STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Emmy Winner Megan Mullally

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Emmy Winner Megan Mullally
 
This month we chat with Megan Mullally, whose Broadway roles in two musical revivals — the 1994 Grease! and 1995's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — preceded her fame on TV's "Will & Grace" (1998-2006).
Stage and Screen veteran Megan Mullally will present at the Primetime Emmy Awards.
Stage and Screen veteran Megan Mullally will present at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Photo by George Lange

As the sitcom's Karen Walker, she earned her second Emmy Award last Sunday, and beginning Sept. 18, she's host of "The Megan Mullally Show," a new syndicated TV-talk program (taped in L.A. and shown in New York on WNBC at 3 PM ET).

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Emmy winner Megan Mullally,
Who's jovial, joyous and jolly,
Is starting a new gig
That we hope is as big
As once was Fran, Kukla and Ollie.

"There's a retro element to the show, but in a very modern concept," says the star. Were/are there any particular hosts that a determined will and grace to aspire might lead the lady? "Growing up, I loved Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, Dick Cavett. I'm trying to steal all my favorite things from them.

"I like the way Conan O'Brien always makes the guest look good. I like the silly non sequitur bits that Conan and David Letterman do, and I like the way that Letterman uses staff and crew as cast. I also like the way Jon Stewart is a correspondent, although his show's political — and ours is not. We want to bring a late-night feel to a daytime show." Is it true, as I'd read, that Mullally has always wanted to do a talk show? "Not exactly," says she. "I always loved watching talk shows and variety shows. During the course of ‘Will & Grace,' I hosted a couple of things, and an idea began to dawn. But wanting to host a talk show was something like wanting to be an astronaut.

"It's so different from anything I've ever done: syndicated, rather than network; daytime, rather than primetime. ‘Will & Grace' was 24 half-hour episodes [per season]. Now, we're doing a 155, essentially live hour shows. But you're still providing entertainment for an audience.

"The show is talk/variety. We're doing sketches, and there's a band on the stage." Will Mullally be singing on the show? "Yes, but mostly within the sketches. Each show has one or two celebrity guests, but we also have non-celebrities.

"I'll be going out in the field [to meet people]. We have correspondents doing human-interest pieces. And I'm very excited about a really interactive website that we have. On the show, we'll be throwing out creative challenges, and viewers can get on the computer and be actively involved.

"We shot two test shows, and five shows that are called ‘evergreens,' which will air somewhere down the road when we need them. We start shooting the premiere-week shows on September 13th." Mullally confirms that the first show's celebrity guests are Will Ferrell and Jenny McCarthy.

Since talk shows require a host to be very much themselves ("That's a really big component of it") and most viewers know her as Karen Walker, are there similarities between actor and character? "Well, you know, that's part of the premiere. I'm not a lot like Karen as a person, but we both like doing comedy."

Are there going to be any features with exercise, cooking and designs? "Unfortunately, I'm not really big with exercise and cooking [laughs], but there is a design-and-style element. I'm kind of an amateur interior decorator. And the show is partnered with two magazines: Lucky and Domino." Megan and 'Ellen,' notes Mullally, "are back-to-back in a lot of the major markets. We [she and DeGeneres] shot a couple of promos last week."

Her first TV-series role was as the daughter in the 1986-87 sitcom, "The Ellen Burstyn Show," on which her grandmother was played by Elaine Stritch. Might Stritch be a guest on the show? "Oh, yeah! I adore Elaine. We've maintained a friendship over the years. I can't think of anyone I admire more in terms of knocking them dead. And Rob Bowman [Stritch's accompanist] is so good." (By the way, Elaine Stritch: At Home at the Carlyle Again, Sept. 12-Nov. 4, is the star's brand new cabaret show.)

Following the Burstyn show were two short-lived series: Mullally played a retirement-home aide in 1991's "My Life and Times" (set in 2035, with Tom Irwin having flashbacks about 20th-century life and Helen Hunt as his senile wife), and she was a nurse in a summer 1992 drama, "Rachel Gunn, RN," in which Christine Ebersole had the title role.

Broadway afforded Mullally happier days: as Marty in Grease! (singing "Freddy, My Love") and as Rosemary in How to Succeed ("Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm"). "If I wasn't doing the talk show," notes Mullally, "I'd definitely be trying to do some theatre." However, a tight TV-promotion schedule doesn't allow time to reminisce about her stage experiences.

An only child, the Los Angeles native is the daughter of an actor and a model, Carter and Martha Mullally, and she attended Northwestern University. Her first marriage (1992-96) ended in divorce, and since September 2003, she's been Mrs. Nick Offerman.

Mullally has business in New York during Labor Day week, and arrives a day early to attend the closing performance (Sept. 3) of Meryl Streep's Mother Courage at Central Park's (outdoor) Delacorte Theatre. Asks Mullally, "What's the [Manhattan] weather like?" Her "Will & Grace" colleagues will be guests on the show. "Debra [Messing] is already booked. We figure ladies first. She's booked for the second or third week." Does Mullally have a dream guest? "We have great guests lined up, but the first week there's somebody particular, who's one of my idols — but I'm not allowed to say who." Here's wishing that, as a talk-show host, Megan Mullally's future has more Emmys in store.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.

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