“Grace and Frankie” isn’t the sitcom you may expect from the co-creator of “Friends.” For one, it’s not a multi-cam show with a laugh track. It’s also heavy on the drama — think “Monica and Chandler can’t have kids” heavy. It’s a very “real” show about aging that won’t shy away from digging deep into its core characters’ inner turmoil. And that’s exactly how Marta Kauffman likes it. Kauffman hasn’t spearheaded a TV series since “Friends” ended more than a decade ago, but she spent that time away finding her voice. Before her new show premieres on Netflix, Kauffman — who works with Robbie Tollin and Hannah KS at her production company OK Goodnight — took some time to talk over the development (nabbing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin took a bit of luck), why now is the time for her to get back into TV, the appeal (and terror) of Netflix’s production model and why “Friends” won’t be joining the growing horde of resurrected TV shows.
Where did the idea for “Grace and Frankie” start with? Where did it come from?
It was a giant fluke. I guess the stars were just aligned. What happened was I had lunch with Marcy Ross, who is the head of television at Skydance, and we always wanted to do something together. She happened to mention that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were both looking to do something TV-wise, and I thought she meant together. [Laughs] So I ran back to my office, called my agent, “Is it true they want to do something together?” She said “I don’t know, I’ll call you back,” and she calls me 20 minutes later and says “They do now.”
[laughs] Perfect! That worked out.
Yes. It was a giant wonderful fluke.
So did you just start writing it from there? Did you already have an idea in your head?
No, we didn’t have an idea. It wasn’t like we went to them with something. Just having heard they want to do something together, we started thinking about ideas. And actually this came from my creative exec. We were sitting in the car together one day and she said “What if their husbands fall in love?” And I was like “Yep, that’s it. That’s it right there.” And that’s how it started.
So you had Lily Tomlin and you had Jane Fonda. How did you get the other two on board, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen?
Uh, a wonderful casting director. [laughs]
[laughs] That’s the key, isn’t it?
No, it’s Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and we’re on Netflix. Hopefully it’s fun acting for these men. It’s a fun thing to do that isn’t normally in their wheelhouse. I mean, look, we got extremely lucky and fortunate to get these incredible people, and hopefully they found something in it that they can get out of it too.
This seems like a cast that’s just having a ball on the set, and I was curious what their first response was when they got the script? How did they react to these characters?
We got great reactions from the characters. Martin Sheen wanted to be certain that we were playing it for real and not doing gay jokes, which was never our intention. The show underneath all this stuff is about people starting their lives over in their 70s. And when you haven’t been something all of your life, how do you suddenly become that? For both of them — for the men and the women.
So they reacted very well. They had great input and thoughts. Look, whenever you write a character, the minute an actor steps in they breathe life into it and they bring their own experiences and their own feelings to it. If an actor can’t, for some reason, do a specific line that was in my head, I can’t force them to. We have to find a way to work on it together to give them something that they feel is real and doable by them.
There’s a lot of drama in those first couple episodes. When you were writing it, did you think it was more of a dramedy or just a comedy that needed to establish a real tone. Or were you even worried about genre at all when you were creating it?
Of course we worried about it, and finding the tone was probably the single most difficult aspect of doing this show, because we wanted it to be, bottom line, real. It wasn’t so much about, “Is it funny? Is it drama?” It’s real, and life is filled with both. I think it is primarily a comedy, but it has some very painful, I think truthful, moments. To be honest, it’s why I stepped away from doing multi-camera. First of all, 20 minutes to tell a story isn’t easy, especially if you want it to be real. I wanted to dig deeper into characters and life and not just worry about the jokes.
So did you ever consider making it a multi-cam?
Not once, okay.
Nope, never considered it. I knew that was not going to work for many reasons. No. 1, that would automatically mean we’re on some network that’s going to reduce my storytelling to 20 minutes. No. 2, our feeling was we wanted to dig into some riskier areas that we didn’t think they would — for the most part, they’re not going to let us do stuff about vaginal dryness on network. They’re just not going to.
But, you know, it’s part of the truth of being a certain age, so we want to. [laughs] We want to do that.
This is the first series that you’ve created since “Friends” went off the air. Why did you want to get back to work in television now?
I love telling stories, I love actors, I love writers, I love crew. I mean, I really love what I do. Since “Friends” I’ve done a couple documentaries. I worked on two films — actually each one was five short films — one was about breast cancer and one of them about mental illness. I was ready to go back to comedy on my terms. People see me as a multi-cam writer. I don’t see myself as that because I don’t think I’m all that funny, but I can tell a good story that has funny in it. And also to a certain extent it was my own confidence to say, “I’m ready. I’m ready to do this now, I’m ready.”
So what was it about Netflix specifically that made you feel like that was the right home for you to be able to do exactly what you said you wanted to do?
Okay, well first of all, they give you 13 episodes. The upside of that is you’re not doing a pilot and then sitting on your thumbs until someone’s ready to make a decision. Going straight to 13 is incredible, that’s incredibly exciting. Here’s the downside: the downside is you have to do 13 episodes and you don’t get your pilot. As thrilling and perfect and wonderful as it is to be able to go straight to 13, it’s also extremely difficult. But we got to be on the air. Yes, we couldn’t make any mistakes because there’s no pilot. You’re just going straight from Episode 1 to Episode 2, and that’s both the exciting part and the scary part, but also Cindy Holland and Jane Wiseman and the people at Netflix are really smart.
Look, I love notes. Notes always make a script better, but sometimes they can be really dumb, from certain executives. These notes were never dumb. They were always macro, so you weren’t dealing with tiny, stupid, little, like, “I have to make an impact so I’m going to give you some notes” notes. They were always incredibly smart and helpful, so I was super excited to get an opportunity to work with people who trust the showrunner, who trust the creator of the show.
Going back to what you said about the difficulty of shooting without the pilot, is that related to how you have to grow as you go?
Yeah, you have to figure it out as you go. When you do it for Netflix you get 13 episodes, go! The way everything worked out we weren’t going to get a hiatus, so I think we had two days between shooting the pilot and shooting Episode 2. So it was really important that we not screw it up. [laughs] And make terrible mistakes that we were going to have to live with for the rest of our lives.
[laughs] Well, I think you did well. I’ve seen the first two, and I think that went fine.
[laughs] Yeah, they haven’t fired me yet, so we’re good.
As a writer, you’ve mentioned how you didn’t think of yourself as a multi-cam writer, but you are going from a format where you’re writing maybe 20-22 minutes to around 30 — closer to 30 if not strictly right at 30. Did that change your writing style? Did the time — since it’s like a decade later — did that change your style, as well?
I don’t think it was so much about the style as allowing the story to dictate what it wanted. Does that make sense? Each story carries its own amount of weight that it can bear. What’s lovely and what worked so well being able to work at Netflix is if a story can only bear 28 minutes that’s fine, and if it needs 37 minutes that’s fine. So it allows the story to tell you what it wants. That’s pretty awesome, that’s a great way to be able to write. I’m sure novelists have that ability to be as long as they need to be.
Even filmmakers, to a certain degree, can fluctuate from 90 minutes to three hours.
Right, exactly. So that’s a great freedom, that’s a wonderful freedom that you don’t get from networks.
Was there any concern on either your end or Netflix’s end about having the demographic of your older audience — people who had grown up loving Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, all of these people — about having them trying to access an online-only site and either not knowing how or not caring to do it?
[laughs] Are you talking about my aunt?
I’m talking about my mom! [laughs]
[laughs] You know, Netflix is not terribly concerned about it. I personally am — in terms of people I know who I would really love to get to see the show, but may not be able to because I’m not sure they know how to use a computer. That’s definitely a question. [Netflix] has faith that it’s not a problem, but we’ll see. We have to figure out a way to make sure that everybody has access and help in trying to see it. That would be frustrating if they didn’t.
Shifting gears a little bit, there’s been a lot of TV shows that are coming back, and they’re coming back as new seasons. “Coach,” “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks” — a lot of classic shows are getting a new season. First, how do you feel about that as a creator of something that’s very iconic and that people are always talking about coming back?
Look, when you come up with an idea for a show, it’s not so much about— like with “Grace and Frankie,” it’s not about women being left by two men who fall in love with each other. What it’s really about is aging. My feeling is, for example with “Friends,” it was about the time in your life when your friends are your family. Well, once you start having your own family, it’s no longer that show. That show is done. So I have this sense that I don’t think one should necessarily go back there again unless the concept for the show wasn’t strictly about a specific thing. With “Coach,” maybe that’ll work. It does make me concerned that people ran out of ideas, but it could also be that there’s so many formats now and so many outlets that people are actually hungry for more content. So on the one hand I get it, I understand why people are doing it — it wouldn’t be my choice.
As a fan of “Friends,” I appreciate the clarity and the commitment that you’ve had to saying it’s over. I think the hardest thing for a TV fan these days is wondering if something is going to come back, because then you just don’t know if it’s over. And having an ending is such an important thing.
Yes, I agree. “Friends” is over. [laughs] It’s gone.
I mean, look, it depends on the show, too. Some shows lend themselves towards coming back more than others.
Was there anything you learned from the aftermath of “Friends,” in the years since it ended, that made you want to change something — how it was created or a season that you did or the length of the series — that you want to apply to “Grace and Frankie?”
I guess more than anything what I learned over time is who I am as a writer, what I bring to something. David [Chase] and I worked together for 27 years and I adore him, and he’s my soul-mate brother. We’re very, very close. We still see each other and all of that, but we worked together for 27 years and one’s identity gets caught up in things. It was just important for me to step away and begin to look at what I do and what I don’t do, what my strengths and weaknesses are. I’m not a joke writer. I can write some funny stuff, but that’s not where I live. I like the heart of things, I like relationships, and I like very much that people care about each other, and that when you watch something there are characters that you feel for. I knew that I was not going to be the person— I have great admiration and respect for “Transparent,” but I would never be able to write that. Not because of its subject matter, but because it’s chilly.
That’s not who I am as a writer. Is that sort of an answer to your question?
Absolutely. So what are you watching now? Is there anything over the last few years that you feel has made an influence on you as a TV writer, maybe even influenced “Grace and Frankie,” or just something that you really admire and you want to emulate in some way?
Well, let me start with I don’t watch a lot of comedy. I never have.
I really don’t because— it’s like my husband can’t listen to music for pleasure [because] he’s a musician. Can’t listen to music for pleasure; when he listens to music it’s work. When I watch comedy there’s a little bit of that, it feels like work. So I don’t watch a whole lot of comedy. In terms of what do watch, I watch all dramas, I watch a lot of documentaries, I watch Animal Planet because I’m an animal freak, I don’t watch a lot of comedies. But the dramas that I watch I’ve learned so much from. Especially right now dramas are slowing down, some dramas are slowing down. Storytelling— it’s fascinating actually. So I do learn a lot from it, I just don’t watch comedies.
Why do you think dramas are slowing down?
Why do they want to? I don’t know. I think it’s hard. People want to reinvent television which is good. I think that’s a really good thing, looking for new ways to tell stories. Now that you have these outlets where there aren’t commercial breaks you can take your time. It doesn’t have to go fast. You don’t have to get a story in the first seven minutes that has to move quickly. You don’t need to do that anymore. So yeah, that would be my first impulse as to why.
“Grace and Frankie” debuts all its episodes Friday, May 8, only on Netflix.