October 22, 2019

Jewish and Normal? Oy!

NBC’s hit “Will & Grace,” which is up for 12 Emmys this month, is one of the first network shows to feature an appealing homosexual main character. But the sitcom — which revolves around gay attorney Will and his best gal pal Grace — is a first for another reason: its novel depiction of a young Jewish woman.

Grace Adler, played by Jewish actress Debra Messing, is a gorgeous, kooky interior designer who is neither pushy nor a shopaholic. Forget pathetic Melissa from “thirtysomething” or obnoxious Vicki from “Suddenly Susan.”

“Grace doesn’t fall into any of those categories that have stereotyped Jewish women on TV,” says executive producer Max Mutchnick. “She’s strong, and she’s pretty and she’s a proud Jewish woman.”

One reason the character works is because Mutchnick, 35, and co-creator David Kohan, 36, based her in part on a real Jewish woman. “Will & Grace” is modeled after the gay Mutchnick’s rapport with childhood chum Janet Eisenberg, who now owns a voice-over casting agency in New York. “Like Will and Grace, we are made for each other in every way except the bedroom,” Mutchnick says.

Mutchnick met Eisenberg while rehearsing a play at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills at age 13. He was the star of the Hebrew school musical; she was a student in the drama department. Mutchnick lived in a modest apartment just one building over the Beverly Hills line; Eisenberg lived in a nicer part of town. But before long they were hanging out together on Beverly Drive, “which in those days was like Main Street, USA,” Mutchnick says.

About three years later, she introduced him to Kohan, the son of veteran comedy writer Buzz Kohan, in the drama department at Beverly Hills High. Kohan promptly became their third wheel — though he found their relationship perplexing. “Max and Janet seemed to have a lovely rapport, but the romantic element confused me, and it confused them as well,” recalls Kohan, who is straight. “They went out for a couple of years, then they went off to different colleges. And Max comes out of the closet, springs it on her — and she was stunned. It was a shocking revelation for her, so I kind of functioned as a liaison between the two of them, because they both still really loved each other.”

As Kohan practiced his shuttle diplomacy, he and Mutchnick began exchanging sitcom ideas and decided they, too, were made for each other — as writing partners. They eventually landed staff jobs on HBO’s “Dream On” and executive produced the short-lived NBC sitcom “Boston Common.” In 1997, they developed an ensemble comedy about six friends, two of them based on Mutchnick and female soulmate Eisenberg.

It was Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, who suggested they focus on the “he’s gay-she’s straight” relationship, the premise for “Will & Grace.” Kohan and Mutchnick banged out a script and spent four tense months feverishly faxing Littlefield the grosses from hit films with gay characters suxh as , “The Birdcage” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

When the go-ahead finally came, they decided to name the show “Will & Grace” after a concept in Martin Buber’s Jewish philosophy book “I and Thou.” “Buber talks about how in order to have an ‘I-Thou’ relationship in the presence of the Eternal … one needs the ‘will’ to go after it and the ‘grace’ to receive it,” Kohan says.

He and Mutchnick concede that “Ellen,” which featured the first gay prime time TV lead, helped pave the way for “Will & Grace” — though the show crashed and burned after the coming-out episode. Why “Will” escaped that fate, Kohan says, is because “Our agenda is entertainment, not politics.”

Mutchnick agrees: “We never stand on a soapbox.”

But the sitcom has generated a few complaints — largely from Jewish viewers. They’re pleased that Grace reminisces about attending Camp Ramah (Eisenberg went there) and being profiled in the Jewish Forward but gripe that she’s never seriously dated a Jewish man. Kohan, for one, believes she probably never will. “I’d love her to find a Jewish love interest, but that relationship might actually work, and then there’d be no more ‘Will & Grace,'” he says.

Mutchnick faced a similar dilemma when Eisenberg married a Jewish man not long ago. “There’s been a shift in our relationship,” he admits. “But I fly to New York all the time to see her, and we’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining our friendship.” He pauses, then adds, laughing, “Sometimes I even wonder where her husband is in all of this.”