"Women have come a very long way," says Marta Kauffman, one of the most accomplished and respected TV comedy writers and producers — male or female — of the last 30 years, as we sit down in her office on the Paramount lot, where her current show Grace and Frankie is shot, to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "There are more female showrunners, definitely. But I can't say that it isn't still a misogynistic business." However, she adds with a hint of a smile, "I am fortunate enough that, at this point in my career, I don't have to put up with any of that shit. And I won't."
Kauffman, who is 60, is best known as the co-creator, with David Crane, and an executive producer, with Crane, Kevin Bright and others, of the sitcom Friends, which was a massive hit on NBC from 1994-2004 and brought her six Emmy nominations for best comedy series, one of which resulted in a win, in 2002. But she also did great work before Friends, earning a best writing for a comedy series Emmy nom for another series that she and Crane co-created, HBO’s Dream On, in 1993. And she has continued to do great work since Friends, most recently as the co-creator, with Howard J. Morris, and an executive producer of Grace and Frankie, the Netflix comedy series that stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, which recently wrapped its third season.
"I have always loved television," says Kauffman, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. When she was in sixth grade, she contracted mononucleosis and was bedridden for several weeks, during which she got to have a TV in her bedroom and began trying to write a TV show of her own for the first time. She ultimately went off to Brandeis University, near Boston, with the intention of pursuing acting, much like a friend who was a year behind her, Crane. "But," she recalls, "it got to the point where there were so few parts for undergraduates that David and I decided we were going to write a play that undergraduates could be in." They did so, and then subsequently teamed up to co-direct a Brandeis production of Godspell. "And that was actually the beginning of an extraordinary 27-year working relationship."
After graduating, Kauffman moved to New York and, a year later, was joined there by Crane. They wrote for children's theater and off-Broadway musicals, and tried to write a Broadway musical version of Arthur, but ultimately threw in the towel and moved out West. "We thought, 'Let's go out to California and see what we can get,'" she says. Once there, they landed two overlapping jobs: A pilot that they wrote, Dream On, was picked up by HBO in 1990, and they worked on it for years (sharing that 1993 Emmy writing nom), and they also were hired to develop other TV projects for Norman Lear (the first successful one being The Powers That Be, which ran from 1992-1993).
In the early '90s, Kauffman and Crane began discussing an ensemble comedy that would reflect their own recent experiences as young adults preparing to head out into the real world. "David and I had come from New York, where we were part of a group of six people," she explains. "We were each other's family in New York — we really took care of each other — so we were talking about that time in your life where your friends are everything, your friends are your family." The result was Friends. The pilot actually was not well-received — at least not until its creators made "a bullshit change" of its theme song from R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" to "I’ll Be There for You" (Kauffman was one of its writers).
When NBC picked up Friends during the 1994 pilot season, the Peacock Network was in a precarious position: Its biggest hit, Cheers, had just gone off the air, replaced by a spinoff, Frasier, that was anything but a sure bet, much like the rest of the network's lineup. But Frasier, along with Friends and another 1994 pilot season pickup, ER, as well as the late-blooming Seinfeld, all were scheduled on Thursday nights — a night later promoted as "Must See TV" — and combined to propel the network to unprecedented heights. Friends ran for a decade out of Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot, swamping Kauffman and Crane with work and plaudits — even so, during its run, they somehow also managed to create and showrun Veronica's Closet (1997-2000) and supervise Jesse (1998-2000).
After the series finale of Friends aired in 2004 (attracting an audience of 52 million), Bright agreed to serve as an exec producer of a spinoff, Joey, but Kauffman and Crane wanted nothing to do with it. "It's very rare that that works," she says. "We knew, 'We can't compete with Friends, so what we have to do is reinvent.'" (Joey bombed.) Crane, however, wanted to reinvent himself not with Kauffman, but with his life partner Jeffrey Klarik. "David and Jeffrey wanted to do something together [which ended up being Showtime's Episodes, starring Friends alum Matt LeBlanc]," she says, admitting that going solo after decades as a member of a team felt "difficult and terrifying," but also like something that had to happen. "I had young children, I was exhausted and I knew that, in an attempt to not compete with Friends, I had to find things that had a less jokey, more dramatic take," she says. "I like making people cry as much as I like making people laugh."
Kauffman briefly worked as an exec producer of another series, the short-lived dramedy Related (2005-2006), but then spent almost a decade making things other than television, such as documentary features and shorts, "learning to tell a story in a different way." Then, right around the time that she was beginning to consider a return to TV, she learned that Fonda and Tomlin, who had starred together in the 1980 big-screen comedy 9 to 5, were open to the idea of doing a show together, prompting her to come up with an idea worthy of the two legends. That is how she ultimately wound up returning with a show not on a broadcast network, but on a streaming service (Netflix ordered it straight to series); not multicamera, but single-camera (more conducive to dramedy); and not about a group of young people embarking on their lives, but about two women whose lives have blown up late in life — their husbands leave them for each other — and who now need to figure out how to go on (a story of particular interest to America's largest and most underserved demo, Baby Boomers).
Though Netflix does not make public its ratings or demographic research, Kauffman has been told that Grace and Frankie is at or near the top of the list of original content that new subscribers check out first, confirming the show's value to the subscription-based service. Part of the attraction, presumably, is the wattage of Fonda and Tomlin, but also a story of a sort not found elsewhere, to which many — especially older women — can relate in one way or another. After the first season, Kauffman says she herself wound up relating to her characters' predicament when she and her husband of 31 years divorced and she felt lost and afraid. But, she emphasizes, the show also has inspired her to be daring and brave and try things that she previously might not have — for instance, directing a TV episode for the first time, as she did with season three's premiere. "I feel like, in many ways, my life has been leading towards directing," Kauffman says with a smile.