‘Grace and Frankie’ creator on the series nearing its end — and that ‘Friends’ reunion
Considering that she’s the co-creator of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” which offers a portrait of aging as full of adventures, it‘s not too surprising that Marta Kauffman was arrested a couple of months ago in Washington, D.C. — as part of the rotating cast of friends joining the 82-year-old Jane Fonda in her weekly climate crisis protests.
“It was powerful and intense ... and five hours of being in zippie handcuffs,” says Kauffman, 63, noting she was arrested alongside the “Grace and Frankie” writing staff and a few dozen others. “I feel like I put myself on the line for something that I believe in. It has changed my perspective on what I do personally. And the change I can do.”
There are no arrests in the new season of “Grace and Frankie,” which boasts Fonda and Lily Tomlin as besties, but the hijinks are still aplenty.
The sixth season, now streaming, follows Grace (Fonda) as she tries to settle into marriage and a new home with her younger husband, played by Peter Gallagher, 64 — much to the disappointment of Frankie (Tomlin), who is finding ways to adjust to Grace’s absence. A new business idea, another product for older people, helps pull them back together again. Meanwhile, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) are confronted with health and money issues.
“There’s a lot of uncomfortable changes for the characters,” says Kauffman, who describes herself as a bit of both Grace and Frankie. “I have long gray hair like Frankie; I tend to dress more like Frankie. But I also have some of Grace’s stricter qualities. I definitely like control.”
It’s mid-December and Kauffman is sitting in her Paramount Studios office — where a large framed French movie poster of “To Kill a Mockingbird” hangs above her desk and a stationary bike is situated not far from her in-office bar. She begins the conversation with an apology: In a few minutes, she’ll need to check in on the “Grace and Frankie” writers’ room across the hall as work on the seventh and final season gets underway.
When it wraps, “Grace and Frankie” will earn the distinction as the longest-running original TV show in Netflix’s history, with 94 episodes in all. (“Orange Is the New Black” ended with 91 episodes.) Kauffman describes the decision to end the show as not entirely a creative one.
“It was a combination of things,” she says, feet resting atop her coffee table. “Netflix isn’t doing long-term series anymore. And we are really lucky that we got the seventh season. I think when we started, we imagined seven seasons. But, really, this is the kind of decision that comes from Netflix. But as sad as I am that it’s ending, there’s something that makes sense about it.”
Kauffman is well aware that fans of the show want Grace and Frankie to ultimately be together in the end. She’s also aware there’s a faction of fans that ship the duo as a couple.
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are the kind of ladies who lunch while talking frankly about bionic body parts and joint diseases.
“The way people invested in their relationship is something you always hope is going to happen,” Kauffman says. “The show is about these two women. I think it’s no surprise that the audience wants them to be together, ultimately. I think making them a [romantic] couple is disingenuous. But they are a different kind of couple. They are best friends. They belong together. And I think there is something wonderful about finding that person who you want to be with in life.”
The series is meaningful to Kauffman for a number of reasons. For one: As a woman of a certain age working in an industry fixated on youth, she has confronted and shifted her own views on aging by dismantling of some of its stereotypes.
“I learned to accept my age, to embrace it,” she says. “I learned you could always start your life over. I was very resentful of gravity. Gravity pisses me off... [But] the changes that will happen to my body and to my mind are things that I just have to accept and say, ‘Yes, this is the new phase. This is the new stage.’ I used to be afraid of dying, and now I’m no longer afraid.”
“Grace and Frankie” also helped her see that her best work wasn’t necessarily behind her — even if that work included co-creating an enduring pop culture phenomenon: “Friends.” Convincing herself and others that she could do other things after 10 seasons of the NBC comedy took a little longer than she hoped.
Before “Grace and Frankie” came along, Kauffman hadn’t spearheaded a TV series since “Friends” concluded in 2004, though, she spent time writing and producing in the intervening period. In 2015, the same year “Grace and Frankie” launched, Kauffman co-founded the female-led production company Okay Goodnight, which is behind projects like the Gloria Allred documentary, “Seeing Allred.”
“I’ve learned that I can balance a lot, that I can keep all the balls in the air,” Kauffman says. “And I’ve learned I really like to lead. ... I love the collaboration among the writers, with the actors, with people from our crew who have great ideas. I find that I just want to do the stuff I absolutely love doing and that there’s still so much ahead.”
Kauffman was born in 1956 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her father worked as a plumbing and heating supply distributor, while her mother was a professional dancer who owned a dance school, which she gave up when she became pregnant with Kauffman. (“During the Depression, she was 16 years old and supported her family dancing in a mafia-owned nightclub,” Kauffman says.)
A career in entertainment was not something Kauffman’s parents initially supported.
“My mother kept telling people that I was going to teach people with mental disabilities,” she says. “She held onto that for a long time.”
While studying theater at Brandeis University, Kauffman met her longtime collaborator (and fellow “Friends” co-creator) David Crane. The two were cast in a student production of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real.” (“He played a street urchin, and I played a whore,” she says with a laugh.) The pair soon established a writing and producing relationship that, in those early years, included writing off-Broadway musicals and children’s theater. Her major source of income during that time, she says, was writing questions for a game show called “The Knowledge Bowl.” (“It was a nightmare to study math,” she says.)
Her agent at the time suggested Kauffman and Crane consider doing television. So they did. The pair developed shows such as HBO’s award-winning “Dream On” (1990), “The Powers that Be” (1992) and “Family Album” (1993) before “Friends,”catapulted into the TV stratosphere in 1994.
When it comes to the grip on pop culture that “Friends,” about six 20-something New Yorkers, manages to maintain more than a decade after its end, Kauffman has had some time to reflect on it. Last year marked the show’s 25th anniversary, prompting a flurry of celebratory events and tributes.
“It’s pretty hard to process,” she says. “I mean, we’ve been reliving it because of the 25th. And part of me finds it completely overwhelming, and the other part of me is just tickled. It’s crazy that a generation is finding the show. That’s so thrilling, because you do TV and you think it has a lifespan. But it’s gone on much longer than we certainly expected. We went to the pop-up in New York, and they told us a story. They’ve all these photo ops, and there was one where you put the turkey on your head and they said two guys proposed to their girlfriends with the turkeys on their heads. I mean, come on. I’ve made it.”
It was reported in November that the “Friends” cast and creators were in early talks for a reunion special to be featured on HBO Max. Kevin Reilly, the platform’s chief content officer, acknowledged at this week’s Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena that the unscripted event, which would not be a revival of the show, was still in the “maybe” phase.
“I have no update on that,” Kauffman says. “It has to be right to do it. I don’t know. I have no good status update on it. It’s a very challenging prospect. I know everyone wants it to happen so much. We don’t want to do anything disappointing.”
But what’s the content Kauffman craves? Her TV diet leans heavily toward dramas because “comedy feels like work.” She’s enjoyed “Watchmen,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Servant,” “Unbelievable,” and “The Act.” When the conversation turns to the current state of television, from the rapid changes to the monsoon of content, Kauffman has two minds about it.
“I worry about the bubble bursting,” she says. “But it’s still exciting. There’s so many opportunities for good work to be done. And the way we’re watching has changed so much since we did ‘Friends.’ Even making it is different. When you’re going straight to making 13 episodes, [like with “Grace and Frankie”], it’s a very different learning curve, which is both frustrating and exciting.”
But she did it. She’s doing it — production on the final season of “Grace and Frankie” starts later this month. And as she readies herself to think about what’s next, Okay Goodnight is starting to look at a number of different projects it can get made soon.
“It’s only doing things I’m passionate about,” Kauffman says. “We work too hard not to do stuff we love.”
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