Marta Kauffman has had both her jabs. When we meet (socially distanced, of course, because we’re speaking via Zoom and 5,000 miles apart), she is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but remains apprehensive about the reintroduction to ‘normal’ life. She is, by her own admission, “a Monica”.
The co-creator of sitcom titan Friends has any number of reasons to be uneasy about the state of ante-pandemic we’re experiencing at the time of our conversation: the writer and producer has been forced to delay the most hotly anticipated TV reunion repeatedly and is still contending with alterations to the format she and co-creator David Crane had originally envisioned. She’s also got a new puppy, which is taking up a lot of her time. But it’s people who are causing Kauffman the biggest problem.
“I’m more nervous about being around a lot of people,” she says, largely unperturbed by the transformation the Friends reunion has undergone due to COVID. Going back out into the world is strange, she notes. “And I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit agoraphobic. I don’t know if it’s really agoraphobic, ‘cause I don’t mind being outside. I just mind being out in the world among people.”
It’s a natural anxiety though, I concur. Having spent a year conditioning ourselves to be hyper-cautious, to then return to pre-pandemic activities is challenging. We can’t be expected to drop our carefully practised vigilance just like that. “So my therapist says,” she replies.
Despite her current (understandable) aversion to crowds, Kauffman is quite a people person. She finds mutual respect and joy in the collaborative nature of TV and is proud of the fact crew members come back time and again to work on her longterm projects like Grace and Frankie, an example of the familial warmth she emanates in regards to her work.
Kauffman and Crane started working on what would go on to become Friends, one of the biggest sitcoms in history, back in 1993. The first episode premiered on 22nd September the following year and, 10 seasons and 10 years later, we said goodbye to Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Rachel, Joe and Ross on 6th May 2004.
“When you set out to write a TV show, this is not what you expect,” Kauffman understates. Friends ran for 236 episodes; the finale was watched by over 50 million American viewers; in the later seasons, the six main cast members were paid $1 million per episode. But the real measure of the show’s impact is evident in how its humour has influenced that of multiple generations. Beyond the quotable one-liners, which have become part of daily vocabulary for many, if you know Friends well, I guarantee you can connect spot similarities in the tone, delivery and even syntax of snippets of conversation from your social circle and those of the sitcom’s leads.
“What you expect to happen is you’ll be on the air for a couple seasons and then it’ll die out,” Kauffman says matter-of-factly. “So the fact that we are here and the show is still somewhat relevant is very exciting.”
By “somewhat relevant”, she means the kind of programme Netflix reportedly paid in the region of $80-$100 million to keep on its platform through 2019. “Because of Netflix, the show reached a whole new generation of people. And those who were fans to begin with came to Netflix and watched it and made it one of their most watched shows.
“A few years ago, my youngest daughter, who was in high school at the time, said a friend of hers came up to her and said, ‘Have you seen that new show called Friends?’” Kauffman recalls. “Girl thought it was a period piece.”
The sitcom has rerun continually since it ended, in addition to its dominant presence and new lease of life on Netflix, but Kauffman doesn’t like to watch it back. There are, of course, jokes and storylines she criticises. As she is primarily “a Monica” with “a bit of Phoebe’s woo woo” thrown in for good measure, her neuroses will always find room for improvement.
There are gags and entire plot lines which didn’t make it into the show too, but she has a practised pragmatism when it comes to that. “I don’t know if you knit,” she says (I do), reaching for a metaphor. “Then you’ll appreciate this: so you’re knitting a sweater, and you realise you’ve made a mistake in the sleeve and the only way to fix it is to tear it out. You don’t regret tearing it out or miss the sleeve that you could have made. So you move on. I have more regrets about things that remained than things that we took out.”
Sparked by its introduction to a whole new generation via Netflix and, consequently, a reassessment in the present cultural climate, Friends has faced some criticism in recent years. From accusations of homophobia and fatphobia to its lack of diversity, the scrutiny has been undeniable. “I don’t think it’s about political correctness; I think it’s about education; we have learned a lot since then,” Kauffman says. “At this point, I can’t use my 2021 glasses to change what we did. I just wish I’d been more educated then, but I wasn’t.
“Not to really pat ourselves on the back,” she adds carefully, “but there were some things that were ahead of its time, like doing the lesbian wedding. They were very concerned about getting backlash to that, which we did not.” On being progressive and inclusive, the Friends writer admits: “I think in some ways we were trying to and just… missed in some areas.”
While her smash hit show gave us six of the most recognisable faces on the planet, writer and producer Kauffman, who has gone on to co-create Grace and Frankie and produce documentaries such as Seeing Allred, about high-profile women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, does not consider herself “famous” in the celebrity sense. “Fame is not something you pursue,” she says. “Good work is something you pursue. I would not like to be that kind of famous where you can’t go anywhere without being recognised.”
“Once in a blue moon” though, she says, a Friends superfan will spot her and want a picture or, presumably, just to gush. “It doesn’t happen often. When it does, it makes me a little uncomfortable because the spotlight is not what I’m shooting for.”
The reunion drawer closer, Kauffman says, “It’s a little bit like someone is raising your baby.” The special, which finally arrives on screens both in the UK on Thursday 27th May, is directed by Ben Winston, co-executive producer of The Late Late Show with James Corden and former producer of the BRIT Awards, who also has such events as the Grammy and Tony Awards on his CV. It is, Kauffman notes, a reunion for her, Crane and Friends producer Kevin Bright, as well as for Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer. “Every reunion is fraught with ‘has my a** gotten bigger since then?’ and ‘how much older do I look?’ But besides that, it’s pretty exciting.”
Kauffman views – and refers to – the show and its characters as her children. “Because we created them, I feel a connection to each of the characters; there was a part of me and David in them,” she says. “But the one I identified with the most was Monica.”
A mark of the quality that made Friends so popular is the way it can be used as a reference point for personality types, much in the way fans categorise themselves into Hogwarts houses or by their resemblance to Sex and the City characters. “I hear that does happen,” Kauffman concedes, on the subject of the reliability factor. “You want people with whom you can identify and are going through universal stories, things we can all connect to – looking for love and looking for a job and find finding your family. Because those are relatable, and the characters are people you want to invite into your homes because people like them and want to have a beer with them, you imagine into it.”
This is, perhaps, why Friends was among the handful of series so many returned to during the past 14 months as a need for escapism combined with comfort swept over us.
While she won’t play favourites with her characters, Kauffman is confident in calling out their flaws. So, were Ross and Rachel on a break? “Whether or not they were on a break, he should never have slept with that girl,” she replies firmly and instantly. “That was completely his mistake.”
The Friends themselves, Cox, Perry, Kudrow, Aniston, LeBlanc and Schwimmer have their own opinions on the matter, which they will be voicing at the reunion.
Though we will at long last see the group brought back together to reflect on the show, it seems unlikely there will ever be more scripted episodes. For years, Kauffman has remained steadfast in her opinion that Friends captured a moment in the young adult lives of the characters at its heart and would not benefit from revisiting them decades down the line. With the legions of eager fans set to be pacified somewhat, she says the 25th anniversary (unfortunately long gone by the time the special airs, thanks to COVID) and the opportunity to create fresh content with HBO Max meant it finally felt like the right time for a reunion. “A reunion and not a reboot,” she emphasises.
The Friends reunion special is available to stream on NOW from 8am BST on Thursday. It airs on Sky One at 8pm BST. You can stream all of Friends on Netflix now. If you’re looking for something else to watch, check out our TV Guide.