“Who talks about dry vaginas?”: Why “Friends” creator Marta Kauffman is passionate about sex after midlife on her new show

"Grace and Frankie," starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as wives of older men who come out, premieres May 8

Published May 1, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Marta Kauffman; Jennifer Aniston in "Friends," Lily Tomlin in "Grace and Frankie"    (AP/Frank Micelotta/NBC/Netflix/Salon)
Marta Kauffman; Jennifer Aniston in "Friends," Lily Tomlin in "Grace and Frankie" (AP/Frank Micelotta/NBC/Netflix/Salon)

The TV landscape has changed a lot since the heyday of "Friends," the iconic sitcom Marta Kauffman co-created alongside David Crane in 1994. Throughout the mid nineties, NBC was at the height of its powers, and "Friends" was the jewel in its crown -- the centerpiece of the Peacock's vaunted "Must See TV" viewing block.

Suffice to say, it's not 1994 anymore. As the hegemony of network television and the preeminence of multi-cams and laugh tracks has declined, new genres and viewing models have proliferated in turn. Kauffman's new show is an emblem of these changing times.

"Grace and Frankie" stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as two yin-and-yang women whose husbands (played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen) come out as gay lovers in their sixties. Unlike the aggressively heteronormative, joke-a-minute "Friends, "Grace and Frankie" is a single-camera, genre-blurring comedy dealing with the experiences of queer sexuality and the experiences of older woman. And, as with much must-see TV of the present, the whole series will be released in a 13-episode chunk (available on Netflix on May 8).

We caught up with Kauffman by phone to talk about how the industry has changed, her experiences battling sexism, and depicting the sexuality of older women on television. As Kauffman tells us, "I am so grateful that in not only a misogynist business but an ageist business, I have an opportunity to do something like this. Because TV is so awesome right now."

How did you first come up with the idea for the show?

The whole thing was kind of a very lucky fluke. I was having lunch with Marcy Ross, who is the head of Skydance TV, and we’ve always wanted to do something together so we were talking about stuff we could do and she said, “Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin both want to do TV.” I thought she meant together. So I ran back to my office, I called my agent, who’s also at Lily’s agency, and said, “Is it true that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin want to do TV together?” She said, “I don’t know, I’ll call you back.” She called me back 20 minutes later and said, “They do now.”

So that part was an incredibly lucky fluke. Once we knew that Jane and Lily were both interested, we had to come up with an idea that would be worthy of them because they’re both so extraordinary. I happened to be sitting in a car with a young woman who works for me. She’s my development executive. She’s the one who said, “What if their husbands fall in love” We just jumped at that, we just jumped at it. We were so excited. It felt like the right [story] for this day and age.

Was there any worry about how much same-sex affection you were going to include on screen?

Both Sam and Martin are very, very elegant actors. They wanted to make sure that it’s not something we’re making fun of. The truth is it’s not about being gay, it’s about starting your life over. This just seemed like a big step to start your life over in your 70s, to have the courage to finally do that when you wanted something. So it’s not totally about being gay, but in addition to that, one of the surprises for us was, in large part because these men are just so incredible, we were surprised at how much you cared about them as a couple. It was fascinating.

I feel like, with “Transparent” and “Cucumber,” we’re seeing a lot more depictions of the sexuality of older characters on TV. Is that something you were interested to explore?

Absolutely. We were very interested. There’s not much on that really does explore not only starting your life over, but sexuality at a certain age. You know, who talks about dry vaginas? It was really important to us, and that for us was more intriguing, was this incredibly large marginalized portion of our society. These are the baby boomers and there are a lot of us who are getting older. So absolutely, it was if anything one of the driving forces behind it. Less about sex and sexuality and more about rediscovering at a certain age.

Did you change how you envisioned the show once you knew it was going to be on Netflix — that it would be binge-watchable?

Honestly, we always had the feeling that it did not belong on network TV. First of all, you only get 20 minutes, just over 20 minutes to tell a whole story. It’s really hard to tell a story, especially if you want to dig a little deeper, which we did. That was very important to us. On Netflix you get a full 30 minutes. You don’t have to tell your story in 20 minutes. Awesome. That makes a huge difference.

Do you envision this as a show that is designed to be watched in one go? Or would you prefer that people space it out?

That’s such an interesting question. We kind of envision it in sections, in little arcs, so that if people want to binge watch they can watch two or three that are maybe deeply connected. Now, there are arcs to the whole season, but I don’t know many people of that age group who binge watch. That’s more of a younger person thing, I think. I could be completely wrong and maybe Netflix will explain to me why I’m wrong. But that’s the sense that I get. My aunts don’t binge watch, they still think you’re supposed to watch once a week. So I don’t know how people are going to watch it; it was designed to be watched either way.

You worked on one of the biggest network sitcoms of all time, at a time when network comedy was really flourishing. Now you’re introducing this show in a climate where the viewing landscape and the production landscape has completely changed. What are the differences between now and then?

Doing a multi-camera show is like putting on a little show each week. It’s really fun and really exciting, but you don’t get to get too close to the cameras; you’ve got this fourth wall. When you do that, two things happen. One is, because we’ve been seeing multi-cams a long time, I think after the last rise in popular multi-camera shows, at this point I think hopefully someone can reinvent it. The quality of the filmmaking itself very often feels old-fashioned. It’s really hard to tell a story differently when you’re faced with that fourth wall and it’s just a lot more like theater, which is great fun to do. But for me personally, once I finished “Friends,” I wanted to go deeper into the characters, and multi-cam is not the format in which you can do that. Single-camera you can do it. There’s such a blurred line these days between drama and comedy. It’s so blurry now with ours, at least at that point, being considered comedy sometimes.

The show is a comedy but there are also these moments of genuine drama and pathos. I feel that sort of blurring of genres is maybe more accepted on mediums like Netflix and Amazon.

Well, it’s true, but part of that has to do with the intimacy. If you’re watching in your bed, on your computer, in your pajamas, there is a kind of intimacy that happens when you watch like that. It’s your private time, it’s your home. Because of that intimacy, it allows for greater depth and to do more. It allows for more; I don’t know if it always happens, but it certainly allows for it. I also think that, at least in the case of “Grace and Frankie,” it takes a while. When you go on Netflix and you do 13 episodes, you don’t get to make mistakes. You don’t get to look at your pilot and go, this was a mistake or I wish I’d done that better or whatever. You just don’t get to do that. The tone is something that took us a little while to really discuss. We knew we wanted to be always real, we knew we wanted it to be funny, but I don’t think we completely got the tone until we got a few episodes in. They were like, oh, thanks for this, now we understand what this is. So they took a little while to find it.

Is there a desire to consciously distance yourself from the more conventional sitcom tone that “Friends” had?

It’s conscious in that it’s the type of work I wanted to do; I really wanted to do something different and more real emotions and less concern about having to do a joke. When you’re doing the multi-cam, the rhythm of it, there’s so many times you feel like I really need a joke in this scene. You don’t feel that so much in what we’re doing. You don’t have to do a joke in single camera as much. But you can, you can do it whenever you want; you just don’t have to. That’s very liberating.

You were a female show-runner at a time when there were not a lot of women in television. Obviously that’s somewhat changed for the better, but it’s still an uphill battle. Do you feel that sexism is a big problem in the industry?

Not on my set or in my room. I’m very conscious of that. My company is all women and one of the things is we encourage women to become show-runners and get them ready to run shows. I think it’s still quite misogynist out there, although not everywhere. I think there are more and more places that you can go where women are given opportunities. But I hear about it all the time from women who’ve been on other shows. All the time. So I think we still have quite a distance to go, and I think we have quite a distance to go where people can believe that women are as funny as men, especially as show-runners. By the way, Netflix, that was never an issue for them.

Did you experience a lot of obstacles relating to your gender while you were working on “Friends?”

Oh, yes. Not just obstacles, it was attitudes. I was on the set and I had period cramps. I was standing in front of the monitor, bending over because I had cramps and I was feverishly writing notes. Somebody at the time, who will not be named, was a very important man at Warner Bros, said, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “I’m fine.” “No, what’s the matter?” And he kept asking and I said, “Cramps.” And he goes, “This is why I don’t hire women.” I’m standing there, doing my job, and that was the comment I got. Also the attitude about sexuality. There’s still, men can screw around, there’s still a bit of women are sluts when they do. That’s got to stop.

That is the great thing about there being so many different mediums to present programming now, is that we are getting to see a much wider range of human experiences. “Orange Is the New Black,” for example, depicts so many different types of femininity and female sexuality.

I agree with you 100 percent. It’s very exciting to see that happen. Especially with these two iconic women. That they feel that these characters, played by these icons, will deal with the same shit that everybody else is dealing with.

This is an incredibly thrilling time to be doing TV. There is so much amazing work being done. I am so grateful that in an ageist business, not only a misogynist business but an ageist business, I have an opportunity to do something like this. Because TV is so awesome right now.

How did you feel when “Friends” came to Netflix earlier this year, what with the show re-entering the conversation in a big way?

I have three kids and one of them is 16. I have to say, I’m having so much fun as she talks about her friends seeing the show, because they’re experiencing it for the first time. So it’s not just this resurgence of people who saw and loved the show, but it’s this whole new group of people who are watching it. Except for the gigantic size of their cell phones, they’re really enjoying it and I love that my youngest can be part of that.

Do you still enjoy it or do you get tired of being asked about it?

Honestly I still enjoy it, I really do. I still enjoy it, I’m very proud of it, it was an amazing time of our lives and it was the most fun you can have working. So I thoroughly enjoy talking about it and revisiting it.

Except for the part where everyone asks you over and over again and you tell them there isn’t going to be a “Friends” reunion.

Yes, that is definitely an issue. That is definitely an issue. There are only so many ways you can say it. But I am staunchly against doing the reunion, and not because people look different but because the show is about a time in your life when your friends are your family. Once you start having a family of your own, that is no longer true. So there’s no reason for the show to do something. That’s not what it’s about anymore.

By Anna Silman

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