — the original series aired on NBC from 1997-2006 and was revived by the network for a three-season run from 2017-2020 — the show quickly found a place in pop culture history thanks to its inclusion and portrayal of its gay lead characters.
That's why a season 2 episode, "Acting Out," stands out not just for a specific scene but also for how it showcased the sitcom's spicy syntax while co-opting another stellar cultural first.
It was a momentous occasion in 2000 as Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes) — with Grace (Debra Messing) wedged between them on the couch — were about to watch the first-ever primetime network kiss between two gay men on a fictional NBC sitcom called Along Came You. It was a moment, for them, akin to another significant event.
"That's one of those lines that worked on a meta level because it's self-referential — the show is making the kiss that it's talking about," explains series co-creator David Kohan, adding of the 1969 moon landing, "and 'one giant leap for mankind' was [a first-time event]."
Adds McCormack, who delivered the punchline, "What I love about 'man-on-mankind' is it's like a missing link between the kind of gay joke TV couldn't make pre-Will & Grace and the commonplace single entendres of today. In '99, that punchline was as surprising as the kiss itself."
Even though Will and Jack didn't get to see that kiss — cameras on the fictional sitcom panned away — Will & Grace viewers still got to witness one when Will rectified the censorship, later in the episode, by spontaneously planting one on Jack outside Today when Al Roker greeted them as part of the outdoor audience. "We were having issues with [NBC allowing us to show a kiss] and this was how we got away with it," says co-creator Max Mutchnick.
"Going to the Today show and shooting that sequence, I remember we only had, like, one take with Al Roker and he was cool," Mutchnick recalls. "But I just think it's amazing that we flew to New York and shot this very expensive, big episode in order to get a kiss on that show."
"It was blistering cold but Eric's lips warmed me up. Then he bought us a house and we moved in together," Hayes jokes. "Also, Al Roker was very sweet."
McCormack shares a similar sentiment: "Taking Will and Grace and Jack and Karen out of Stage 17 in Studio City and onto the wintery streets of Manhattan was so freakin' exciting. They went from sitcom characters to flesh and blood New Yorkers. Plus, Sean Hayes is a good kisser, so… win/win."
Twenty years later, almost to the day, the sitcom's reboot featured another memorable punchline, this one from Jack, who continually made audiences laugh with his immature quips and shenanigans alongside Karen (Megan Mullally). But few could've expected something so philosophical as he opened up to Will about his faith — while also shading a popular, long-running CBS procedural — in the show's final season.
"I've never even met anyone that watches NCIS," says writer Suzanne Martin (who Hayes calls "the best sitcom writer of all time"), admitting she never has either. "I was thinking about something that you believe exists, even though you've never seen it."
"How many times have I looked at the TV Top 10 and seen some show in its, like, twelfth season and thought, 'Who the hell is still watching that?' " McCormack says, sharing Martin's sentiment. As for insulting the CBS drama, he says there was no reluctance in going there. "There was almost nothing that Will & Grace hesitated about dissing. NCIS? Easy pickin's! Besides, we compared them to God! I'm sure they didn't complain."
Hayes, who so matter-of-factly delivered the line, also wasn't worried. "I don't think it's possible to diss one of the most successful shows in television history," he shares. "My guess is they're doing just fine with or without us mentioning them."
Funny but also poignant, executed in one brief, impactful exchange between two friends.
"I loved these scenes: Will describing how religion had let him down as a kid, but Jack surprisingly clinging to the parts that were still comforting. New area for us," McCormack explains. "The joke is a brilliant turn on the 'If a tree falls in the forest…' idea."
And the nugget of wisdom — which reads like a clever, elevated version of a knock-knock joke — "was surprising" coming from Jack, Martin says. "I love dumb characters that can suddenly be smart."
Concludes Kohan, "It was like hitting a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat."
Home run, indeed.
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