You can call it an open question as to whether NBC’s Friends is the greatest sitcom of all time. There’s no question that it’s one of the most beloved. Its series finale was watched by an astronomical 52.5 million people, reflecting the incredible cultural significance the show enjoyed for the decade that it was on television. The series’ co-creator, writer/producer and PGA member Marta Kauffman, has had an unenviable challenge in creating a worthy follow- up to the Central Perk gang. But as the co-creator of Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Grace and Frankie, Kauffman has pulled it off, transitioning from a show that provided the definitive picture of the ‘90s TV generation, to another series that’s generation-defining (or redefining) in an increasingly diverse television landscape.
Producer Marta Kauffman watches a scene unfold on the set
of Grace and Frankie. Photo by Melissa Mosley/Netflix.
Grace and Frankie stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as the titular characters, chronicling the story of two women in their 70s whose husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) announce in the pilot that they have fallen in love, ending both marriages. On paper, Friends and Grace and Frankie couldn’t appear more different; after all, the average age of the protagonists in the respective shows is roughly half a century apart. Nonetheless, the parallels in exploring the deep importance of friendship in the characters’ lives are apparent, a theme that Kauffman sees reflected in her own life, particularly as she ages. “As I get older,” she observes, “I find that the relationship between my women friends and me is far more important. It has gained such significance.” The dynamic between Fonda and Tomlin, a rapport deeply rooted in friendship both on and off screen, has proven to be the engine that drives Kauffman’s creation. Her affection and respect for the stars, both as people and as professionals, animates her answer to every question. “They are smart, they’re observant, they’re so good at what they do, and they love each other,” she declares. “I don’t feel that I’m part of a triumvirate … it is them. My job is to get them to tell really good stories.” The show premiered its third season on March 24, and with production for season four already underway, Kauffman clearly has given them more than a few good stories to carry.
Grace and Frankie has its sights on an interesting new space for its third season. The initial premise has morphed and grown. “We’re in a new phase [where] we’re no longer dealing with the effects of the husbands leaving them,” Kauffman explains. “Now we’re in the phase where they have to start facing their age.” At 60, Kauffman is roughly a decade and a half younger than the protagonists on her show, yet the realities and concerns of life beyond middle age still resonate deeply with her. “At 60, I’m finding myself making decisions in a different way,” she reflects. “For the first time in my life, if I don’t like a book, I stop. I only have so many books left in my life, and I’m gonna read the ones that I’m passionate about. On the other hand, joy—which you take for granted when you’re younger—joy is something that you want to surround yourself with.” That pursuit of joy, at least professionally speaking, is what led Kauffman to found her production company Okay Goodnight. The group is small, consisting of Kauffman, Robbie Tollin and Hannah KS, but they’re committed to a very particular directive. “We are three women,” she says proudly, “and one of the things we decided about our company is that we’re only going to do things that make our heart pound.” To that end, the company is working on three “dream projects” that include a documentary about Gloria Allred for Netflix, an HBO miniseries adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves with Natalie Portman attached, and a series for Amazon currently entitled Emmis, with Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) set to write and direct the pilot. While Kauffman appears genuinely passionate about all three of these undertakings, Beside Ourselves seems to have particularly captured her attention. “This project is quirky and funny and deep and emotional and heartbreaking, and everything I wanted my career to be,” she shares. The miniseries will also serve as the first foray into hard drama for the writer/producer, an area where, despite her epochal success in comedy, she still feels she has some catching up to do. “I have to prove myself as a not-comedy writer,” she admits. “People don’t want to believe that [drama] is what I do.” But if the deft transition from the classic comedy of Friends to the more nuanced and introspective comic stories of Grace and Frankie is any indication, a further step into the dramatic depths with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks like a challenge she’s ready for.
Despite Okay Goodnight’s full slate of projects, Kauffman remains actively involved in Grace and Frankie, both as a writer and producer. “I generally get [to set] every morning for the first rehearsal at 6:45 or 7. I come up [to my office] and I’ll watch a cut or two until we shoot. The writers room starts at 10. [Then] I get called on by set designers, costume designers, location scouts, [etc.] . There was a day last season where my workday touched every episode of the season.” It’s a daunting amount of work, but Kauffman, as one would expect, maintains a sense of humor throughout the whole process. (“I must go up and down my office stairs 15 times a day,” she cracks, “you’d think I’d be so thin!”) That comfort in her work is likely bolstered by the fact that creating her show for Netflix has provided Kauffman with an artistic freedom that she never had on Friends. The streaming platform, free from the constraints of act breaks and content beholden to advertising revenue, has afforded a creative flexibility that Kauffman calls liberating. That’s not to say, however, that finding a home on the platform hasn’t been without its challenges. “When you work with Netflix and you’re starting your first season, you don’t get to do a pilot. They don’t do pilots. You do chapter one. And you’re thinking about all 13 episodes. The downside is that you don’t get to make mistakes and then make changes for the second episode.” Nailing down the exact tone of the show, for example, is an issue that can be mitigated by having a pilot episode as a template, but a challenge that has to be dealt with on-the-fly when a show is committed to a 13-episode batch.
Aside from the storytelling obstacles generated through bypassing the pilot stage, the creative freedom on Netflix also comes with some particular production challenges. “It’s hard to get cast, because they don’t necessarily want to do an arc on this, when they could get a “real job” on something else,” Kauffman jokes. “And we are unfortunate to be working over pilot season [for season four of Grace and Frankie], so it is really difficult to get directors and cast. Netflix isn’t seasonal like other networks. You go when it’s time to go. You take this much hiatus and then you go again.” A secondary challenge, specific to Grace and Frankie is, again, an older core cast whose stamina plays a factor from a production standpoint. “We have a cast who isn’t young,” she observes, “and can only do so many hours. [Our cast and crew] work long hard days, but 10 hours is about our limit, when many shows have a 12-hour limit. So that puts some constraints on how many shots we can get.” But despite all that, Kauffman says she wouldn’t change it for the world, observing that, “We could never have done this show, the way we wanted to, on network television.”
Kauffman works with cast members Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on the set of Grace and Frankie.
-photo by Melissa Mosley/Netflix
With Friends behind her, a number of exciting projects ahead, and Grace and Frankie currently occupying the majority of her attention, Kauffman seems to have reached a place of genuine professional fulfillment. And while her skills as a writer may have given her career its start, it is her efforts as a producer that she says maintain a special place in her work life. “My favorite part of my job is producing,” she smiles. “It is an extraordinary collaborative process. I get the opportunity to be creative in areas that aren’t as much my day-to-day. I’m not a costume designer, but boy is it fun for me to say, ‘The character in this moment, this is what she’s feeling—does this jacket feel too bright for that?’”
It may be that affinity for collaboration that has driven the success of Kauffman’s television projects. But at the end of the day, she feels the success of her shows will be best measured by the warmth that people feel for them. How much affection do audiences maintain for her characters? Consider that most of us are on a first-name basis with Grace and Frankie, Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler and the rest of Kauffman’s extended gang. Her characters are more than just Friends—they’re friends. And beyond the laughs that they’ve provided over the years, the bigger and better payoff remains the anticipation of who Kauffman will introduce us to next.
- Feature photography by Kremer Johnson Photography