When Gay Men Happen To Straight Women

It's a sign of sexually baffling, complicated times, notes Object author McCauley: ''There's a fair amount of cynicism about male-female romance. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, that whole thing.'' So these on-screen gals have given up on finding love and sex in the same place; they retreat to the safe, nurturing, nonthreatening company of their gay friend. And it has struck a chord with real-life women: In Wedding's case, 73 percent of opening-weekend grosses was driven by women.

And why not? As in the screwball comedies of yore, the new leading men are emotional Gibraltars, forever steadying their zany dames. Wedding's Everett flies halfway across the country to comfort a raving Roberts. Sensible lawyer Will gives sage counsel to flighty Grace. Seems the wise gay man is fast replacing the old hysterical-femme-down-the-hall stereotype (as in your average Harvey Fierstein role).

In fact, so non-stereotypical is Will (no opera, no finger snapping, no Bette Midler posters), he utterly confused an NBC-sponsored focus group. After seeing the pilot, they had no idea he was gay. This, despite Will's erotic musings about George Clooney in the first scene. ''We weren't hiding anything,'' insists exec producer Max Mutchnick. ''It was shocking that people didn't pick up on it, but they didn't initially.'' Adds The WB's Kate Juergens, formerly an NBC VP: ''They said, 'He's not gay. They just don't have any chemistry.'''

They sure knew Jack's orientation, though. Played by Sean Hayes, Jack is Will's runner-up best friend — a bitchy, show-tune-belting drama queen. The testees called him ''the gay one.'' As McCormack says, ''By having Will, we earned the right to have Jack.'' Jack's silly enough that not even gay watchdog group GLAAD nitpicks the stereotyping. Says exec director Joan Garry: ''Exaggeration comes with the comic territory of a sitcom.'' Adds Rudnick: ''You can never look to TV for reality or lack of stereotypes, gay or straight.''

Back on the Will & Grace set, they're preparing for the costume-laden, campy, cross-dressing Halloween episode, and they've got some hard decisions to make. Which of Hollywood's many drag queens to hire?

To help, the producers have ordered The Queens Registry: Professional Talent for All Your Cross-Dressed Casting Solutions — an oversize photo album packed with potential guest stars: white-wigged queens, blue-wigged queens, queens with boas, queens with capes, identical-twin queens. They flip to a glossy of some rough trade: a leather-bound queen with an I-want-to-gag-and-whip-you snarl. Not for them.

''No S&M on the stage,'' Mutchnick snaps. ''I want glam, not scary.''

You can almost see the Peacock's feathers unruffling. In fact, Mutchnick and Kohan — high school pals who also exec-produced the short-lived Boston Common — have had a remarkably smooth ride with the network so far.

It began last year when they pitched NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield an ensemble comedy with three couples: two hetero, one based on Mutchnick and his female soul mate, a New York casting director. ''Save for her vagina, she'd be perfect,'' says the very out Mutchnick (Kohan is straight).

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