When Marta Kauffman cooked up Grace And Frankie–a show focused on later-life reinvention– she herself was ready for a renewal. As she says, “I knew that we had to come up with something special, and extraordinary, and different.” But it was actually her daughter, the show’s creative executive Hannah K.S., who came up with the basic concept.
“We were literally just sitting in the car and Hannah said, ‘Well what if,’” Kauffman says. “She came up with this wonderful idea that they are not people who care about each other much and their husbands have an affair and fall in love. This was completely her idea. Once we started to explore that, we realized how rich it was.”
Kauffman–co-creator of Friends–was going out on a limb somewhat with Grace and Frankie in that it deviated from a traditional comedy, with scenes that were longer and not always joke-packed. “Netflix gives you that opportunity to really walk the comedy/drama line,” Kauffman says. “It plays right into what I was hoping to be able to do.”
The show’s popularity has continued to rise and now is shooting its third season, including an episode directed by Kauffman, an experience she calls “so much fun.”
Why two husbands who fall in love? How did that idea pop up?
Well, one of the ideas we played with was that Lily would play Jane’s ex-husband who had a sex change operation and is now a woman. But then we found out about Transparent and were like, “Nope. Can’t do that.”
When you finished Season 1, you split from your husband, and you’ve said before it like your life had come to imitate the show somewhat. Has the trajectory of the show changed because of that?
I don’t know that the trajectory changed. What I know is that I had a much more personal and more profound connection to what these women were going through. You know what, I may be 15 years younger than they, but the fears I’m finding are the same. And what’s funny about this show, and this is the strangest thing, so much of what we’ve written has been happening. I don’t know what we’re going to do, literally Martin having heart surgery at the end of last season after we did those episodes about him having heart surgery. And we were writing a script recently where someone had vertigo and someone in our [writers] room got vertigo. We were writing a script recently where one of them threw out their back. I herniated a disk over the weekend. It’s freaky.
You have to be careful what you write!
Right. Either it’s incredibly universal or we’re witches. But in terms of the personal stuff. I was able to actually use things from my life to make the show hopefully more real.
Have you had responses from viewers that have really moved you?
We have gotten so much reaction, not just about being left at a certain age, but about the dialog that we’re creating about being a woman at a certain age. I got a beautiful email from a teacher who my kids had, that was almost heartbreaking. I know another person who actually was having an affair with a married man and his wife had Alzheimer’s. I think people are just happy there’s something for them and someone is talking about what it is to be incredibly powerless at a certain age. Also I think they’re feeling hope, that they can regain some of that power.
You don’t shy away from topics that other shows won’t touch. What inspired you to push the envelope in that way?
Some of it had to do with my own personal change of direction after Friends, which was an amazing amount of fun and an incredible ten years. But after that, I felt like I wanted to go deeper. I don’t want to have to worry about how many jokes are on a page, and I want to be able to talk about stuff that’s more meaningful, and because, I am someone who–I don’t mince words. I’m fairly careful not to insult people, but I certainly don’t hold back, much to other people’s chagrin.
You’ve said you don’t really watch comedies. Why not?
For two reasons. One is, it’s work. I watch comedy and I’m either thinking, “Oh, my God I can’t believe I never wrote a joke like that,” or I’m thinking, “Well that story structure didn’t quite work, what about if they…” and it’s work. I don’t want to be doing that. The other thing, to be completely honest, is I feel like comedy has changed somewhat. At least in a lot of the comedies that are being watched and loved right now, I don’t like the people. They’re not nice. They very often act in ways I find to be reprehensible and narcissist, or mean, or stupid. When I watch TV, I’m sitting home in my robe. It’s a very intimate experience. You’re inviting people into your home when you’re in your most personal places, and I guess I don’t want those people in my house, but when it’s a drama it doesn’t bother me. I guess I look for something else for my comedies, maybe.
How was directing the show? Will you do more of that?
It was so much work, and I can’t remember the last time I had quite that much fun working, honestly. It felt surprisingly natural to me. I’ve already been doing some version of that I guess. I’m on set, I always talk to the director about acting notes and thoughts and I look at the shots, I’m in the edit room. I guess all of that is stuff I did without having the title of director. Believe me I’m not belittling what professional directors do day in and day out, but it was so much fun. I think the cast had a good time too. I loved every minute of it and I really want to do more of it.
What can you say about Season 3?
I can say this, one of the things we’re dealing with is literally the vulnerability of being a certain age. When you think about your mother sitting home alone, some of these things are not things you think about. We’re dealing with health and vulnerability and fear, and we’re really getting into much more of the specifics about ageing and living alone.
I guess it’s two-fold. One of the advantages is that their relationship is baked right in, so it doesn’t feel like they have to search so much. They’ll start on rehearsal and sometimes they’ll just keep talking as if the scene is going on and they’re just playing with each other and it’s all there, the relationship is so there. We weren’t completely sure what this relationship was going to be until we saw them together and went, “Oh, we get it now.”
Do people still nag you to bring back Friends?
Yes. They nag me all the time about it and my answer is that Friends was a show about that time in your life when your friends are your family, and in a weird way, this isn’t that different. Once you start having family of your own it changes, and the show was over. A show has a lifespan I believe, it has a lifespan like anything else, and there’s no reason to continue doing it just because people miss the characters. Watch the old ones, there is no way we could win that. And there’s no way it would be satisfying and it’ll never happen. We’ll never do it.