In 1998, the year after comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television (and her sitcom subsequently tanked), NBC took its own chance on gay TV with Will & Grace, a show featuring a gay man and his straight female roommate. Will & Grace premiered in a Monday night spot, but after eight smash-hit years, the last episode will air in the most prime of prime-time slots, Thursday May 18 at 9 p.m. The sitcom has tackled homophobia, accepting a gay son and even adopting a gay horse but has never dealt with the topic of HIV. POZ checked in with series writers Tracy Poust and Jon Kinnally to find out why.
“We talked about it from the beginning,” says Poust. “But this was the first time there was going to be a gay male lead on TV. We wanted him to be healthy and happy.” While the characters often talked about safe sex, they only mentioned HIV once, when Grace went in for a test. The virus itself never made an entrance. “In real life, they would have been around HIV for 20 years, but we decided that Will and Grace should live in a fantasy world,” says Poust.
Since Will & Grace premiered, reality shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the all-gay network LOGO have beefed up the gay contingent (and HIV references) in TV land. Dramas like Boston Legal and Commander in Chief included plots addressing AIDS. So is it time to introduce HIV to Will & Grace? Poust and Kinnally said they considered having a positive character this season, but feared it would seem too didactic and ingratiating to force fit the serious topic into the show’s last run.
Poust and Kinnally are writing a pilot featuring a character with HIV, but neither is sure whether America is ready for HIV in comedic form. “People would have to understand that they are not laughing at the disease itself, but at someone’s effort to cope,” says Poust. “It worked when Murphy Brown had breast cancer,” says Kinnally of the ’90s sitcom. “I hope one day this country can laugh at a gay man with AIDS.” Or, at least, with him.