Will & Grace - Guest Star Paradox

Guest Stars in Will & Grace

Will & Grace is known for its sharp, current events humor and pop culture name drops. Over the course of its eight (and now nine, ten, …) seasons, it also hosted at least 50 guest stars, some of whom were also name dropped on the show.

Which guest stars were also discussed on the show?

My first goal was to find the overlap between celebrities who have appeared in the show and celebrities who have been referenced in the show’s dialogue. I began by scraping the transcripts from every episode and the list of all credited actors from IMDB.

Using the tidytext package in R, I broke every transcript into 1-, 2-, and 3-word ngrams. This assumes every actor goes by 1, 2, or 3 names. Merging this with the list of actor names from IMDB, I get a complete list of actors who have both appeared in the show and have been discussed by the characters.

Overall, there are at least 39 guest stars on Will & Grace who were also referenced in the show’s dialogue. This estimate is a lower bound, as the analysis won’t find celebrites that were mentioned only by first name but are known by their full names (unlike Madonna and Cher). It also did not flag any jokes where the actor made a pun using part of the celebrity’s name.

Celebrities both guest starred & referenced at least 3 times.

Actor Character # Eps Referenced
Cher Cher 11
Madonna Liz 6
Kevin Bacon Kevin Bacon 5
Matt Lauer Matt Lauer 5
Katie Couric Herself 4
Britney Spears Amber-Louise 3
Elton John Elton John 3
Jennifer Lopez Jennifer Lopez 3
Matt Damon Owen 3
Salma Hayek Herself (uncredited) 3

Of those 39 guest stars, 22 appeared as themselves (or as caricatures of themselves).

The Guest Star Paradox

What about the other guest stars? These actors were referenced by name in at least one episode, but then appeared in another episode as a character.

As an example, Madonna is discussed in six different episodes (plus another in Season 9), but she also played Karen’s roommate Liz in a Season 5 episode. This creates a minor paradox, as both Madonna and Liz shouldn’t exist in the same universe.

In total there are at least 17 of these paradox situations. They are also some of the most notable guest appearances by the most famous guest stars [citation needed]. This is to be expected, as more famous/iconic celebrities are more likely to be mentioned in conversation, while also more likely to have substantial guest starring roles, rather than brief cameos. The entire list is printed at the bottom of this post.

Other notable examples include Britney Spears, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen Degeneres, and Alec Baldwin.

Total references in all episodes

Although Cher’s two(!) appearances on Will & Grace do not create a paradox, she is the most referenced celebrity throughout the eight season with 38 total references.

This is followed by 12 references about Katie Couric and 11 about Barry Manilow and Kevin Bacon. Madonna is the most referenced paradox guest star with 7 references over 6 episodes.

Full list of the guest star paradoxes

Actor Character # Eps Referenced
Madonna Liz 6
Britney Spears Amber-Louise 3
Matt Damon Owen 3
Ellen Degeneres Sister Louise 2
Taye Diggs James Hanson 2
Alec Baldwin Malcolm 1
Andy Richter Dale 1
Bernadette Peters Gin 1
Chita Rivera Lenore 1
Demi Moore Sissy Palmer-Ginsburg 1
Joan Collins Helena Barnes 1
Lee Majors Burt Wolfe 1
Michael Douglas Detective Gavin Hatch 1
Michele Lee Lucille 1
Minnie Driver Lorraine Finster 1
Rosie O’donnell Bonnie 1
Woody Harrelson Nathan 1

This post is a work in progress and will be edited over time. Yes, I spent my extra Daylights Savings hour doing silly data analysis.

Ryan Timpe
Data Science | Economics