Will & Grace has my favorite production design of any sitcom on television. Every setting is so thought-out and precise that it feels like the crew found the perfect location in New York City and set up shop. This season, production designer Glenda Rovello faced a new challenge. In a loving homage to I Love Lucy, the show reproduced multiple scenes from the iconic comedy, and the results will make you swoon like you just took a swig of Vitameatavegamin.
If you look at something like Will Truman’s apartment, you want to lounge on the couch or have breakfast in his kitchen. It’s such a refined and enviable apartment that many gay men have coveted it. When you look at the Ricardos’ living quarters, however, you can’t help but notice how sparse it is—it’s just how television has changed in the decades between the shows.
The simplicity in the production design was new for Rovello, but she makes such smart choices that you will do a double take when you watch the “We Love Lucy” episode. Will & Grace is coming to its second series finale, and the show changed Rovello’s life.
Awards Daily: “We Love Lucy” is really fun and unlike anything the series has ever done. You have to recreate four iconic sets from the most celebrated comedy of all time. Where do you start?
Glenda Rovello: That’s actually a really great question. The writers told us very early on in the season, and they told us very specifically which episodes to re-watch of the original I Love Lucy. We just watched on YouTube. We watched them and watched them. That was the biggest challenge—laughing and watching YouTube for work. The sets were very uncomplicated.
GR: It is detailed. We had to custom-build all of Lucy’s apartment doors, because those are so specific to that show. They were never off the shelf. They’re kind of iconic. I think that original art director had them custom-built for that show.
AD: Oh, really?
GR: Yeah. They are not a normal size. They’re super tall. With all the set dressing, we had most of the season to find things that were similar. Peter Gurski, the set decorator, came upon the pieces that were built for the Mambo Kings. Those were the loveseat and the chair. He found those in a prop house somewhere. That was an incredible treasure to find. Throughout the first 5 or 6 episodes, one of our producers kept coming asking, “Have you drawn them yet?” He was so concerned that we wouldn’t be able to build them, and they were so simple. The Vitameatavegamin scene was just a couple of flats with a curtain and the signage. We also had a graphic artist watching the same episodes and committing them to memory, to be as true to the original show that we were being.
AD: I was looking at pictures of Will’s apartment and it has so much texture, so this episode had to feel very sparse in comparison.
GR: I think that was the nature of television then. It was more schematic in the ’50s and ’60s. You had to just suggest what those places were like. Now they have to be real. There’s very little in Will’s apartment that is fake or something we put together. Everything is so considered now.
AD: Did you have to make any adjustments to designs because the majority of the episode is in black and white?
GR: That’s a great question. We didn’t know what we were going to air. We shot it and we didn’t know if it was going to be in black and white, since that was still being discussed with the writers and the network. The sets that we built for the Will & Grace episode were all slightly different colored, so we weren’t shooting a grey-toned set. The Italian set had a bit of earth-colored palette and the candy factory was taupe. The apartment had a tinge of pink, so it would look different if it were in color.
AD: Well, that’s good to hear. I can just imagine seeing these actors walking around a bleak, grey set. (Laughs.)
GR: And that robe is a brilliant emerald green.
AD: I was actually wondering what color that piece was.
GR: And it looked so good with the bright red hair; I can only crow about how fantastic the hair and makeup did as well. Everything was built for that episode. They had to create that for three different actors.
AD: The attention to detail is so specific. I was looking at the small room off to the right in the candy factory. We see a small table with just boxes stacked up, and it’s exactly what was in the I Love Lucy episode. It’s nutso in this episode.
GR: You want to know what’s nutso?
AD: Of course I do.
GR: The candy is the same candy that they used in the Lucy episode.
AD: Are you serious?
GR: Yes, See’s Candies used the same recipe they did for when they did the original I Love Lucy episode.
AD: You do a lot of work in sitcoms and contemporary television. Do you sometimes think that contemporary crafts don’t get the attention that a period piece would?
GR: Do you mean something contemporary isn’t as fawned over like something from Mad Men?
AD: Yeah. I just feel like sets and costumes of a period piece get more notice right away, and there’s a lot to appreciate about something set in today’s world.
GR: I actually know the art director of Mad Men, and we’ve had many conversations about the sourcing of furniture and that sort of thing. All of it is still available, but it—at least for the historic stuff—takes a whole lot more effort. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to do costumes. In contemporary shows, for a lot of it, they can go out and find it. It exists. With what I do in contemporary sets, everything is built. The sets and architecture—we build that. Single cameras that go on location can find it. We have to create our own universe. That’s a very different thing. With multi-camera, we are primarily on a sound stage. If we go to Las Vegas, we have to build Las Vegas. Single camera can go there. That’s a whole different level of complexity.
AD: This is the second time that Will & Grace is coming to an end.
AD: And television is so different.
GR: It sure is.
AD: What’s it like for you to have a second chance to say goodbye to a show that you’ve worked on for so many years?
GR: Sad. Will & Grace was my first job as a production designer. To have that level of support from the writers…I was always encouraged to make it beautiful, make it real, make is aspirational. That was always my starting point—to make it fantastic. Rarely do you get a show where you have that much design support. When we came back, it was like we had a one-week hiatus. So many of us were the same people, and to have that kind of crew and we know each other’s talents, I will always miss that.
The series finale of Will & Grace airs on NBC on April 24.