BLUSH WITH SUCCESS by Dennis Hensley

Eric McCormack and Debra Messing, the stars of NBC's hit gay-guy/straight-girl buddy comedy Will & Grace, didn't mean to wear nearly identical white-and-khaki outfits to rehearsal today. In fact they don't even notice their sartorial mirror trick until co-star Megan Mullally, who plays Grace's tart-tongued office assistant Karen, rushes up and points it out. But for Mullally, merely commenting on the coincidence isn't quite enough. She needs to caress the matching clothes and, more specifically, a few of the body parts contained therein. "We're always climbing all over each," says Mullally matter-of-factly before grabbing a handful of McCormack's well-toned Canadian rear. "It's like the light in our lives. No one is safe and nothing is sacred."

She's not kidding. After a few hours on the series' genial Studio City set, it becomes obvious that the four leads -- McCormack, Messing, Mullally, and Sean Hayes -- who plays Will's flamboyant pal Jack McFarland -- just love to touch each other. There hasn't been such a frenzied flurry of hands on TV since The Muppet Show was canceled. "We can get pretty naughty," confirms Messing, casually sipping tea from a mug emblazoned with a picture of her and McCormack giving the camera the finger. "We've actually been pretty good today."

Even Will & Grace's high-profile guest stars, like Gregory Hines (who has a recurring role this season as Will's new boss) and actor/director Sydney Pollack (visiting this week to play Will's father in an upcoming episode), don't escape the shenanigans. "I squeeze their butts on the way in," jokes McCormack. "That way, they're initiated and the hazing is over."

The cast of Will & Grace (NBC, Tuesdays, 9P.M./ET) have good reason to be feeling frisky. Ratings are up from the first season (last Thanksgiving night's episode was the show's most-watched ever, attracting over 19 million viewers) and creatively speaking, here's one new comedy that just gets better as the weeks go by. In an era when sitcoms are being bullied off the schedule to give Regis Philbin more chances to intone, "Is that your final answer?," Will & Grace has come along to remind us that funny people saying funny things can still rake in audiences -- regardless of the characters' sexuality. "People think the sitcom is dying," says director James Burrows (Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), who has helmed every Will & Grace episode to date. "So shows are going to greater lengths to attract viewers, like with Drew Carey doing The Full Monty. To me, the written word is what's important. It's not about big stunts. It's about four people sitting around talking."

Notice that Burrows said four. Though the show's named for Messing and McCormack's characters, second bananas Hayes and Mullally have, particularly this season, become two of the most surefire belly-laugh generators around, regardless of whether the cameras are rolling. "Sometimes they play [the classical music piece] The Flight of the Bumble Bee between scenes," reports Hayes, "and I run around the entire set like I'm being chased by bees. By the end of the taping, I'm drained but the studio audience loves it." The big bosses at NBC seem to be in a loving mood also, for even though the cast was shut out of last year's Emmy nominations, each one received a Porsche Boxter convertible as a thank you for a solid freshman year.

Not bad considering that the series, at the time of its premiere in '98, resembled nothing so much as a giant hot pink question mark. As the first series since Ellen to feature a gay lead character, the show's creators were concerned that Will & Grace might invoke protests from conservative groups, or, worse yet, languish in low-ratings limbo. But neither happened. Executive producer Max Mutchnick, who created the series with partner David Kohan, attributes the lack of hubbub to the fact that Will & Grace concentrates more on laughs than issues, saying, "The only thing we're trying to force down people's throats is comedy." Guest star Pollack, who was roped into the gig by his long-ago office assistant Kohan ("I want him to bring me coffee," quips Kohan, "but I don't know how to ask."), appreciates the show's delicate balance of edginess and accessible familiarity. "What's so hip," he says, "is that the show's not patronizing. It's just straight-ahead comedy."

Not that Will & Grace has skipped along entirely without controversy. After learning that this season's premiere featured a scene in which Karen called her Salvadoran maid a "tamale," leaders of several Hispanic rights groups called NBC to complain causing the network changed the line two hours before air time. When the episode was rerun in December, the original line had been restored. "NBC looked at the entire context of the show and the relationship between the two characters and we felt that we may have overreacted the first time," says a spokesperson for the network. Then just recently, the entire cast, with no involvement from NBC, appeared in a TV ad to urge viewers to vote "no" on Proposition 22, the California referendum authored by Republican senator Pete Knight that would deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages. "The gay couples I know have been together longer than most of the married couples I know," says McCormack, when asked why he agreed to appear in the spot. "I don't think you can do this show with the commitment that we do it and suddenly get afraid of making those statements."

Upcoming story lines are bound to raise a few eyebrows as well, now that one-time roomies Grace and Will live across the hall from each other, leaving them free to explore new relationships. In other words, the Sex and the City girls aren't going to be the only ones scouring Manhattan for a few good men. "We have an episode coming up where Will and Grace are both saying goodbye to lovers the morning after," says Mutchnick. "Then they put them on the elevator and have coffee together."

But before we get to the coffee talk, there's wine to contend with -- and lots of it. It's taping night, live before a studio audience, and Messing and McCormack are shooting a scene in which they enjoy a glass of Chardonnay with Will's dad (Pollack). Only trouble is, Messing and Pollack keep reversing the order of their lines. When Pollack -- the man responsible for such acclaimed films as Tootsie and Out of Africa -- crosses to confer with her, the actress listens intently for a second, and then hops up and down, chirping, "Oh my God, Sydney Pollack's directing me!" Burrows, not about to have his show commandeered by a slumming Oscar-winner, rushes onto the set and pretends to clobber Pollack with the wine bottle.

A few takes later, the actors nail the scene, but not before emptying their glasses several times. "This is real wine," Pollack announces. "I'm going to be drunk."

"Just wait till we get to the heroin scene," deadpans McCormack.

As McCormack and Messing exit for a costume change, the studio audience -- an eclectic group ranging from bible- belt seniors to members of a local gay and lesbian center -- fire questions at the show's genial warm-up comedian Roger Lundblade. "We're going to be on for a long, long time!" he crows, when someone asks him about the future of the show. "Middle America loves us!"

And so it seems, but what's not to love? Will & Grace, at its best, is a rarity: a fresh, sexy sitcom populated by surprisingly original characters played by a crackerjack team of comic actors who are so touchy-feely crazy about each other, it's infectious. They should get T-shirts made that say, "Why cop an attitude when you can cop a feel?"

"We can play with each other, because we trust each other implicitly," says Messing. Sure, we've all heard about the close-knit casts on TV sets before, but from the charmingly disarming Will & Grace gang, you truly buy it. "I have a fun clause in my contract," says director Burrows. "I stay with a show until I don't have fun anymore. And when it comes to that, you've got to go a long way to beat Will & Grace."

 

FUN SIDEBAR FEATURE WITH THE FOUR LEAD ACTORS

 

ERIC McCORMACK
(as cute and quippy gay lawyer Will Truman)

Fantasy episode:

"Megan Mullally and I are almost never on screen together so I'd like Karen and Will to get trapped in an elevator."

On having director Sidney Pollack guest star as his father:

"We were so awed by his presence. I wanted to say, 'Hey, Isn't it time for Tootsie 2? I look great in a dress.'"

Biggest laugh line:

"It was when Jack and Karen volunteered to dog sit and I said, 'No, I'm not going to leave my dog with Cruella DeVille...and Karen.' We stood there staring at each other forever while the audience laughed."

It comes with fame:

"I started getting e-mails from foot fetishists because Will sometimes walks around his apartment without shoes."

Gayest quality in real life:

"I hate sports and love musical theater. I'm always singing Sweeney Todd in the car. Megan Mullally calls me the gayest straight man she's ever met."

If Will had his own fragrance, it would be called...

"Vanilla. For the man with simple tastes."


DEBRA MESSING
(as the gorgeously hapless interior decorator Grace Adler)

Fantasy episode:

"We want to do an operatic episode where our dialogue is all sung."

On Grace's clumsiness:

"The writers get that from me. I break things all the time: glasses, plates, the glass door leading to the balcony. I'm just a klutz."

On having Debbie Reynolds guest star as her mother:

"She is a broad with a capital B and I mean that in the best way. She would tell us stories about, you know, the rat pack. It's like a slice of history in this fabulous package."

Past experience that would make a good W & G episode:

"Halloween in the West Village, my first year of grad school at NYU. I dressed as this bad-ass dominatrix and the transvestites were so much more beautiful and put me to shame. I thought I was so downtown I was just this freaky suburbanite girl from small-town Rhode Island."

Emmy night regret:

"We were stuck in traffic so I didn't get to talk to Joan Rivers. I really wanted to because I was wearing a spectacular dress from Randolph Duke, who Joan loves, and just thought, 'This is a home run.'"

It comes with the fame:

"One of the tabloids ran a story about me and my fiancé (___ Daniel Zelman) on the same page as 'Bill and Monica Go Postal' and 'Top Vet Has a Bone to Pick With Doggie Prozac.' I'm getting it framed."

If Grace had her own fragrance it would be called...

"Khaos with a K. For the woman who wants everything now."


SEAN HAYES

(as Will's over-the-top and under-employed gay pal Jack McFarland)

Fantasy episode:

"All four of us in a luge."

On having Veronica Cartwright guest star as his mother:

"She breast fed me for a while to get into character, so that was nice."

It comes with fame:

"I was gambling in Vegas and twice people came up and said, 'Love you on Dharma & Greg.'"

Nickname on the set:

"James Burrows calls me Subplot or B-Story like, "Hey Subplot, keep it down.'"

Strangest thing he's ever autographed:

 "A walnut. The audience stayed really late one night so we passed out food from craft services and everybody wanted me to sign their nuts. So I'd write, 'Nice nut, Sean Hayes.'"

If Jack was a doll that talks, he'd say...

"Buy me lunch."

If Jack had his own fragrance it would be called...

"Big Daddy. For the boy inside the man."


MEGAN MULLALLY
(as Grace's stinkin' rich, super-sassy assistant Karen Walker)

On Karen's laziness:

"She doesn't even have any office supplies on her desk. It's just nail polish, makeup and a 600-page issue of Vogue."

Fantasy episode:

"Every episode because the writers come up with great stuff, like I love that Karen was discovered to have done a porn film."

It comes with fame:

"I've been going to the same grocery store for 13 years, and all of a sudden one day everybody was like, 'Oh my God.'"

Porsche memory:

"One day I'm driving to work, and coincidentally Debra pulls out right in front of me so we go all the way over Laurel Canyon together. It was so nerdy, like 'Look at the two lunatics from Will & Grace in their free Porsches.' It was dorks on parade."

If Karen had her own fragrance, it would be called...

"Acid Rain. Spray it if you dare."