Keeping a Straight Face

The screwups were the best part of the live season premiere of Will & Grace.

Like an aging drag queen staging a last desperate bid for attention, the creaky NBC sitcom Will & Grace kicked off its eighth-season premiere last night with a gimmick—a live episode that was performed twice in a row, once for broadcast in the Eastern and Central Time Zones, and once three hours later for the West Coast. With the boom mic occasionally visible overhead and the sound of tittering and coughing from the studio audience of 300, the show’s cast went where relatively few contemporary network shows (some recent exceptions include special episodes of ER and The West Wing) have gone before: on the boards.

Live from Los Angeles

The strictures of live performance actually work quite well with the format of Will & Grace, which, unlike ER or The West Wing, is an old-fashioned “couch comedy,” usually centered around one or two interior sets with a static, multicamera setup. The storyline of last night’s episode was no departure from the show’s usual tone of mildly naughty gay farce: Grace (Debra Messing) tries to talk herself out of, then back into, having an affair with a married man (though he never appeared in last night’s episode, this love interest will be played later in the season by Eric Stoltz). Meanwhile, Jack (Sean Hayes) recovers from a “glitter-related” accident on the set of his new show, Jack Talk, and Will (Eric McCormack) and his ethically challenged boss Malcolm (Alec Baldwin) lock horns over the just-revealed secret that Stan, the supposedly deceased husband of Karen (Megan Mulally) has faked his own death.

The live-ness offered a chance to punch up the show with some unusually broad sight gags, including a huge spit take from McCormack, who was conveniently guzzling coffee when Grace let the cat out of the bag about Stan’s reappearance. But the real reason to watch last night’s episode—perhaps the only reason to have watched Will & Grace for the past several seasons—were the screwups. There’s a reason that blooper reels and out-take montages are perennial best-sellers: Regardless of the quality of the material, there’s just something eternally irresistible about the spectacle of actors struggling not to crack each other up.

Debra Messing, who in a pre-show interview seemed like the most nervous of the lot, was the first to crack. In the East Coast feed, during an early scene with Sean Hayes, she lost it when Hayes put particular gusto into a very Jack-like line about the unique pleasures of sex with married men: “When an opportunity comes, I don’t question it. I grab it, drop its ring on the nightstand, and swing on it till dawn.” Messing giggled uncontrollably for a good eight seconds before she could respond with her next line. Later, during another one-on-one scene, Hayes and Messing got into it again: Staring each other down after a particularly absurd exchange, they both had to look off into space, lips twitching, as they tried not to laugh. Messing even seemed to forget her next line, repeating, “You know what, Jack? You’re right. You’re right. You’re right,” until Hayes ad-libbed a prompt to get her back on script. According to one blogger who attended the dress rehearsal for last night’s taping, Messing and Hayes were so bad at keeping a straight face that the show’s director, James Burrows, had to get on the show’s PA system and chew them out. To watch the compiled clips of last night’s Grace/Jack flubs, click here.

Professional, but not fun

Eric McCormack, one of the cast members with a strong theater background, never lost his cool throughout the episode; he was the most professional, but the least fun to watch. Megan Mulally came close to breaking character only once, when the camera remained on her face during a particularly egregious mugging session by Sean Hayes. And Alec Baldwin (who, in his late career, has thickened and aged into a delightfully Shatner-esque character actor) was magisterially calm, even during a long surprise clinch with McCormack that sent the audience into a paroxysm of whoops and hollers.

At the beginning and end of the show, the fourth wall was broken as the camera pulled back far enough to show the edges of the set and the audience applauding from the risers. The cast had survived giggle attacks and line flubs to pull through like troupers; the show had gone on, in grandly plucky Broadway fashion. And what could be gayer than that?