In September 2016, 150 unsuspecting audience members filed into a basement at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, Calif. They handed over their phones and signed nondisclosure agreements — measures to protect the secrecy of a new production called Hot Food (or so they were told).
Moments later, the curtain rose, and there they were: Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen, standing in Will’s apartment. By sheer coincidence, Will & Grace — NBC’s retired hit sitcom that centered on the friendship between two gay men, a bisexual woman, and an ally — had premiered 19 years prior, to the day.
For the audience, however, the series premiere could have been yesterday. Original props from the show were in place — an astounded Eric McCormack later recounted finding note cards, brought to set in 1998 by Donny Osmond, stashed in a box. The characters themselves, revived by McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally, appeared transported through time. The crowd went wild.
“The reaction from the audience in the house that night was absolutely incredible,” recounted Max Mutchnick, Will & Grace’s gay cocreator. Mutchnick was the mastermind behind Hot Food — his codename for “Vote, Honey,” a mini-episode encouraging voter turnout for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Primarily written by Mutchnick and fellow Will & Grace cocreator David Kohan, the production came together swiftly, spurred by the need to relocate the set after a period of stewardship by Emerson College, Mutchnick’s alma mater.
The codename was an inside joke for the Will & Grace team, a reference to a phrase used by the chef, Sandy Flowers, to announce that lunch was ready. “Everybody would go running” when Flowers yelled, “Hot food!” said Mutchnick, who called out the phrase with a Southern drawl.
Fans also came running when the clip was released later that month. It went viral, and millions demanded to see more. Clinton would go on to lose the election to Karen’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump. But “Vote, Honey” won a renewed interest for Will & Grace.
Mullally herself sensed the need for a reboot, even before “Vote, Honey” was released. After first reading the script, she picked up her phone and sent Mutchnick an email.
“Why can’t we do the show again?” Mullally typed.
“We can,” he replied.
In May 2017, a string of black cars pulled up to the studio in New York City near the Garment District. One by one, Messing, Mullally, Hayes, and McCormack arrived, and were ushered to an industrial elevator and taken to the third floor, alongside a small army from NBC Universal.
At this point, the reality of Will & Grace’s return had finally crystallized for fans. After a period of negotiations, NBC confirmed it had picked the series up for the 2017-18 season. It later optimistically increased its order to 16 episodes — and then added a second season. The show has a September 28 premiere date and the coveted Thursday 9 p.m. time slot.
That May morning, the actors performed a musical number at Radio City Music Hall. There, NBC staged its upfront presentation — an event to drum up advertiser interest before a TV season. A soon-to-go viral clip of the cast’s song was also released online. In the fantastic number, McCormack convinces Messing to join the Will & Grace revival by bringing her to the set. As in the election video, nothing had changed — even Jack and Karen, lying on the sofa under a sheet, were still there. They burst into song and declared, “We’ve come home at last.”
In the real world, no musical extravaganza was required to sway the cast of Will & Grace to return. But this desire for a homecoming was no fiction.
“I’ve never felt more comfortable in a place than I’ve felt standing in that kitchen,” said McCormack, the other three cast members nodding by his side. “It felt like home when we were together.”
“It was a very emotional thing walking on the set for the first time in 10 years and seeing every prop in place,” Messing said.
Viewers agreed. Over 25 million people have viewed the Facebook video trumpeting the show’s return. After a tumultuous election season, fans expressed a need to laugh and distract themselves from their cares.
“People missed it and craved it,” said Hayes, 47 — himself included. “It was so fleeting back then. I was so young. We were all so young — and still are. But for me personally, it’s a wonderful, grand way to appreciate it all over again.”