Will & Grace returned to NBC last month after an 11-year hiatus, making it arguably one of the most unexpected—and anticipated—revivals in television. The Emmy award-winning series starring Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes blazed the trail for the LGBT community with Will and Jack, characters who revolutionized gay representation on the screen. The show comes back to a much changed and more accepting world, but also to precarious times for the arts. Mutchnick and Kohan spoke to me over the phone about how they met (high school), and why TV is the most empathy-inducing medium.
Rachel Hurn: Congratulations, I saw that you recently won the 2017 Logo Trailblazer Award.
David Kohan: One question. Was I underdressed?
RH: I really don’t think so.
Max Mutchnick: If you knew him, he was, but it’s okay.
RH: I don’t even remember what you were wearing. A suit or something?
DK: It wasn’t noteworthy.
MM: It was a suit with mom jeans. This is a thing. This is how you can tell us apart. You now know who the gay guy is and who the straight guy is.
RH: There was something that you guys said during the acceptance speech, that TV, more than any other medium, has the power to represent people and to transcend stereotypes. Why you think this is true?
DK: Well, as a kid my experience of watching TV was that it’s like inviting people, the characters, into your home. We watched in our living room; there’s an intimacy there. If you have people represented who are not like you, then you’re inviting “others” into your home. And you develop a rapport with them. That’s basically the dynamic and the process by which television is very effective.
RH: Despite TV sometimes getting a bad rap, you could argue that it’s an educational tool, opening your world to people who are different from you.
DK: Absolutely. This is kind of a weird reference these days, but if you think about The Cosby Show, I don’t know how many people growing up in all white communities had been exposed to a black professional family with kids who were just like their friends. I mean, that’s powerful.
RH: I would argue that Will & Grace did that, and will continue to do that, for gay and transgender and queer people. Are there other trailblazing shows or people who influenced either of you?
MM: I feel like the trailblazing was really done by the gay men and straight women who we’ve known for our entire lives. That friendship is not a new dynamic, it’s just that Will & Grace was the first time it was on TV front and center.
DK: I think it’s a mistake to make your goal, “I’m going to bring the gay experience to television.” What you do is you bring the personal experience that you’re connected to emotionally and psychologically, and that you really understand deeply, because if you feel powerful about something and you can convey that, or if you really understand something and you know what’s funny about it, that’s what works. You’re not putting ideas out there, you’re putting relationships out there.
RH: Who would you say is continuing to push the envelope right now?
MM: I think Ryan Murphy has done a very good job of keeping gay and transgender people front and center. I remember watching the pilot of Glee, and then the seasons that followed, and I always thought he did it the best. He has such a powerful platform, and so many people watch his shows. And then there have been people like Doug Ellin of Entourage, who did it terribly. He’s a peer, we don’t know each other, but I do have to call out the way he depicted a gay man in the workforce on that television show. I think it set us back. Jeremy Piven played a very dynamic agent and was a lot of fun to watch, but he had a gay assistant, played by Rex Lee, who he treated deplorably. I’m sure Ellin felt that underlying all of the bombast and aggression was a love that Piven’s character had for his assistant, but I thought it was just atrocious.
DK: The people who push the envelope are the people who put characters on television who have been historically underrepresented. And then it comes down to representation not of ideas but of people. I believe the experience in Black-ish, for example, because that’s a writer talking about his experience and what his life is like; he understands it from the inside-out, and that’s why it resonates.
MM: Another person who did a good job with this is Jenji Kohan on Orange is the New Black. Laverne Cox’s character is fantastic and groundbreaking because that was a woman we got to know as a human being. We got to hear the story of this transgender woman and what it means to be trans today. The irony is that I’m pushing David’s sister’s work. [Laughs]
RH: I’m wondering if you could talk about how you both became interested in the arts in the first place?
DK: Max and I met and became friends in a theater arts class.
MM: We had a very powerful teacher and mentor, a guy named John Ingle. He ran the drama department at Beverly Hills High School, and he was a spectacular individual. While we were in high school he actually got hired on General Hospital and left the school and was on that show for many years. He has since passed. But for me as a scared, closeted young boy growing up in a house with a single mom, having a role model or a mentor like John Ingle was crucial. But it’s also, this isn’t the right word, but it slopped over into my relationship with David in that a lot of my early strength came from the fact that I had a best friend who was straight and a jock and an athlete. That was Dave. The truth is he wasn’t tall enough to be on the basketball team—
DK: I was on the basketball team. I chose to go into theater.
MM: But so much about why things worked out for me was because I was supported by someone who was other than what I was. And that’s just a straight-out message of inclusion. I experienced it personally. We have tried to do that with the characters in the show and with the people who watch the show. Inclusion is really what it’s all about. And education. One of the things that is going wrong in this country is the fact that we have an undereducated population. I feel strongly about that.
DK: For me arts education has almost everything to do with who I am right now. In terms of self-expression, creativity, empathy, understanding. Literature, art, theater, music, these are the things that opened up my world and made me who I am. It is an incredible disservice to young people to not provide that for them. You grow up a narrow person without it; you’re not realized. Arts education helps you realize what you can become in a much broader sense. I think it’s tragic that liberal arts broadly and fine arts specifically are not valued as much as any other subject.
MM: I have twin daughters, and I always say to my husband, “If they just take piano and tennis, they don’t have to go to school.” That might be swinging it too far in the other direction, but I do feel like if they have a mastery over some art form, and if they have a relationship to some sort of physical sport, they’ll have a good life.
RH: Is Beverly Hills High School a public school?
MM: It is. But I will tell you, when we went to that school, it was still just a high school in a town. There were nice houses in the neighborhood where we lived, but there were also apartment buildings where single moms making $30,000 lived, so it had a little bit of everything.
RH: You happened to be growing up in L.A. It wasn’t as if you were taken to that school because it had a good program.
MM: Right. People get very caught up when they hear the name Beverly Hills. My girls went to camp this summer, and before they left I told them, “When people ask you where you live, just say Los Angeles.”