Marta Kauffman created, with Howard J. Morris, Netflix’s new comedy Grace And Frankie, reteaming 9 To 5 stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The single-camera comedy, which Netflix is unveiling in its 13-episode entirety on Friday, tells the story of longtime nemeses who learn their husbands, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, respectively, have fallen in love with each other and plan to marry. This leaves the two women starting over in their 70s, and considerably annoyed their lives continue to be intertwined. The 13-episode series also reunites Tomlin with her The West Wing star Sheen, and Fonda with her The Newsroom colleague Waterston.
Kauffman looms large in the TV comedy world, being most closely associated with NBC’s Friends, which she co-created with David Crane. So successful was the series it created hair styles, caused runs on pet monkeys, and popularized coffee shops as examination rooms for the self-absorbed. NBC agreed to pay Warner Bros a record-breaking $10 million per episode to keep it on the air a 10th season, supersizing the show so as to keep its Thursday Must See TV comedy slate on top in the demo despite its years-long failure to develop a new-hit half hour. A 30-second ad on its May 6, 2004 finale cost $2 million, and 53 million tuned in, making it the most watched series so-long since Seinfeld and the fourth most-watched in TV history.
If Friends was a 10-season examination of X’ers as the new Me Generation, Grace And Frankie, Kauffman has said, is a look at sex and reinvention after midlife, dry vaginas and all. We spoke with Kauffman about her new Netflix project.
DEADLINE: Gay marriage is a very hot topic right now. Are you taking this hot topic in order to be able to bring along the show’s main subject of older women and their life experiences, in an industry that is notoriously misogynistic and ageist?
KAUFFMAN: If I was doing that it was certainly not a conscious choice. For us it was really more about the best way to talk about the issue of aging is if you’re starting your life over. It’s the best way to get at that stuff. These characters are in some ways experiencing things for the first time at their age. It was more, “How can we send these characters into the world fresh?” And my hope is that it’s not the dark and cynical version, but more the aspirational, that you can do amazing things at any age – you can start over at any age. And I know [gay marriage] is a very hot topic, but we explored it in our way on Friends a million years ago.
DEADLINE: I read that you snagged Fonda and Tomlin after calling your agent, who also was Tomlin’s, because you’d heard they wanted to work together again. What about landing Sheen and Waterston?
KAUFFMAN: When you have Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, you attract some very, very wonderful actors. These two men stand out, both as really good people, and fun to work with, and amazing actors with a lot of comedy skills that neither is known for. So that felt unexpected.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest surprise working with these four actors?
KAUFFMAN: One is you don’t know when talking to actors who have this kind of amazing longevity and not only talent and skill but have such a breadth of work it is almost unimaginable, what their process will be like. They are four of the most professional actors I have ever worked with. They come in prepared, they know what they’re going to do, have worked on it, have questions. They do deep work on their characters and it’s amazing. They don’t treat it like some actors have treated television in the past. They’re wonderful — not a diva in the bunch. They work well together and respect each other’s process.
DEADLINE: Was this always envisioned as a Netflix series?
KAUFFMAN: When one has the opportunity to work and go do 13 episodes and not spend two years in development hell — the idea of going straight to 13 allowed us to conceive this as a series, not just as a pilot. This is place to be, because we don’t have to worry about development hell — and we’ll have 30 minutes [per episode].
DEADLINE: Could you do this show on a broadcast network? Could you delve into dry vaginas?
KAUFFMAN: No. it would never happen. It would be a wide range of women. And if there were these women in it, my guess is, because you only get those 20 minutes, they’re going to be broader stories, you’re never going to get into what it is to be women of that age.
DEADLINE: What are the disadvantages of working for Netflix, where there are no ratings to judge success.
KAUFFMAN: Aside from metrics, one of the hardest things about doing a show at a place like Netflix is the same thing that’s great about it: going straight to 13. As a producer I sit here and think, “I can’t make any mistakes in the first one.” There is no chance to look it over and make other choices. You have to learn on the fly. It’s extremely difficult. In terms of the metrics, we’re told by Netflix they honestly don’t care about what the first day [audience size] is. They’re looking at longevity: Are people going to be coming to it later. I don’t know what their metrics are. And I never judged Friends by what its ratings were. That was the only way to measure your success. But there are other ways to measure success as a producer, and it’s a more exciting way, which is, “Am I proud of it? Will my peers think this is a good half hour of television?” And it actually feels like a more honest way to measure success.
DEADLINE: Netflix issuing no numbers by which to gauge success is a very sore point with reporters who cover television, who like to write next-morning reports giving a show a thumbs up or down based on the stats. Won’t you miss the morning ratings rush?
KAUFFMAN: We don’t have access to any of that data but the more I work with them the more I’m beginning to see answers to specific questions must come from that data. They guide us in a certain direction. One thing they are constantly saying is that it is our vision, not theirs… They have opinions, strong opinions. They guide us with a strong hand, especially with casting. And I get that, because they look at how many other things is Martin Sheen in, on Netflix, and will they watch my show and then go, “I love Martin Sheen! What else is he on?” — and go find what else he’s on.
DEADLINE: Is there a disadvantage to shooting quickly via the Netflix model, in coming to understand what a show is at its start?
KAUFFMAN: Yes, absolutely. You learn who’s better to shoot early in the day, who’s better in first takes, who’s better in later takes, who gets tired, and also you develop a shorthand with your crew. It makes it harder. Some of that you learn pretty quickly. Some is discovery…within the first couple episodes you get it. Because we have actors of a certain age and certain stature, we don’t do brutal days. It’s not healthy for anybody. And that had less to do with Netflix.
DEADLINE: I notice a lot of questions about Grace And Frankie you’ve taken from journalists — another industry subject to rampant age discrimination — focused on whether episodes should be watched all at once, or weekly. Is it critical to this show’s viewing experience to binge watch? Or, is it like binge drinking — something journalists want to write about having done because they think it will make them look 10 years younger?
KAUFFMAN: As we broke this season last year, I thought of it as each episode has to do two things; have its own beginning, middle and end, so it’s a satisfying experience, but also be a chapter in a book. I have elderly aunts in their 80s and they don’t binge watch. They’re never going to binge watch. I have friends my age who don’t binge watch. My kids…that’s all they do. Our hope is to satisfy both. You could binge watch if you want and we gave it little pauses, little breaks in the arcs so can feel, “Oh, I watched three” and walk away feeling satisfied and, “I’m good.” And the third option is for those who can’t wait to see what happens next.
DEADLINE: Is there any point to making a multi-cam comedy these days?
KAUFFMAN: I wish somebody would reinvent it. It’s a wonderful — almost like writing little plays each week. And you get to do it live, and it’s incredibly exciting to do. It certainly feels tired. It’s feeling really tired and someone need to reinvent.
DEADLINE: What do you mean by “reinvent”?
KAUFFMAN: If I knew what I meant, I would do it myself. I don’t know. It’s just — all the sets look the same. Nobody goes deep in. It’s all of a rhythm. It’s so predictable. People laugh at the set up of jokes! Maybe it means going back to live. Something element that’s new and fresh.
DEADLINE: You famously came to Press Tour, as Friends was nearing its end, and did a Q&A with TV critics and reporters in which you checked off each question as it was asked from a list of expected questions that had been prepped for you by publicists. To the only two journalists who asked you something not on the list you gave passes to the Friends finale taping. Do you similarly have a prize for any journalist interviewing you who does not ask about a Friends reunion?
KAUFFMAN: Anybody who doesn’t ask can come visit the set. That is the best question ever.