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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Your know you’ve done something right with your career when you start receiving lifetime achievement honors before you turn 60. What David Crane, 58, and Marta Kauffman, 59, have accomplished is obvious to anyone who has turned on a TV during the past three decades, creating such series as Dream On, Veronica’s Closet and — Hollywood’s favorite show of all time, according to THR‘s 2015 industry poll — Friends. The longtime writing partners now work on separate projects — he’s doing Showtime’s Episodes, she’s running Netflix’s Grace and Frankie — but on the eve of being given the WGA’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award at L.A.’s Writers Guild Awards, they spoke with THR about life beyond broadcast networks, finding a new title for showrunners and those persistent rumors of a Friends reunion.
Aren’t lifetime achievement awards for old people?
DAVID CRANE That part is a little surreal. When Marta and I started, in every room where we pitched they’d refer to us as “the kids.” There was a point somewhere around the beginning of Friends where we stopped being “the kids” and started feeling like the parents.
What is your reaction when you read about a possible Friends reunion?
MARTA KAUFFMAN It will never happen, but no one tends to believe me. It shouldn’t happen. That show is about a time in your life when your friends are your family. Once you start having a family, that time of your life is over.
CRANE We finished the show exactly the way we wanted to finish it. To revisit those characters just seems like a bad idea — you don’t want to see them hanging out in the coffeehouse now. And the good news is, you can see them whenever you want to. The show lives on with amazing vitality.
Apparently a lot of high school kids are watching the show on Netflix.
KAUFFMAN I have a daughter who was just a couple years old when the show ended. She’s about to turn 17, and all of her friends are discovering the show. Someone said to her, “Did you see that new show called Friends?”
CRANE Not all of her friends are smart.
KAUFFMAN It’s fascinating watching the resurgence in my daughter’s generation. I look at it and go, “God, that was a big wireless phone.” That doesn’t seem to bother these kids — they think it’s a period piece.
Dream On is the opposite. You can’t find it anywhere. Do you think it will ever make it to streaming?
CRANE I have no idea what the answer is, but it would be great. We’re really proud of that show. It’s the first show we did together, it’s the first show we did with Kevin Bright. If there were a way to get that in front of people, that would be fantastic. Talk to somebody about that.
KAUFFMAN It was our first gig, and I can’t even bear to tell you how little we made for a show we created. I think we worked for 36 cents an hour.
CRANE This was our first show, and we were running the writers room. They didn’t even bring in somebody to supervise us. When we first got the job, we talked to some established writer friends, and said, “So they gave us a show. What happens, you sit in a room and ask other writers about stories?” We got such death-ray looks that we agreed that we couldn’t ask anybody how to do this. They’d hate us. We had to figure it out for ourselves. So we hired a staff that, on the whole, had never written a TV show, either, and just sort of found our way.
What’s your take on the rise of the term “showrunner”?
KAUFFMAN I truly believe the showrunner needs a new title. You see, on network TV, the studio gets executive producer credit. I have nothing against the studios and networks getting whatever credit they feel they deserve, but those of us who are showrunners should not have the exact same credit. I think it has diminished the creator. It used to be the people who ran the room had that title — now it seems like everybody.
CRANE When we were doing Dream On and Friends, [our producing partner] Kevin Bright was creatively as invested as we were — as opposed to some actor’s manager who is executive producer. I’ve never had that on a show, but I can only imagine what that’s like. Marta, what title do you want?
KAUFFMAN That is a discussion to be had with the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild.
You can make that part of your speech.
KAUFFMAN: Oh, believe me, I will. Sorry, David.
You both now have series on relatively laissez-faire outlets. Would you go back to broadcast?
KAUFFMAN It’s not that it’s carte blanche — that’s not the reason I feel hesitant to go back to network. I love these other outlets because you get to let the story tell you what the shape is and how long it is — you don’t have to force yourself into six-minute blocks. That is super-exciting for a writer, to not be beholden to something unnatural and inorganic.
CRANE Doing Episodes, we do have carte blanche. We’re preparing for this new season, and Showtime has not asked us to see a script yet — and we start shooting in two months.
KAUFFMAN (Laughs.) That’s not the same for me.
CRANE It’s a remarkable amount of trust. I don’t think [partner] Jeffrey [Klarik] or I would do network TV again because there is so much anxiety and micromanagement and panic. It’s what Episodes is about. We’ve probably burned enough bridges by doing that show that they wouldn’t want us back.
KAUFFMAN The notes that we get don’t micromanage. It’s a macro note that holds you to your vision of the show. They’re just keeping us accountable.
Showtime and Matt LeBlanc have been pretty obvious about Episodes likely ending with its next season — where are you with that?
CRANE That is our decision. We’ve said to Showtime, in all likelihood this will be the last season, because that feels right. They’d love a lot more. But we feel like we may be at the end of the story we’re telling. It’s coming from a creative place, as opposed to something that’s been imposed on us.
If you had social media back in the day, that instant fan reaction, do you think you would have been steered to do anything differently on Friends?
CRANE No. Even in the beginning, there were already people weighing in — and there were people talking in our ear about their thoughts and opinions on the show. It’s not that different from Twitter; you just know them. We worked very hard to just focus on what was being said in the writers room and with the cast.
KAUFFMAN Opinions aren’t helpful. I don’t even like to read what critics write. It’s a specific opinion. You can’t compare Grace and Frankie to Transparent, they’re completely different shows, and yet people do. You look at the comments, you’re getting them from the Hanoi Jane people. I don’t need to listen to them.
CRANE I don’t mind reading reviews. Those were people paid to do that job. Jeffrey feels compelled to read every comment. I’m like Marta. I can’t do it. I don’t know who I’m reading. Clearly they have strong opinions, but they’re not helpful to me in the least.
Do you get tired of people asking you about Friends?
KAUFFMAN It’s kind of like someone saying, “You raised a great child.” Why would that not be a wonderful thing to hear over and over again?
CRANE We’re just not letting the kid go to any reunions.
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