chat room

Marta Kauffman on Grace and Frankie, How the Process Differs From Friends, and Writing for Jane Fonda and Matthew Perry

The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.

After nearly 30 years in the business, Marta Kauffman is almost at a place in her post–Friends career when people want to talk about her critically acclaimed Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, as much as the erstwhile NBC juggernaut comedy. Okay, almost. But Kauffman is actually okay with the public’s seemingly never-ending interest in the Central Perk gang and whether Ross and Rachel really were on a break. Because had the creator-writer-producer’s run on Friends, still widely regarded by many as the greatest TV comedy of all time (and conveniently streamable anytime on Netflix), not been so legendary, her comeback wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

Kauffman spoke with Vulture about the second season of Grace and Frankie — about two 70-something friends (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) whose husbands leave them for each other — the challenge of migrating away from sitcom writing, and which drama series brings her comfort when she’s writing. 

We spoke last year when season one of Grace and Frankie premiered, and you talked about having felt very challenged by finding the right tone for the show, which, as a single-camera comedy, demands as much from the drama as it does the funny moments. The series definitely feels more confident in season two on that front. Do you personally feel more settled into a groove?
Yes. The challenge of going straight to 13 episodes last year meant that we didn’t have the pilot to learn from like we did with Friends. We didn’t completely have a grasp on the tone, what worked and what didn’t. It took us a little while to find the perfect balance between comedy and drama and what moments felt too broad: “That’s as far as we can go on that end, this is as far as we can go on this end.”

You probably didn’t know how well it all worked until you saw season one as a whole piece of storytelling.
Yes, exactly. But as daunting as it is, it’s also incredibly satisfying. The creatively interesting parts outweigh the others. You just have to learn fast. And the challenge is, what do we next year? How do you keep it fresh and alive? The nicest part is that traditional sitcom characters don’t necessarily grow over the course of a series, but these characters do get to grow.

What has surprised you most about how the series has been received after two seasons?
How many young people are watching! 

Did you assume the fan base would mirror the actors’ ages?
Honestly, we didn’t know. I actually don’t think about who the audience is when I’m writing something. I think about a show that I personally would like to watch and then I write it [laughs]. Certainly if we’d been asked, we’d have assumed it would be an older demographic. But that’s something historically we’d only had to worry about once a show was on the air.

Speaking of demographics, how much more creative freedom do you feel now writing a show that isn’t for broadcast television? Is it simply a different kind of freedom, not being beholden to advertisers?
Yes, a lot. The freedom has to do with having different rules for story. There were things we couldn’t do on Friends because this company advertises on our show, or you can’t talk about that other company for another reason. But also every week we had to get the story to work within a very strict structure: the cold open, then three acts, and a closing scene. It is definitely liberating and creatively much more exciting to not have to exist in that format.

You are also very hands-on as a writer on the show. What environmental conditions must exist in order for you to do your best writing?
I have the strangest habits. One, I know that I work in waves so I have to give myself the opportunity to ride a wave and then walk away and wait until the next wave hits and then go back and work. That’s one weird thing.

Is a wave a couple hours? Or a few pages?
It depends. Sometimes it’s a whole scene. Sometimes it’s just a small section of something I’ve been struggling with. Another weird thing, I love having shows like Law & Order or Law & Order: SVU on in the background. I don’t watch, I just listen to the talking. It’s something for me to look up at in moments of frustration. Strangely, I don’t really watch much comedy because that ends up feeling like work. I get caught up in asking myself, “Okay, would I have written that joke? How would I have written that scene differently?”

Grace and Frankie co-star Sam Waterston starred in the original Law & Order for years, so maybe that’s why that show brings you particular comfort.
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s probably true. Also my favorite place to write is in Malibu. The ocean does something to me. It’s just so peaceful; I feel like I can breathe there. But when you write TV, you have to be able to write anywhere.  I love being in a small room, too, with a few writers.

You say you don’t watch a lot of comedy, but is there a movie that you like to watch on repeat? Something that inspires you?
The one movie I wish I had written and hope one day to be able to write something like it is Terms of Endearment. It’s funny and heartbreaking and everything you want it to be. That’s the movie that inspires me beyond, beyond, beyond. Wait, there is one comedy I love! The Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s what inspired me to be a writer. The storytelling was so brilliant.  Episodes were always about one thing, one small piece of life.

You’re now in production on season three of Grace and Frankie, which means you’ve written three full seasons of material for Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. What have you learned about what works for each of their distinct acting styles?
Wow, that’s a really good question. We’ve learned that with Jane we need to be specific and clear about what the joke is. When writing comedy, you really have to adapt to each actor after you learn their strengths. For example on Friends, for Matthew Perry, if we underlined a word in a sentence, he would always emphasize a different word. So we started underlining words we didn’t want him to emphasize in hopes that he would emphasize the one we wanted. It was a funny process. [Laughs.] Lily, on the other hand, is someone who is helped by a lot of plot and a lot of action and props. She is at her best when we give her room to play. We’ve also learned that when Lily gets to play, so does Jane. But we’ve also realized that some characters just don’t get jokes, and that’s fine. They’re funny in spite of themselves.

Joey on Friends was the perfect example of that.
Yes, and Jane’s character, Grace, too to a certain extent. I really don’t think she has much of a sense of humor. [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Marta Kauffman on Writing for Matthew Perry