HOLLYWOOD -- The world has changed since Will & Grace.
Not only has the television landscape evolved since the breakthrough '90s sitcom put a network-sized spotlight on gay lead characters (a foundation for today's Modern Family and Glee), but politics have shifted dramatically, culminating in the landmark Supreme Court reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act in June.
Now Sean Hayes, 43, who broke out on Will & Grace as the Emmy-winning, flamboyantly lovable Jack, is back with Sean Saves the World (NBC, 9 p.m. ET, 8 p.m. CT). The comedy mirrors the new norm in prime time, with Hayes playing a gay single dad to a feisty teenager (Samantha Isler).
This time, his character's sexuality is a non-starter.
"What's exciting about all of that is, it's now boring. Which is a good thing," Hayes says over scrambled eggs at a local breakfast spot. "I always say, 'Sean' is gay and he's a gay father, but him being gay is the fifth-most-interesting thing about him. And I think that's what maybe Will & Grace did."
Vice President Joe Biden famously furthered that notion, remarking last year that he felt WIll & Grace "probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far."
"I still to this day feel so lucky and proud to have been part of something so impactful," says Hayes, who, alongside his Hazy Mills Productions partner Todd Milliner, has spent the past decade behind the camera producing shows like Hollywood Game Night, Grimm (now in Season 3), Hot in Cleveland (in its fifth season) and TV Land's The Soul Man. There have been passion projects, too: A year-long run on Broadway in Promises, Promises, and guest-starring roles on shows like 30 Rock, Portlandia and Smash.
With Sean Saves the World, Hayes steps into the media glare again. The show bowed last week to tough numbers, with 4.9 million viewers tuning in, vs. 11.7 million who watched Robin Williams' new show, The Crazy Ones, on CBS. The actor admits feeling the pressure to top Will & Grace. "You just are constantly up against the wall, constantly feeling pressure to outdo your last thing or at least match it," he says.
Two years ago Hazy Mills began pitching projects that put Hayes out front, including a script about a gay couple with kids (NBC chose Ryan Murphy's The New Normal instead).
Now, Sean Saves the World boasts a title, not, he says, as an act of ego, but to ironically mirror the weight put on Sean's shoulders as he attempts to raise his daughter solo. "I think the challenge of television is always finding new characters that you haven't seen before and relationships you haven't seen before," says Hayes. "So as far as I know, I haven't seen a single gay father on a television show. As the lead."
His character comes with a plethora of problems, including an odd, tyrannical new boss (Thomas Lennon), an overbearing mother (Linda Lavin) and an independent 14-year-old, Ellie.
Hayes had practice at parenting. Two years ago his niece, then 17, lived with him in L.A. for a year, leaving the actor fretting over her well-being. He even tracked her via app, a plot point that appears in Episode 3 of his new show.
"The second she would leave I'd be like, "Where are you?'" he says. "I even mapped her (on her iPhone), she didn't know. It was crazy. But she's my niece!"
Does the real Sean want kids? "I wish I wanted them," he says with a laugh. He's happier playing the cool uncle. "Which is great for the show, as I get to be a surrogate father to Ellie and then I get to go home."
NBC has positioned the comedy as a lead-in to the Michael J. Fox Show and Parenthood, with the "the notion of being back in business with a star of one of the most successful multi-cams that they ever did," Milliner says. "And they're trying to put a little bit of a new twist on it."
This comedy, Hayes says, is entertainment for all. "Everybody only talks about in our business 'Did you see House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men?'" he says. "No one says, 'Did you see NCIS?' No one says, 'Did you see Two and a Half Men or Big Bang Theory?' But those are the most-watched shows."
"That aside," he adds, "I don't think anything in the world matters if something's good. Period. If something is good, or in this case, funny, people will like it."
On set, he's still a kid in the candy store, says Megan Hilty, who worked with Hayes on Smash before shifting gears to his new comedy. "It seems like he still looks around like 'isn't this cool?'" she says. "He's not jaded about any of this at all."
There's a softer air afoot today, too. In past interviews, the actor seemed to stiffly, if honestly, address his personal life (he is gay).
Now, the topic is as mild as Le Pain Quotidien's steel-cut oatmeal: Hayes easily drops references to "my other half," his partner of seven years, Scott Icenogle. At one point, he shares an iPhone shot of the two grinning at the Hollywood Bowl, and later laughs about early days hosting (untelevised) versions of Hollywood Game Night in their living room, with Tom Hanks in attendance. (NBC execs came, too, and asked Hazy Mills to develop the raucous experience into a game show. Season 2 begins shooting next month.)
Milliner says he's noticed a new sense of calm in the guy he's known since college. "Once Will & Grace ended and he wasn't in the public eye all the time, and we were just producing -- and then when he went to Broadway on top of it -- he did seem like he relaxed a lot more," says Milliner, who calls Hayes a homebody. "Not just about his personal life, just about everything. He seems like he's a lot happier."
Happy, and on a roll. "I have fastened plenty of safety nets," says Hayes about his career. "And I feel fulfilled. And I feel like I want so much more at the same time. And I feel like I've already won."