How Will & Grace's Jack and Karen became the stars

Though their names may not have cracked the title, Will & Grace's Jack and Karen are walking, talking proof that you don't need your name up in lights to be the star of the show.

Television history is replete with sidekicks and supporting characters who went on to steal the show, from Fonzie to AbFab's Patsy, Family Guy's Stewie and many more.

Even Australia's venerable Bert Newton had to step out of other people's shadows to properly make his mark.

On Will & Grace, which has returned for a ninth and tenth season after a decade-long break, the series was initially pitched as a comedy about a gay guy (Will, played by Eric McCormack) and his female best friend (Grace, played by Debra Messing) sharing an apartment.

But it didn't take long for the show's two breakout stars - Will's smart-mouthed gay best friend Jack (Sean Hayes) and Grace's wealthy, lazy assistant Karen (Megan Mullally) - to open their mouths and be heard.

Will and Grace is back again and it's as if we never said goodbye. Photo: Supplied

Will and Grace is back again and it's as if we never said goodbye. Photo: Supplied

"The character of Karen in the pilot script was very, very different from the way the character of Karen is today," Mullally tells Fairfax Media on the Los Angeles set of the show.

"I was like, this part is kind of like Christine Baranski on Cybill and she was great and I don't know what more I could bring to it.

"At first I didn't want to audition, and then I thought, well, maybe I could make her a little weirder," Mullally adds.

"So I just kind of tried to bring some quirkiness to it, I would just bring a little thing and then they would write to that. It became a great collaboration."

Along with wise-cracking one-liners - from "talk to the boob" and "you're as gay as a clutch purse on Tony night" to "honey, I'd suck the alcohol out of a deodorant stick" - Mullally also sent her voice soaring in pitch.

"I just felt like my normal speaking voice is too laconic and it doesn't have enough energy, [Will & Grace] is a farce and I just thought that high voice just has a lot of punch," she says.

"Plus, Karen's so judgmental of other people and yet her own voice is the most annoying thing in the world."

Jack and Karen work as sidekicks - and scene-stealers - because they're more accentuated versions of the straighter, more centred Will and Grace: Jack is Will's vanity and sexuality pushed to the limit, Karen is Grace's fantasy of indulgence and indifference, dialled (and dolled) up.

And while the characters often seem at odds, Will and Grace have more in common with Jack and Karen respectively, than they do with each other.

When the original series wrapped in 2006, all four of its stars went their separate ways.

Until a one-off 10-minute election themed mini-episode was produced last year, both Mullally and Hayes say there was no real sign that anyone wanted the show to return.

"There's no way to know," Hayes tells Fairfax Media. "Everything that hits, whether it's a movie or TV show or play, or anything you're in, has its time. And then, you move on.

"The election view was a done in such a smart way, every character represented a different side of the country," he adds.

In its aftermath, and aware that it had triggered an unexpected - and sizeable - wave of nostalgia, Hayes says the four actors sat down and talked seriously for the first time with the show's producers, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, about reviving the series.

"Max and David said they thought there were more stories to tell and it is a time for the show to come back and there are things to say about the world we live in today," Hayes adds.

"That's a good enough reason to do it. To have a voice through comedy. To comment on anything under the umbrella of relevancy, whether that's politics, religion, sex, pop culture, whatever it is."

The situation is unique, notes Mullally. Some shows have returned for sequels or spin-offs, and others rebooted with new actors.

Aside from The X Files, it is hard to find a show which has return after a decade break to simply pick up the same story and characters and move it forward.

"A lot of shows recently have come back to Netflix and streaming outlets, or cable, and I think in the 70s audience write-ins brought a couple of shows back briefly," Mullally says.

"But I don't know that any show that had been on the air for eight years that has come back to the same network, to the same time slot, on the same night, with not only the same cast but the same crew. We have the same hair and makeup people, everybody's the same.

"To me, it seems like a miracle happened," Mullally adds. "And on the other hand it seems like, oh, well of course we're back. It doesn't feel like we ever left. In no way it feels like we ever left.

"So, there are two things happening at once, an oh my gosh a miracle, and well, here we are doing it again, naturally."

Returning to their marks took "one second", Mullally says.

"That's why it's so weird because there was never a period of, oh this is weird. We came back, we sat down, we did a table read [of the script] and it was just like bloop, bloop, boop, boop. You know, same old, same old. Sitting in our same positions. It's crazy. Crazy times."

The chemistry is helped, Mullally says, by the fact that all four of the cast have "done a million things" and returned to the same place in unison. That, and none of them turned into divas.

"Which is good, thank God, because that wouldn't be any fun," Mullally says. "The rapport between all of us is still exactly the same but maybe better I think better because we're all just a little older and wiser and we've all been working consistently in between.

"Eric and Debra have done three or four series, I've done 15,000 different disparate things and Sean's done a million things and then we've all come back together and maybe we're a little bit mellower, a little bit more chill than we were but that chemistry hasn't budged," she adds.

"It's exactly where we left it."

Will & Grace is streaming on Stan

Stan is part-owned by Fairfax Media, the publisher of this website.

SIX SIDEKICKS WHO STOLE THE SHOW ...

Darryl Dixon (Norman Reedus); The Walking Dead

Reedus originally auditioned for the role of Merle Dixon but impressed the producers enough that they wrote him his own character, Merle's younger brother Darryl. Reedus' proved so adept in the role he is now the show's co-lead, alongside Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln).

Bert Newton; In Melbourne Tonight, The Don Lane Show

Though he began his career as a perennial sidekick, first to the legendary Graham Kennedy and later to Sydney's American-import tonight show king Don Lane, Newton's career ultimately outlasted everyone else's, as host of Good Morning Australia and, later, Bert's Family Feud.

Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler); Happy Days

Initially pitched as a sitcom about a young kid - Ritchie Cunningham (Ron Howard) - growing up in 1950s Milwaukee, the Cunningham's leather-jacket wearing biker tenant Fonzie broke out thanks to a series of catchphrases including "(h)eyy" and "sit on it" which resonated with the show's young audience.

Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox); Family Ties

Though the series was intended as a social study on liberal 1960s-era parents and their more conservative 1980s-era kids, one of those kids - the suit-wearing, Republican-in-the-making Alex - turned into the show's star thanks to a charismatic performance from Fox.

Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta); Welcome Back Kotter

Based on the pre-comedy teaching career of comedian Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back Kotter was intended as a star vehicle for Kaplan, until one of his "sweathog" students, Barbarino, turned on the smile and become the show's breakout star.

Stewie Griffin; Family Guy

A naughtier, riskier take on The Simpsons - which itself had stolen the show by leaping from a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show to a fully-fledged sitcom of their own - Family Guy's animated family was almost immediately eclipsed by their homicidal, Rex Harrison-wisecracking newborn, Stewie.

The story How Will & Grace's Jack and Karen became the stars first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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