Its finale aired in 2004, but Friends is still alive and well on Netflix, where it’s caught on in a big way with young millennials — a phenomenon co-creator Marta Kauffman says she’s “thoroughly enjoying.” When the show first arrived to the streaming service four years ago, Kauffman says her teenaged daughter’s friends were hooked, if a little confused. “They’d say to her, ‘Have you seen that new show, Friends?'” she says. “They thought it was a period piece.” Here she weighs in on the phenomenon, discusses her newer projects and looks back at her 30-year career.
What do you think is driving the Friends resurgence, especially with younger viewers?
It’s a comfort-food show. These are trying times, and certain people want the comfort food rather than the difficult, mean-spirited kind of show. It’s warm, it’s cozy, [the characters] love each other. What’s not to love about that?
What gap did the show fill in the market when you first came up with it?
I think it’s very difficult and a mistake to base what you’re going to develop on what exists and what doesn’t. There’s no formula. Honestly, we [Kauffman and creative partner David Crane] had just come off Dream On, a show with one lead in every scene, and we wanted to do an ensemble.
At what point in the early stages did you realize it was going to be big?
There were two moments. The first was our very first rehearsal when we had all six of them onstage for the first time and they read the scene in the coffeehouse. I got chills up and down my spine and thought, “This is special. There is something about these six, this script for them, that’s special.” The other was when I was walking down one of the main drags here in a Friends jacket and someone stopped me on the street to ask what was going to happen to Ross and Rachel. Lots of articles had come out and we were seeing them on magazine covers in airports, but that’s the stuff that got to me more — hearing it in conversation in a restaurant, my rabbi asking me about it, when it started reaching me in such strange connections.
Did you originally consider any of the lead actors for different roles?
We thought Courteney Cox might be Rachel. She’s the one who said, “No, I should be Monica.” Matthew Perry was one of the first names on our list but he was doing another show at the time so we made an offer to another actor, who thankfully turned it down, and we got back to Matthew. David Schwimmer had auditioned [for us] the year before for another pilot and he was in our heads when we wrote Ross — his voice, the hangdog thing.
For a generation of fans, Friends epitomized appointment television, where you’d get together to watch. Do you feel something has been lost in how we watch TV today?
A little bit. There was a togetherness in [meeting every week to watch a show]. Back when I was in college, it was Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda. And part of the affection I have for those shows is that we would all crowd into a room and watch as a community. Now, people lie in bed and watch on their computers.
There are benefits to the streaming era too — especially for creators, who are making shows networks never would have greenlit in the past. When it came to Grace and Frankie, did you have any trouble pitching a show centered on two older women?
We did not, because we had Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Had you met them prior to working on this show?
I had not, and to this day, six years in, every once in a while we’ll be sitting at a table read and I’ll look across the table and think, “Holy shit, that’s Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin over there.”
Was it intimidating?
Oh god yeah. It’s not just their talent and their illustrious careers, they are both so damn smart.
With all that experience under their belts, do they feel free to make suggestions about lines, story arcs, things like that?
Jane will very often say a scene needs to be rearranged because she’s not feeling the forward momentum she needs to say a line, or something feels false to them. Once in a blue moon it’ll be something bigger and Jane will call me down to discuss. But they are not in any way ornery. They do the work.
In the current flood of programming, what do you like to watch?
Haunting of Hill House, Bodyguard, True Detective, Escape at Dannemora… I only watch dramas. When I watch comedy, it’s work. I go, “Wait, I didn’t understand the structure of that joke” or “Oh, that’s interesting storytelling.” It’s hard for me to get sucked in.
Your all-female production company, Okay Goodnight, recently produced a documentary about attorney Gloria Allred, Seeing Allred. Why were you inspired to make that film?
We are a company of women and want to be involved in as many women-centric projects as we can. And we wanted to do a story about a woman who was on the correct side of history.
She’s a cultural lightning rod who’s been parodied on shows like The Simpsons and South Park. Were you hoping to show a different side of her?
She’s vilified. People make this assumption that she’s a media whore, and it isn’t until you get to know her that you see that she is the real deal. She believes in everything that she stands for. She fights. And she does extraordinary work. When you think about the Cosby case and how many women she represented during that period…I mean, she got law changed — this isn’t just happening on TV.
How did you handle sexism earlier in your career?
If I was in a room and the men we were pitching to were only looking at David and [producer] Kevin [Bright], I would try to stay active in the conversation and not let myself feel dismissed or minimized. But I’ve had quite a few experiences with misogyny. You can’t help but experience it in this business. When you have a misogynist running a network and they give you notes, [the notes] are going to come from that perspective.
What’s an example of a misogynistic note you got?
When we were shooting the Friends pilot, the head of the network at the time said that Monica got what she deserved for sleeping with someone on the first date — [the guy] broke up with her. They ended up sending out a little survey to our dress rehearsal audiences and one of the questions was like, “For sleeping with a guy on the first date, do you think Monica is a) a whore, b) a slut, c) easy?”
Around that time, a journalist asked me what it was like working for someone who had come from the sports world, and I said I couldn’t answer on the record but that it was hard working for somebody who has misogynistic leanings. She printed it. He found out and was very upset.
Was there fallout?
I sent him a huge basket with tampons, hairspray, pantyhose, nail polish…anything I could think of, to say “This is to help you get in touch with your feminine side.” And he sent me a Harley-Davidson leather jacket to help me get in touch with my masculine side. That’s how it got resolved. It was a scary time, but a good ending.
Do you feel there’s less overt sexism in Hollywood now?
I think there’s greater awareness and more willingness for women to speak out. I don’t think the sense that it’s a boys’ club at heart has really changed yet. The most we can ask for right now, I think, is “behave better.”
Do you have new shows brewing?
Yes, we’re in development with a couple of things. We just finished a screenplay based on one of my favorite books of the last 15 years, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. And we sold a pilot to TNT. So there’s stuff happening.
You’ve been adamant that there will be no Friends reunion. Why?
There are several reasons. One, the show is about a time in your life when your friends are your family. It’s not that time anymore. All we’d be doing is putting those six actors back together, but the heart of the show would be gone. Two, I don’t know what good it does us. The show is doing just fine, people love it. [A reunion] could only disappoint. “The One Where Everyone’s Disappointed.”