Marta Kauffman on the Long Road From 'Friends' to 'Grace and Frankie': "It Wasn't Easy"

Grace and Frankie Marta Kauffman Inset - H 2015
Courtesy of Netflix; AP Images/Invision

Grace and Frankie Marta Kauffman Inset - H 2015

It's a choice every modern-day showrunner must make: Whether or not to join Twitter. "Who's got time? When you're shooting 12 hours a day and trying to write scripts, it's really hard to find the time," Grace and Frankie co-creator Marta Kaufman tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The last time Kauffman had a show on the air, this wasn't an issue because Twitter didn't even exist yet. But 21 years after Friends' debut and 11 since the show went off the air, Kauffman is back with the new Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie. Centered on two newly single women whose husbands leave them for each other, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) must navigate a world – including online dating and iPhone mishaps – that has changed drastically since they were last on their own. Like her two fictional heroines, Kauffman is adjusting to her new surroundings. "I'm trying to get Netflix to my aunts who don't even have a computer," she says with a laugh.

Kauffman spoke with THR about Grace and Frankie, why Netflix was her first choice, Friends comparisons, her time away from TV shows and the state of broadcast comedy.

Read more 'Grace and Frankie' Offers a Fresh Look at Aging, Stars Say

How did the idea for the show come about?

It was a number of flukes and some very good fortune. Marcy Ross, who's head the of Skydance Television, and I were having lunch one day and she happened to mentioned that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin both want to do television. I thought she meant together. I called my agent and I said, "Is it true that they want to do TV together?" She said, "I don’t know, I'll call you back." Twenty minutes later, she called me back and said, "They do now." Once you know you have legends like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, you have to come up with a concept that is worthy of women like that and talents like that. We were searching for a way to explore aging and coming into your own at a certain point in your life. After word, I was sitting in the car with Hannah KS, my development executive and she said, "What if their husbands fall in love with each other," and that was it. We were off and running.

Was it that easy finding a home for the project?

We pitched the concept all over. … Once we pitched it, there were a number of places that were interested, but we were pretty clear that it needed to be either pay cable or Netflix, and preferably, in our hearts, we were really hoping for Netflix. We got very, very lucky.

Why did you want Netflix in particular?

There are several reasons for that. One of them is, and this is true on pay cable, but you get 30 minutes to tell a story. Telling a story in less than 21 minutes is really hard with all those commercials breaks. You have to put act breaks in it and your story has to work around these time limits and that can be difficult. Also, especially for a half-hour comedy, for me personally after Friends I wanted to do stuff that had more depth and heart and not necessarily always funny. Maybe there's some pain too. Netflix was really going to afford us that opportunity. And then lastly, we got 13 episodes. You don't have to make a pilot and be in developmental hell for years. You go straight to 13 if they like what they see.

Obviously it also gives you the freedom to curse and include some of the activities Lily Tomlin's character partakes in on the show.

I think that is right. And there's a whole episode down the line all about vaginal dryness. That was not going to be on network television either. (Laughs)

The topic of aging is not represented on TV a lot these days. Did that put on extra pressure on you?

I don’t know that I would call it pressure. What I knew is that I wanted to do it in a real way. As much as it needed to be funny, it was also very important that it was real. There have been shows that are broader comedies that have dealt with aging, but always in a jokey way, making jokes about aging, not experiencing the aging itself. This is also a very marginalized segment of the population. They're smart. They live long lives. They have great histories. And I think they can offer an enormous amount of really good story. People said to us when we were doing Friends, "Nobody will watch it. It's about twenty-year-olds. You need people in their 60s on the show to bring in the other side of the audience," and that was not true. … It's about this time but isn't only for people who are over 70. The stories, hopefully, are universal enough that people under 70 will watch.

Read more Craig T. Nelson to Romance Jane Fonda on 'Grace and Frankie' (Exclusive)

You deal with topics like broken hips and hearing problems and what you mentioned earlier. Were there any topics that were considered taboo?

We're not going to do nudity. (Laughs) … That's something that just doesn't feel appropriate in this show, but beyond that, there have been no topics that are off limits yet. We've only done one season. We'll see what happens as time goes on. But I can't recall a single thing where they said, "We really don't want you to do that." If anything, what I appreciate so much about [Netflix] is when they give notes, their notes are not only looking at the mega of the story, but it also they are trying to keep us true to our vision. When you get in a writers room there comes a point where things make you laugh and you put things in that may be don't belong in the tone that you've set up and they're amazing at supporting the initial vision and really forcing us to be accountable to that vision.

When you were writing the show, how much of the two main characters were inspired by Jane and Lily?

They have a huge influence on who these women are. Because it's never exactly what you think it is in your head, and if anything, people like Jane and Lily elevate the material to this new place that opens up windows for the characters that we hadn't necessarily understood when we started.

This is a comedy but the subject matter is a little depressing at the beginning. As a writer, how do you strike the balance between finding the humor in those moments and also being honest to the tragedy of it?

That was our most difficult challenge because the tone is not like other things, it's not like we could look at other things and go, "There's the tone." We had to discover it. It took us about three episodes to finally land and really understand what this show could be on both ends; both the comedic end and the tragic end. … We always knew we wanted to walk that line but the more difficult part of going straight to 13 episodes is you don't get to make a pilot and then look it and learn from your mistakes. 

Looking at the tone of the show, how else do you think Grace and Frankie will stand apart?

First of all, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen – there's no cast like that on television anywhere. I am so fortunate to have been allowed to do this with them. That is a real pull. I also think that the show has a lot of warmth. …  Not the only reason, but one of the many reasons that Friends worked was that warmth. I think people crave that. There's a lot on television right now that is fantastic TV but it's chilly. It's a little chilly. It keeps you at a certain cynical distance. I don’t think this show creates a cynical distance.

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With something as successful as Friends on your resume, you're going to get inevitable comparisons to that…

I know. That's the pressure, honestly. That's more the pressure.

How did you deal with that pressure and moving past Friends?

It wasn't easy. (Laughs) I knew that I wasn't going to do more multicamera. I knew that was not going to be for me anymore. Convincing other people that I could do other things took a little while longer and then when we go to doing this. At a certain point, I just had to say, "Do your best. Just do your best. Do the show that you're proud of, and you have no control over what people say about it." And that's what I tried to do with a show that I felt good about, that I would want to watch, that I'm proud to tell my friends and my family, "Check this out, I think you'll like it. I think you'll have fun. I think you'll feel something. You might even feel some joy." The pressure is inherent in this situation, but there's not much I can do about it because Friends was not just me. It was me and David Crane and Kevin Bright and all the other writers on that show. And it was of a time with a certain cast. And the time is different. I'm different.

Last year, there was a lot of talk about Friends because of the 20th anniversary and the show going to Netflix so it must have been a particularly hard time to drown that noise out.

Netflix never brings it up, which I really appreciate. They don't hold up that comparison. So the only people who might hold up that comparison are outside of the people I care most about. I hope the Friends writers like it.

You talked about how you've changed since Friends. How have you changed as a writer and how has your process changed?

First of all, I've changed as a writer in part because David Crane and I worked together for 27 years. And when you write as a team it's different then when you write on your own. I really tried to explore other ways to tell stories. I did a couple of documentaries. I did the Five short films two times, one about breast cancer and one about mental illness. I really tried to look for deeper ways to create something. I think I have been able to, to a certain extent, break out of the multicamera sitcom mold. I guess the way I've changed as a writer is No. 1, I'm happy – well not happy, no one is happy to write – but I'm OK to sit in a room by myself and write the scenes I have to write that day. It's not terrifying to me like it used to be. I never considered myself that funny. I don't consider myself to be a joke person, but I've learned how to – within a dramatic situation – find the funny. Not in the jokes but in the characters.

When you were doing all these different kinds of projects, was there ever a point in time when you didn't think you would do another TV show?

I always knew that I would be back in production with something. I have a company called Okay Goodnight! and we're doing a miniseries with HBO, we're doing this, there's another project we have. We're doing all kinds of things. I really like to work. I love what I do. It never really occurred to me that I might not do it anymore, at least in that point of my life, and I don't even see it yet. I know at some point that's coming but not yet. I'm loving what I do too much.

You said it was hard to get people to look at you outside of the multicamera comedy mold, but you had faith you would be able to change minds?

I had hoped. I don't know if I had faith, but I certainly had hoped.

How do you think working in these other mediums changed you?

They opened my mind into how to tell a story. One of the things I did between Friends and this was I wrote and directed three shorts for WIGS and that was telling a story in five to seven minutes. That was just so much fun for me as a writer to be able to explore storytelling in such a bite-sized form. Documentaries are another thing. How do you tell a story using interviews and other people's old movies? I think those things helped me understand that there's more than one way to tell a story.

Are there comedies right now that you're watching on broadcast? What is your thought of the state of broadcast comedies? It's a very different landscape than the must-see TV era Friends was a part of.

Can I tell you the truth? I don't watch comedies. I really don't watch a lot of comedy. Especially broadcast television at this point. I watch dramas. That’s what I prefer to watch when I get home because for me watching a comedy is a little bit of work.

What are some of the dramas you're watching these days?

I'm watching Game of Thrones, Bloodline, Orphan Black, and The Returned.

As someone who had so much success on broadcast TV, what are your thoughts on the state of broadcast at the moment?

I think broadcast TV is doing way better with their dramas than they are with their comedies. I am hopeful that someone will reinvent the multicam because right now some of them are feeling a little stale. It's just the look of it at this point. It's not even how the jokes are. We've seen so much better visual storytelling that I think that the multicam at the moment pales in comparison. … I'm intrigued to find out where things are going to go, but it's incredibly exciting to be a writer right now with all this amazing television and all these opportunities for amazing television. That wasn't the case just a few years ago.

Grace and Frankie's entire first season premieres Friday at midnight on Netflix.