Tuesday-night tapings on the set of ''Will & Grace,'' says Debra Messing, can seem like ''a frat party gone bad. Eventually, people start stripping.'' But the show had never seen anything like the crowd that showed up March 18 to witness the taping of Madonna's network series debut. When the Material Mom appeared on set, the audience stood and screamed, and yes, one fan (Travis Oteri, a 20-year-old Starbucks barista from Boston, who later called this ''the best day of my life'') flashed some skin -- the small of his back, tattooed with Madonna's Drowned World Tour logo. After the first take of Madonna's first scene, Megan Mullally grabbed a microphone and tried to calm the house down: ''Laugh, but not so loud! Not so much screaming! Except if I'm funny.'' More laughter. More screaming. Mullally shrugged, threw her arm around Madonna, and mugged for the audience: ''Stars, living big.''
Even more so now. A month later, the cast of ''Will & Grace'' inked a deal that boosted their paychecks to at least $250,000 per episode. NBC has good reason to pay up: ''Will & Grace,'' which pulls in 16.6 million viewers a week, is the second-most-popular comedy in the 18-49 demographic -- impressive for a show in its fifth season. Plus, ''Will'' has been hailed by such political groups as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for its positive portrayals of gay people.
Lately, however, ''Will & Grace'''s groundbreaking depiction of friendships between gay and straight people, and the outstanding work of its ensemble cast (love and insult haven't been played so seamlessly since ''All in the Family''), have been overshadowed by the show's parade of A-list guest stars. Above-the-title names like Matt Damon, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Macaulay Culkin, Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Gene Wilder, and Cher have all made rare TV appearances for the chance to banter with Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen. (Sometimes they decide to stick around: Insiders say Driver returns for a major story arc next season.) ''All of a sudden it was a cool thing to do,'' says Eric McCormack (Will), as he gazes across his dressing room toward an orchid sent to him by another recent guest star, Elton John. ''Sometimes I think we feel like 'The Love Boat.'''
Madonna is by far the most famous passenger to board the good ship ''Will & Grace,'' although her manners, by some accounts, were less than impeccable. ''She did ask me my name a couple of times, and I said, 'It's easy, just check the opening credits of the other 120 of these that we've done,''' says McCormack. ''She sort of laughed, but I was sort of only half-kidding. And then she sort of made up for it at the end of the week, when she sent me the most expensive thing of roses I've ever seen, and a card from her saying, 'Eric, thank you so much. I'm gonna have your name tattooed on my arm, if Guy [Ritchie, her husband] will let me.'''
But McCormack believes that Madonna and other high-wattage guest stars may bring ''Will & Grace'' a more enduring gift than flowers -- a consumer-friendly way to give Will a boyfriend, finally. (And by boyfriend, we mean a guy who sticks around for more than a couple of episodes.) ''[Madonna's guest appearance] will probably be our biggest episode. Let's have that number of people show up to watch me hold George Clooney's hand, or whoever's up for doing it.... Maybe that's what it's going to take to really make that next big, bold move -- an actual relationship where we know, when [Will and another man] walk out of a room, they've probably just had sex. It might take a big celebrity name to make that work. I think we're debating it now.''