Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends, and Howard J. Morris make their case for second act lives with Netflix’s new star-laden comedy Grace and Frankie.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(May 22, 2015)
While a good portion of the 30-million viewers who tuned in weekly to enjoy the romantic misadventures and vocational pitfalls and pratfalls of the Friends troupe still pine 10 years on for a reunion, series co-creator Marta Kauffman has, with Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, graduated to another creative realm, playing now with “the grown-ups,” if you will. Crafted in collaboration with frequent collaborator and longtime friend Howard J. Morris, Kauffman at 58 knows you can’t go home again, and she’s just fine with that. The central perk of embracing her maturity – and the opportunities and challenges swiftly carried into her life via the epochal sitcom – is the generation of a new series centering on the gradual, occasionally barbed softening of two autumnal women who form an uneasy friendship when their longtime husbands seek divorces so they can themselves get married to each other. Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston, Grace and Frankie is a high-concept offering effervescent in the big laughs fans of Kauffman and Morris (Veronica’s Closet, According to Jim) call familiar, but chased with an emotional resonance unexpectedly profound, these well-drawn (and masterfully played) characters grappling with the brutality of failed marriage, mortality, trust, and truth. Best of all for Kauffman and Morris is how the new show invited – possibly even required – they live, breathe, and write as their better selves. “We couldn’t be more proud of Grace and Frankie,” says Kauffman. “Which is something people often say, but we actually mean it.”
You’ve both enjoyed tremendous popular successes in your careers. When a new show is about to debut, do you still get “opening night jitters,” or is audience reception still a consideration for you?
Marta Kauffman: Oh my God! Yes! With Netflix, though, it's different, because it's not about the ratings. It's not about how many people watch the first night. We did our 13 episodes and audiences will be able to access all of them. It’s not like we’ll get cut down four episodes in, like on a network series. So it's a different kind of jitters. On the other hand, on Netflix, we’ve done our 13, and they exist, and we can’t hear audience feedback in any way that allows us to make any adjustments along the way. We just had to commit ourselves to our vision and do it – which is incredibly terrifying too! At this point, there’s nothing I can do.
Photo: ©2015 Netflix
Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie.
Howard J. Morris: That’s right. There’s nothing we can do now. Nothing at all. We feel very confident it’s going to be a hit with audiences. The nature of Netflix is that we’re going to “open” in 62-million homes in over 50 countries on the exact same day. That’s kind of amazing. It’s also one of the reasons our post-production process was so extensive – like, six months long. We had to prepare the show for all of those different countries. It’s very exciting.
Marta Kauffman: And terrifying!
Howard J. Morris: And terrifying!
So the show has been dubbed into dozens of languages for its big unveiling. How many of these languages did Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin know going into this, or did they just cram with Rosetta Stone?
Marta Kauffman: That’s funny!
Howard J. Morris: We actually learned two things in that process. One, was that some countries like subtitles, and some don’t; they prefer dubbing. But we also learned that there is a surprisingly huge network of performers who have been impersonating Jane and Lily for years, and some of them are quite good. They’re such iconic artists; you can’t just have anyone dub Jane Fonda’s voice, right?
Tomlin, Fonda, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston… How many times did you sell your soul to the Devil when you were casting this show?
Marta Kauffman: You are so right! And I pinch myself on a daily basis.
Howard J. Morris: There was a moment, a very, very small moment script-wise, when we were shooting the pilot. It’s a small set we shot on, and I remember Marta and I were standing next to each other on the first day of shooting, just feet away from the rehearsal in progress, and I was just, like, “Oh my God! That’s Martin Sheen! And that’s Jane Fonda!” It was kind of: “Where am I? Who am I? How did I get this lucky?” But then you sort of get used to it. Or you pretend you do because, really, you’ve got a job to do.
So after three decades of making television, you can still get a little star struck?
Marta Kauffman: Oh, totally! Absolutely! I’ve had some really wonderful moments in my career, but you look at Jane and Lily doing a scene together, and it’s just: “Holy crap, I am the luckiest!” But that’s really all extra blessings because the truth is: I just love the work. I really do.
Howard J. Morris: I see that in her everyday. I hope she sees it in me.
Marta Kauffman: I’m sorry. Who are you?
Howard J. Morris: Uh, it’s me. Howard. Howard Morris?
Marta Kauffman: We love our work. We love our writing staff. We heal each other with laughter.
You mentioned how the challenges and opportunities of crossing over to Netflix are invigorating. At the height of Friends’ popularity, some 30 million people would tune in every Thursday night. Today, a show can have 3 or 4 million viewers and run five seasons. What are some other differences for you as writers and producers?
Marta Kauffman: You know, it's very simple. We get to write what we want to write. You don’t know how much of a gift that really is. We get to write what we want to write! We picked an idea that is about people of a certain age, and we don't have to compromise that idea for a single appetite. Not one person. We don't have to compromise that idea for a network. We don't have to compromise that idea by only having 21 minutes in which to tell a story. We don’t have to compromise. So for the writer, you really get to stick to your vision.
Howard J. Morris: Yeah, you have this feeling every day when you go to work that you can really be as good as you can be. Often when you're in the network structure, you don't feel that way because there are so many people to answer to. For this show, we picked some risky subject matter, and it's just been so embraced. We’re like kids in a candy store, a candy store for writers.
Back in the “good old days” of network televisions, you were doing 24 episode seasons. You're in production 9 or 10 of those months, and on Friends, for example, you’d spent your entire hiatus blocking out the next season. With this show, you’re doing 13. Is that better or worse?
Marta Kauffman: There are two sides to it. One side of it is it certainly gives you more breathing room. It's still a long haul because you’re writing and in pre-production for a long time before anyone calls “action.” Then as the producers, we’re on the show all the way through post. So it’s still a very long haul. But I’m not complaining. Thirteen episodes definitely feels like a much more manageable, humane number. The downside is: 13 episode seasons make it a lot harder for people we love – and love to work with – to actually make a living.
Howard J. Morris: That's huge. It really matters to us. Creatively, 13 is a great number. But for the people working on the show, who are attached to the show, 13 means they’re out of work for a lot of months. Freedom comes with problems. Who would’ve thought?
Where did the idea for Grace and Frankie come from?
Marta Kauffman: We had Jane and Lily already set. We just weren’t sure what we were going to do with them yet. I was sitting my car one day with my company’s creative executive – who, full disclosure, also happens to be my daughter—
Howard J. Morris: Who is absolutely fabulous.
Marta Kauffman: And we were talking over some possible ideas, and she looked at me and said, “What if their husbands fall in love with each other and leave their wives?” I was, like, “Yes! That’s it!” It’s insanely good, right?
Howard J. Morris: Then we spent four or five months writing it.
Marta Kauffman: Double that.
Netflix has boiled down its demographic via some advanced calculus to know exactly what its subscribers want to watch. Giving a show like Grace and Frankie the greenlight is interesting, as it flies in the face of so many things Hollywood has told us it “knows”: audiences don’t like things about women or things about older people, comedy doesn’t travel well overseas. William Goldman was right, wasn’t he?
Howard J. Morris: The fun part for us was that nobody was doing this show. And nobody was doing shows with older women. In fact, in our initial conversation, I kid you not, Marta said, "I've always wanted to do a show about older women's sexuality." So, I said, "Well, I know why you've called me." This is not the show that anybody else is doing, and that really excited us.
Marta, in the treatment for Friends, you said the show is about “sex, love, relationships, career – a time in your life when everything is possible.” That sounds to me like a pretty good description, too, of Grace and Frankie?
Marta Kauffman: I would absolutely agree with that. I cannot tell you that it was a conscious thing, but Howard and I had a lot of conversations about how we wanted this show to be, on some level, aspirational, that it somehow convey to audiences: you know, you really can start your life over at any time. But also, at my very core, that’s just who I am. So it’s bound to turn up in most of the things I write. Those ideas are important to Howard too.
Howard J. Morris: Absolutely. I always go to the word “hope.” Grace and Frankie is not a dark show – or as Marta always says, “a chilly show” – but we do take things very seriously. It’s also a very, very hopeful show, but very grounded in reality. It’s one thing to be in your 20s and for things to not be working out. There’s still plenty of time to get things right. But when you’re in your 70s, it can feel like the stakes are raised all around.
So when the two of you “start your lives over” again, what does that look like?
Marta Kauffman: This show was starting my life over, in a way. You're told by the industry that you're one thing – “You're this kind of writer, you only do sitcoms, that's all you do,” and Grace and Frankie was an opportunity to say, “I can actually do more than that.” That feels kind of like starting my life over.
Howard J. Morris: Absolutely. Writers get typecast, just like actors get typecast.
So memo to F. Scott Fitzgerald: there are second acts in American lives!
Howard J. Morris: Absolutely!
You’ve both worked with very big stars in the past, though the Friends gang was pretty uniformly rookies. With no disrespect intended to the talent you’ve worked with previously, there’s a bit of a walk between some of them and, for example, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston.
Marta Kauffman: Yes. No disrespect taken and none intended, but it is a different league.
From a writer’s perspective, does it impact the creative process when you’re writing for Oscar-winning legends and newcomers whose biggest jobs have been, say, fleeing a homicidal leprechaun?
Marta Kauffman: It actually does enter our mind. It really does. But the process ends up being pretty much the same: you have an idea in your head and then an actor comes along and they breathe their life into it. When it’s a living legend like our Grace and Frankie cast, they’re not breathing life into what you’ve written, but they’re going to bring history and experience and knowledge and class. When we started working with Sam and Martin, we realized that [their characters], Robert and Paul, were actually a little different than what we'd first thought, that there were things we really could not do with Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, that we might have been able to do with other actors. It’s not about their limits as actors, which might not even exist as far as I can tell, but there are just certain things you don’t really want to see these incredibly elegant men do.
Howard J. Morris: On the other side of that, you sometimes discover that there are certain things you can do that you hadn’t thought of before. Martin infused his character with so much of his own humanity that the character just surprised us. What Martin did, which was in our heads, but I’m not sure exactly how you’d even write this down on the page, was he showed us that his character hadn’t just been suppressing his sexuality for all these years, but his own personality, and in the show, you see all of that really coming into the light for the first time ever. It’s a really beautiful thing, and it’s about how incredibly good these actors are.
By the same token, as showrunners go, the two of you are seasoned veterans with some pretty venerable credits. How have things changed for you as writers in the nearly three decades you’ve been working professionally? How does your experience impact your writers’ room?
Marta Kauffman: Well, the writers’ room is always about who you hire. For a show like this, one that’s really walking a line between comedy and drama, we needed writers would could dance with both. It’s really important too – at least to us – that the room be filled with people you genuinely like. No matter how well things are going at the beginning of a season, there’s always that moment somewhere in the back third of the season where the production ball starts to catch up with you and you feel like Indiana Jones dropping his hat everywhere, trying to outrun the boulder. Also, with Grace and Frankie, it felt important to us to have some gay men on our writing staff. We also wanted a range of age. Our writers’ room starts in their late 20s and ends at around 60, with everything in between.
Howard J. Morris: We also have a lot of women, which often in comedy is not the norm. All of that gives us a very unique room.
Where do you find the writers that meet that breadth of requirements?
Marta Kauffman: You know the moral of that story is: they’re around. There are so many good writers around. It’s not just finding a good writer, though; it’s also finding the right match for your room, gathering a group of people who are going to have a good time working very long hours under very intense deadlines together. You have to really enjoy each other. There’s no room for a shit heel in the writers’ room.
Howard J. Morris: It’s kind of like fielding a baseball team, if you’ll forgive the sports metaphor. Not everybody has to play third base. I mean, you need a third baseman, but you also need a left fielder, and they’re very different positions. So you want to build a well-rounded group too so that everyone’s different strengths can really come to light. It’s not enough on a show like Grace and Frankie to have a room full of great joke writers or a room that’s only comprised of great dramatists. It’s finding the best mix, and that’s a hard thing to do.
In your estimation then, what make a great writer?
Marta Kauffman: I can tell you a little bit about what it takes to be a good writer in television. I don't know that I could tell you about being a writer in any other field. The writer in television has to be a great collaborator. And when I’m staffing a room, I like to fill it with incredibly smart people, people who are smarter than I am. Then I can stand back and let them help me do our best work. I also don’t think there’s any benefit to writers getting too precious or protective of their material. There are times when you have to stand up for what you’ve written, obviously, but one of the reasons I like a room full of incredibly smart people is that I can defend less and collaborate more.
Howard J. Morris: There’s a trust that’s built in the writer’s room, when it’s full of good people. On Monday, you may be very uncomfortable with the script, but you can really trust that, somehow, everyone’s going to get the work done. Good writers give you faith in the entire process, and when they’re good, collaborative writers, it’s more than faith.
Marta Kauffman: Also, a good writer really needs to be able to take notes. Too often, writers get so sensitive and worried about notes. But in my experience, the truth is: notes are a writer’s best friend. They’re our best tool. If a smart person has given them to another smart person, the work will get better. A writer has got to always be willing to improve the work they’ve done.
So almost 30 years into these careers, what do you know now that you didn’t when you were just starting out?
Marta Kauffman: Oh, my God! Are you writing a book? I’ve learned enough to fill a lot of books!
Howard J. Morris: Yeah, there are a million things. Learning to be a better listener has been a big one for me. But a really big one for me is: story is everything. Individual moments are important. Great jokes are important. But it’s the story – how it’s told, how it feels, how the audience is engaged – that really matters.
Marta Kauffman: I would agree, but that’s not the biggest thing I’ve learned. Jokes are always second to the story. What I learned is a little more personal, and it’s about the human being I am as a producer and as a writer, and it’s: I can’t do everything. I’ve learned my limitations. There was a point when I was younger when I thought I could do absolutely everything, and the truth is I can't. I just can't. There's a lot of shit I just don't know. So that’s been good for me.
The new series premieres this month and we’re awaiting word from Netflix of a second season. Your work on the first season wrapped a couple months ago. What are writers doing when they’re not writing 13 episodes of television?
Marta Kauffman: The first thing you need to know is: you can't stop thinking about the show, so you start planning out the second season – whether there is one or there isn't. But what else have I done? I got a dog. I’m spending time with my kids. I’m doing a miniseries for HBO.
Howard J. Morris: I’m one of those writers who just can’t stop writing, so relaxing to me is writing something else. What I’ve found is that the “something else” I’m writing, for it to feel relaxing, has to be completely different from what I’ve just written. It’s like flexing a different set of muscles. That feels really good to me, and it doesn’t take anything away from my Grace and Frankie brain because they’re such different things. Writers, you know, we have weird ways of relaxing sometimes.