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Sean Hayes: HypocondriActor

May 14, 2021
Originally published on May 14, 2021 3:45 pm

Eleven years after Will & Grace's first finale, Sean Hayes reprised his outrageous character Jack McFarland in the series' reboot — but it wasn't easy to jump right back into the role.

"When we did the table read of the first episode of the reboot I was like, 'oh boy.' Your body feels it. I forgot how much work this is. So it was hard to get the energy and find the energy. But slowly it comes back.""

McFarland has starred on Broadway, hosted the Tony Awards, and produced TV shows like Hot in Cleveland and Celebrity Game Night.

Now, he's also a podcaster. He co-hosts the show Smartless with actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. And he's partnered up with internist and comedian Dr. Priyanka Wali for his new podcast, HypochondriActor (Hayes loves puns).

HypochondriActor tackles his lifelong obsession with medical stories. "My favorite part of talk shows is when people from all walks of life come on and share a medical issue they've had because it connects us. Right? It's my dream come true. I get free medical advice."

NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg challenged Hayes to two games inspired by his medical obsessions. First, he identified Broadway musicals based on descriptions of injuries suffered by characters in those musicals. Then, he played a word game called "Diagnosis Dessert," where every answer is a sweet treat combined with an ailment.

Interview Highlights

When asked if his puppy does any tricks

I mean, we're lucky if we can get him to come when he's called. But he literally will eat anything. We call his mouth "The Chamber of Secrets" because you could open up his mouth at any point in the day and fish out anything you're missing.

On his early show biz days filling in as a piano player for a dinner theatre in Illinois

I was sitting at home and the phone rings... "Can you get here? The piano player/music director has tendonitis, she can't even push down on one key." So I got there, I had no time, I sight read the second act in front of everybody. I'm missing every other note but I'm young so I feel invincible. I think I was like 22 years old. And then, the show ended but it was a two show day. So in between shows I had an hour and a half to then go and practice the whole thing. I grew up a little bit that day.

Heard on Sean Hayes & Ed Helms: Podcast No. 9.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thanks, Jonathan. Our special guest starred as Jack McFarland in the sitcom "Will & Grace." He co-hosts the weekly podcast "SmartLess" with Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, and his new podcast "HypochondriActor" explores medical mysteries. Sean Hayes, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

SEAN HAYES: Hi, you guys.


EISENBERG: Hey. I noticed on your social media that you got a - you have a dog, a newish dog, Ricky.

HAYES: I do have a newish dog. He's not quite a year. We got him. He's a goldendoodle, and - which is golden retriever and poodle for those listening that didn't know.


HAYES: And so I thought he was going to be, like, you know, maybe 20 pounds, if that - 75 pounds, not done growing.


HAYES: He's gigantic. He's a horse. If you literally put a saddle on him, you can ride him down the 101.


HAYES: Unbelievable. He's gigantic. His head is, like, the size of a fruit bowl. I don't know. It's just insane.

EISENBERG: Did people do that thing when he was just 25 pounds that they would - you know, I feel like people look at the dog's paws, and they're like, oh.

HAYES: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: You don't know what's coming.

HAYES: Yeah. I'm like, yeah, thanks. I got it. But, yeah, everybody did that. The vet's like, oh, he's got - he looks - yeah. He's got a long way to go. Yeah.

COULTON: Oh, boy.

HAYES: Yeah. It was fine. I mean, we still love him, and big dogs are great. I just didn't know he was going to be that big. But you get what you get, and that's why I don't have children.


EISENBERG: Does Ricky do any tricks? Are you those kinds of dog parents?

HAYES: I mean, we're lucky if we can get them to come when he's called. He just gives us the bird, the finger. And it's like, oh, really? What are you going to do? Make me. And - but he literally will eat anything. We call his mouth the Chamber of Secrets because you could open it at any time during the day and fish out anything you're missing. He - I have a mouth guard because I grind my teeth.


HAYES: Ate it. Like, this was two days ago, three days ago. Like, where's my mouth guard? He chewed it and then ate it. His teeth look great, though.



COULTON: Perfectly straight.

EISENBERG: He's not grinding.

HAYES: Yeah. Perfectly straight - yeah. It's crazy.

EISENBERG: So I want to talk a little bit about your life, like, before you moved to LA.

HAYES: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Way back, you were a musical director at a dinner theater in Illinois.

HAYES: That's correct.

EISENBERG: What did that entail?

HAYES: Yeah.

EISENBERG: And what was the dinner theater? What kind of stuff?

HAYES: Oh, I'm going to launch into it right now.


HAYES: (Unintelligible) sitting down. So I studied piano when I was a kid. I started lessons at 5 years old. It was my major in college. And when I got out, I thought I was going to compose music and be a conductor and all those kinds of things and play piano and tour and whatever. And then when I got out of college, my - one of my best friends, if not my best friend - her aunt, Diana Martinez - I can say that name - she was the director at the Pheasant Run Dinner Theater, and they were looking for a musical director.

And this is wild. So Pheasant Run Dinner Theater was up and running. They had everybody there. They had a music director. I was sitting at home, which is probably, like, a half hour away from the theater. And the phone rings, and it's Diana. She's like, it's intermission right now. Intermission is only 15 minutes. If I hold intermission 10 extra minutes, can you get here? And I was like, why? What are you talking about? And she says, the piano player/music director has tendinitis. She can't even push down on one key.

COULTON: Oh, my goodness.

HAYES: Like, it was - she could barely get through the first act. And I was like, wait. What are you talking about? And she's like, just - can you get here and play the second act? OK, so I got there. And if you're familiar with musical theater back in the day, Tams-Witmark was the publisher that would publish the music. And it was these massive, tall, comedy-sized books. And, you know, it took - you had to reach real high to turn the page. It was just massive. And so I had no time. I sight-read the second act in front of everybody. And if anybody knows anything about music, there was songs with, like, five flats in them, like G flat major. And it was - I'm missing every other note. It was unbelievable. But I'm young, so I just thought...

EISENBERG: You're just like, whatever. Do it.

HAYES: You feel invincible. Yeah. Why not?

COULTON: That is insane. That is absolutely insane.

HAYES: (Unintelligible).

COULTON: It's such a small number of people in the world who actually have the ability to do that. I mean, like, you know, I could sit down and try, right? I could do my best.

HAYES: Yeah.

COULTON: But I would never try because there's no possibility that I could do it. That's amazing.

HAYES: Although, like...

EISENBERG: And it's not only just music. It's - a theatrical production is depending on you.

COULTON: Yeah, there's a live show happening also.

HAYES: And the band and, like - it was crazy. I couldn't believe it. And then - I think I was 22 years old, and then in - so then that show ended, and it was a two-show day. So in between shows, I had an hour and a half to then go up and practice the whole thing.

COULTON: (Laughter).

HAYES: And I grew up a little bit that day because one of the actors - and I won't say who it is - knocked on the door where I was, in the practice room. And she's like, can we go over my stuff? And I looked at her, and I was - literally, if I had a knife, I would stab her. I said, I have an entire show to learn in one hour. And I was like, oh, my God, who is that guy? You know what I mean? I've never talked to anybody that way.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) And she said, OK.

HAYES: Yeah. She's like, oh, my God.

EISENBERG: And all of a sudden, you understood what authority could do for you.

HAYES: Yeah (laughter).


HAYES: Yeah (laughter) No. Well, I knew what standing up for yourself - because, you know, it was like I had no choice but to talk to her that way. I was just - I was panicked. I was completely...

EISENBERG: Of course.

HAYES: I was like, oh, my God. Anyway, that's that story.

EISENBERG: But they gave you the gig.

HAYES: I got the gig.

EISENBERG: I mean, it was obviously, you know, they did have - maybe I don't know if they had a lot of choices, but you went in there. You filled it. You did well enough that they were like, come on back.

HAYES: Yeah. And I stayed, and I was like, oh, this is kind of what I wanted to do anyway. So there I was in the pit for - in this small dinner theater orchestra pit, and I would do all the shows, "The Music Man" and "West Side Story" and "Evita" and "Oklahoma!" and all those standards. And - but if you're - anybody who's been in an orchestra pit knows it's like watching the same movie every single night over and over and over and over again. And you can't goof around. You can't talk. You can't do anything because you're stuck down there.

But when you're backstage, you can do - you know, you come on. You do your thing. And then you get off, and you do all those theater antics that are so funny. And I was like, I think I'd rather be up there. And that's when the switch started to happen, and I started taking it more seriously and would go on auditions downtown Chicago for commercials and movies and TV shows and stuff like that.

EISENBERG: So I know you, of course, as Jack McFarland on the NBC sitcom "Will & Grace" that started in 1998.

HAYES: And it's still going.

EISENBERG: It ended in 2006, rebooted in 2017.

HAYES: That's correct. Yes.

EISENBERG: In the time in between the show ending and then the reboot, did you decide - I mean, did you change how you wanted to portray Jack? I mean, there was a while when you didn't know, obviously, but then you're going back.

HAYES: It's interesting, you know. Playing a character like that is a lot of work, but I don't want to diminish, like - there's also frontline workers. Come on, Sean. You know, they work a little harder.

COULTON: (Laughter) Course.

HAYES: But to get - as an actor, to get into - I was off for so long playing that character. When we did the table read of the first episode of the reboot, I was like, oh, boy. Your body feels it. You're like, oh, this is - I forgot how much work this is. So it was hard to get the energy and find the energy because it'd been so long. I was like, I don't remember what this is like. And then slowly, it came back, and you're like, OK. And then you build endurance again, and you're fine.

EISENBERG: Right. Because Jack is, I mean, I would say, not subtle.

HAYES: Yeah. This is...


EISENBERG: This is not a subtle performance, right? This is...

HAYES: That is correct.

EISENBERG: And you have a new podcast...


EISENBERG: ...Called the "HypochondriActor."

HAYES: Right. Right.

EISENBERG: You host the show with internist and comedian Dr. Priyanka Wali. And then in each episode, you bring on a guest, and you guys talk about mysterious or interesting medical stories.

HAYES: Yes. Yes.

EISENBERG: And quiz each other on medical history. And you start the episodes with your own medical...

HAYES: That's correct.

EISENBERG: ...Story.

HAYES: That's right.

EISENBERG: So first of all, do you have enough medical ailments to sustain many seasons?

HAYES: Listen and find out because - you know what? - I do.


HAYES: And it's really sad. No. We mix and match with those. And my favorite part of, like, talk shows is when people from all walks of life come on and share a medical issue that they've had because it connects us, right? And it's like my dream come true. I get free medical advice.

EISENBERG: All right. Are you ready to play some games with us, Sean?

HAYES: Yes. Yes. Yes.

EISENBERG: So we decided to combine your loves of musical theater and medical issues...

HAYES: Oh, no.

EISENBERG: ...In a game called Musical Injuries.

HAYES: OK. Oh, my gosh.

EISENBERG: So we're going to describe an injury suffered by a character in a Broadway musical.

HAYES: (Laughter) I'm on board.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And you could tell us what the musical is.


EISENBERG: And we're here for you. We're here for you.

HAYES: OK. Good.


HAYES: This is already funny.

EISENBERG: Let's start with an easy one. Charles Lee is wounded, but not fatally, in the first of this show's three duels.

HAYES: Oh. "Hamilton."


HAYES: You know what? Can I tell you something?

EISENBERG: What? Yeah.

HAYES: I love that music. Can't tell you anything the show's about.

COULTON: (Laughter).

HAYES: I feel like I'm the only one on the planet that was like, what's going on? I don't - there's three girls who like that guy, but then he's - wait, what? I didn't understand any of it.

COULTON: (Laughter) All right. Here's another one for you. The evil stepmother cuts off parts of her daughter's feet in an attempt to fit them into a slipper.

HAYES: Yeah. Is that "Into The Woods"? Is that...

COULTON: It is "Into The Woods." That's correct.


COULTON: That's right. Your original, aptly named Grimm version of the fairy tales...

EISENBERG: Very grim.

HAYES: Right. I saw not a great version of "Into The Woods," which - I love that show so much - a long time ago. And you know the 10 freeway here? I got in my car and I said, (singing) now I go into the car, and off we go, down and a drive too slow.


HAYES: The melody from the...

COULTON: Once that opening number gets into your head, it's hard to get it out.

HAYES: Yeah. It is.

EISENBERG: All right. In this - this infamous show led to a bunch of actual injuries among its cast, but Act 1 ends with an out-of-control science experiment that turns Norman Osborn into the Green Goblin.

HAYES: That was "Spider-Man"? Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yes. "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark."

HAYES: So I saw the first preview of that show.


HAYES: It stopped five, six times before the first act was over.


HAYES: And it was about - the first act was about 2 1/2, three hours long because it kept stopping. And we had to leave. I had to leave because it was crazy. It was insane.


EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue.

HAYES: Yeah.

EISENBERG: The Black Knight gets his arm chopped off and another arm and both legs and yet still somehow survives.

HAYES: Oh. "Spamalot." Is it "Spamalot"?


HAYES: I love that show.

EISENBERG: Oh, so good.

HAYES: I mean, I love "Monty Python," and I love "Monty Python And The Holy Grail." One of my influences, great - I love them. It's great. I love them.

EISENBERG: All right, Sean, we have another medical-themed game for you. We really - we were very thankful to have a reason to do this.


EISENBERG: And I know you love puns.

HAYES: Yeah. Who doesn't? Yeah.

EISENBERG: OK, so this word game is called Diagnosis Dessert.

HAYES: Oh, I love it already. OK.

EISENBERG: So every answer is a sweet treat combined with a minor medical condition.



COULTON: For example, if I said when I eat one of these small, yellow citrus candies, I wince so hard I get tension pain in the brain, you would answer Lemon Headache.

HAYES: OK, got it.

COULTON: All right, here we go. This pill-shaped mint won't help you with your pimples, but it will make your breath kissably fresh.

HAYES: Thinking Tic-Tac.


HAYES: Thinking it's Tic-Tac acne. Tic-Tac-ne.

COULTON: Tic-Tac-ne.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HAYES: Oh, Jesus.


HAYES: That's nice.

COULTON: OK. I don't want to eat that swirled, spiced and cream-cheese-frosted pastry because I'm worried it'll go right to my big toe, creating a bony bump.

HAYES: Oh. I want to say bun-bursitis, but...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: You may know too much (laughter). Yeah, you might have the food item at breakfast time.

HAYES: Yeah, I'm thinking, like, cinnamon roll. I'm thinking, like...

COULTON: Not cinnamon roll, but cinnamon...

HAYES: Cinnabon. Cinna-bunion.

COULTON: Cinnamon bunion. That is correct.

EISENBERG: As soon as I read cinnamon bun, I smell it.

HAYES: You smell it. Isn't that amazing?


HAYES: Yeah, me too, me too.

EISENBERG: Anyways...

HAYES: I like talking about it, too, because I gained - I'm not kidding - I gained over 20 pounds during COVID right over the year, and I just lost, like, 11 pounds.


HAYES: So even talking about pastry, I'm like, oh, I would kill to have a Cinnabon right now.


HAYES: Love it.

EISENBERG: OK. The only thing harder than passing up on one of these tart, sugar-coated, chewy candies is passing one of these hard calcium deposits.

HAYES: Sugar-coated, chewy...

EISENBERG: They're tart, sugar-coated, chewy candy.

HAYES: Sour Patch Kid-stone.


HAYES: Sour Patch Kidney stone.

EISENBERG: That's it.

HAYES: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yes. Adorable. Isn't that adorable? And matter of fact, I feel like I knew someone that, anyways, passed a kidney stone, and then they got to take the kidney stone home with them or something or could look at it in a jar.

HAYES: I have mine. I have mine.


COULTON: OK, here's another one. These oval Pepperidge Farm sandwich cookies are delicate and a bit dry, just like your nasal membrane when the heat's cranked up in your apartment.

COULTON: Milanos? Mint Milanos.

COULTON: Milanos is the first part. And what's a thing that happens sometimes in the winter when your nasal membranes get dry and..

HAYES: Yeah, yeah, a nosebleed. Mila-nosebleed.


COULTON: (Laughter) Mila-nosebleed. That's right.

HAYES: Oh, my gosh. That's great. That's cool.

EISENBERG: (Laughter). Nothing's more American than this baked dessert, which I make using pink ladies. Pink Lady is also my nickname when I get conjunctivitis or a sty or another one of these conditions.

HAYES: Well, you kind of said pink eye already. Like, you said pink ladies. Yeah, OK...

COULTON: So the baked - the American baked dessert is...

HAYES: Apple pie in the sky in your eye.

COULTON: Apple...

EISENBERG: Basically.

COULTON: That is correct. Apple pie in the sky in your eye. It's a terrible medical condition.


COULTON: Anyway, we were looking for apple pie infection.

HAYES: I eat an apple literally almost every day.

EISENBERG: Do you like a crisp apple?

HAYES: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Which one is it?

HAYES: Crisp and sweet.



HAYES: You guys are crisp and sweet, so thank you. You guys are like a Washington (ph) apple.


EISENBERG: Usually, I am told I'm sour and pasty, so I appreciate that.


HAYES: Yeah, I get it. I get the same thing.

COULTON: Mealy and flavorless.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HAYES: Do you guys keep candy in your house?

EISENBERG: No - can't.

COULTON: No, I don't. I can't - children.

HAYES: Oh, all right. Well, yeah, we don't want them to be happy.

COULTON: Well, I mean, they devour it instantly - is the thing.

HAYES: (Laughter) I know. I'm kidding.

EISENBERG: But, you know, this is what happens to me when I even have, like, you know, a couple chocolate bars in the - I'll put them in the fridge.

HAYES: Yeah, you just want more.

EISENBERG: I just - I sit there, like, on the couch, working - email, whatever. And I am not concentrating. My head is in the fridge, beside that chocolate bar.

COULTON: Yeah, you can hear it calling.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Exactly.


EISENBERG: Sean, thank you so much. Sean Hayes's new podcast, "HypochondriActor," is out now with new episodes weekly. Sean Hayes, thank you so much for joining us.

HAYES: Thanks, you guys. This was so fun. I love it. Thank you for having me.

COULTON: It was a blast. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Pleasure.


EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Nick Garrison, Scott Ross and Emily Winter and senior writers Camilla Franklin and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Sparber and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses's bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.