PGA Honoree Marta Kauffman on Jane Fonda's Arrests, TV No Longer Being the "Unloved Stepchild"

Marta Kauffman attends Netflix FYSEE Rebels & Rulebreakers - Getty-H 2019
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The 'Friends' and 'Grace and Frankie' creator will receive the Norman Lear Achievement Award at Saturday's Producers Guild Awards.

Marta Kauffman, the creator of Friends and Grace and Frankie, will join the likes of Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Lorne Michaels on Saturday when she is honored with the Norman Lear Achievement Award at the 2020 Producers Guild Awards.

Kauffman, who won a best comedy series Emmy in 2002 for Friends, created Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions alongside writing partners David Crane and Kevin Bright in 1993 — through which she produced Veronica's Closet and Jesse — and in 2015, she co-founded banner Okay Goodnight with Robbie Rowe Tollin and Hannah KS Canter to produce Grace and Frankie (now the longest-running series on Netflix) and the Gloria Allred documentary Seeing Allred.

Ahead of the Jan. 18 awards show, Kauffman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the revived Friends frenzy, the impending end for Grace and Frankie and the ever changing TV landscape.

What does it mean to you to be accepting this Norman Lear honor?

Oh my god, it is incredibly flattering. It's one of those things where you don't quite know what to do with it because it feels larger than I feel, and the fact that it's named for Norman Lear, who gave me my first real job in L.A., is full-circle touching. The only thing is, what do you wear?

What's it like seeing so many sad millennials now that Friends has left Netflix?

You know, it's coming back to HBO Max, so it will be back; it's not gone forever. And it's still in syndication. I certainly understand that people are not happy. I got a bunch of texts that day from all kinds of people saying, "I'm so sad this morning." This day was coming, and we all knew it was coming for a while. I'm so sorry that it's going to be a while before people can stream it again, but it's coming back, it's coming back!

How do you feel about the show being part of launching the new streamer?

It makes perfect sense for HBO Max and Warner Bros. — that's where we did Friends and there's something like going home about it. Netflix was amazing for the show — it was incredible for it. It gave it a whole new life, but I think this is another opportunity for us.

Why do you think Friends has had such staying power and has connected with a younger audience so much?

I think it's a few things. I think they were characters that people wanted to know and invite into their homes and have a beer with — they were characters that the audience enjoyed spending time with. You wanted to be like them, you want to have friends like them. I think that that has been universal, that never stopped people to this day even though the phones are huge and nobody had cell phones back then. Even today, people still feel that way about the characters.

My youngest daughter, about five years ago, when she was about 14 or 15, a friend of hers said, "Have you seen that new show called Friends?" They thought it was a period piece. So they accepted it on that level and didn't look at it as dated as much as a period piece, and then accepted the characters fully and the stories and still could identify with them.

What have you thought watching Grace and Frankie's Jane Fonda as she gets arrested for protesting climate change?

I think it's amazing. I went and got myself arrested along with Howard Morris and Robbie Tollin and the entire writing staff [for Grace and Frankie]. We all went to DC and joined her. She's incredibly inspirational. She's absolutely right about what she's fighting for. She's a badass, and I'm really proud of her. I'm honored to be in her orbit.

What was it like being part of that protest?

It was very powerful, very moving, a little scary and ultimately five hours of boring once we were in custody. It was a long five hours of sitting there in the plastic handcuffs and you couldn't even go to the bathroom without having someone come with you. I wasn't about to have someone pull my pants down. As a matter of fact, there was a woman there and I kept thinking of Grace and Frankie — there was a woman there who was 87 years old. She said that she was told that once you get to a certain age and you're going to get yourself arrested, wear Depends. It was ultimately such a powerful experience, and I felt changed by it.

Will you work these Fire Drill Fridays into future Grace and Frankie plotlines?

I am hesitant to proselytize; I feel like my job is entertainment. However, Frankie is a responsible person who has always been someone who's worked to keep the environment in as good of a shape as she can, so it's always been a part of it. I don't think we would do anything where they go and get arrested just because that's what life is, and that's not our show or our characters. But it certainly has a perspective that would be in support of everything that Jane is talking about, for sure. That's partially because the writers in the room had that perspective as well.

It was announced last year that Grace and Frankie will end with the seventh season. What went into that decision?

That was a Netflix decision, so I don't really know what went into their decision to do it. I know that they're wrapping things up more quickly with other shows, so I'm thrilled that we've been able to be here for seven seasons. For some reason, I want to say initially our ideal was seven seasons. That's what we'd hoped for, and honestly you hope for more than one season, so to have actually made seven is wonderful.

As the show nears its end, do you have plans for what you want to do next?

We're developing a movie based on one of my favorite books called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; we are developing a show with Warren Littlefield and Fox 21; we're developing another show with another writer. We're really — now that the show is in its last season — looking forward to new development.

You've produced a number of documentaries as well. Why is that outlet appealing to you?

The first one I did, I was sort of uncertain about how I would feel about it and then discovered during the process of it that it's really just another way to tell a story, and that's what I do, is tell stories.

It also gives me an opportunity to dive into things that I wouldn't necessarily have the opportunity to explore, things that are really interesting to me, like Gloria Allred. I wouldn't be able to do a TV show about that or have a relationship with her unless we had done something like that documentary. It was an incredibly thrilling experience to work with her and to look into her life and her background, and it was a really fun process to put together that story.

How is it to be working in TV at a time when so much is changing?

I get to work, and a lot of people get to work. It's exciting out there — there's so much. There's niche television, there's stuff that's more general. There's really exciting work being done, so I think this is a great time to be in TV. And it's gained a lot of respect. It used to be all about the films, and TV is like, you know, the unloved stepchild, and that's changing. And that's pretty exciting too.

What's the hardest part about being a producer today?

The biggest challenge is always the budget and managing the budget. I don't know if it's about today, but in general, the biggest challenge is keeping up with production and making sure everything is on time. The other thing, and I always say this, but it's a goal that I think everybody should have, and that is to have a happy set, to have a staff and a crew that are happy to come to work in the morning. We all work too hard for it not to be a joyful experience. That's a real goal of mine.

Interview edited for length and clarity.