Rare is the television show that strikes the perfect blend of precise casting, savvy producing, and witty writing: Friends is undeniably one of those select few. Marta Kauffman, one of the creators and executive producers of that epochal sitcom, has made an indelible impact on television with her theater-influenced writing and uncanny perspicacity when it comes to character relationships. Kauffman started out as an actor and is known in Hollywood even today for her empathy and easy rapport with performers. She and longtime creative partner David Crane initially developed a penchant for musical theater, and wound up writing, directing, and/or producing several “tuners.” However, it was in television that they truly found their niche, beginning with Dream On, the racy HBO comedy best known for its innovative use of old film clips to illustrate the main character’s thoughts and emotions. But Dream On’s success was minor compared with the phenomenon of Friends, a sophisticated comedy about six twenty-something friends trying to get their lives on track in New York. An Emmy winner for Outstanding Comedy Series, the NBC series—created with Kevin Bright—ran for 238 episodes over ten seasons. Throughout her career, Kauffman has developed a reputation as an extremely hands-on, multitalented presence on the set. Of her role within the Bright/Kauffman/Crane triumvirate, Kauffman has said: “I tend to spend part of my time doing the writers’ room thing, and part of my time casting, doing more of the creative producing. The time I enjoy the most is on set with the actors, translating what the writers mean into actors’ terms…It’s a very exciting process.”
Born in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, Kauffman is the youngest of four daughters. Her parents, a heating and plumbing supply distributor and a professional dancer, saw to it that their daughters grew up surrounded by a close-knit extended family. In 1974, she enrolled in Brandeis University as a theater major, where she soon met David Crane. “David and I met as actors, in a play,” Kauffman recounted years later. “He was a street urchin and I was a whore—in Camino Real. Then we were in a directing class together. And they needed a director for a non-theater production, for the rest of the campus, and I asked David if he would be in it. He said no, but he would direct it with me…so we did that together, and we started writing things together that we could direct, that we could be in. Then we realized writing was much more fun than acting, and that was it.”
In 1977, during their college years, Kauffman and Crane cowrote the musical Waiting for the Feeling, which Kauffman described as “one of those college things—touchy-feely, you know, Greek chorus, people talking about how they feel a lot, comedy.” The following year, the pair wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Personals, the story of six friends looking for love in personal ads, which was later shown off-Broadway. This early writing contributed to Kauffman’s growing interest in peer relationships, which would later blossom in Friends. Both musicals were showcased at the American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and Personals received an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination.
Kauffman’s background in theater lent her a sense of the importance of understanding what she has described as the “architecture of a scene.” “I believe it’s a big mistake when writers who want to do television train in television solely and they don’t know theater,” she said. “They don’t know the architecture of a scene, and they’ve never read Shakespeare, or the architecture of a play or how an act of a play should look. Those things are imperative…I remember we had one teacher at Brandeis who made us literally do a graph of a scene, following the build of a scene. All very important.”
After leaving Brandeis, Kauffman and Crane teamed with composer Michael Skloff, Crane’s roomate, to continue working on musicals, and together they wrote songs for A…My Name is Alice and Martin Charnin’s Upstairs at O’Neals, both of which ran off-Broadway, as well as a stage version of the movie Arthur. During the course of their collaboration, Kauffman and Skloff began to date and in 1984 married. They now have three children.
Drawing on their experience in theater, Kauffman and Crane broke onto the television scene in 1989. Rather than progressing up the traditional ladder of success—that is, starting out as junior writers on established series—Kauffman and Crane has found their break after a few years of writing pilots, which Crane admitted was “the totally backward way to do it.” Both Kauffman and Crane were still living in New York at the time, sometimes making as many as eleven trips a year to Los Angeles. After selling their first three pilots, including Dream On, the pair finally made the full-time move to the West Coast, where Dream On executive producer John Landis put Kauffman and Crane in charge of the writers’ room. In the early nineties Kauffman and Crane landed development jobs with TV legend Norman Lear. They wrote for Lear’s short-lived 1991 series Sunday Dinner and, in 1992, cocreated The Powers That Be, a politically themed sitcom starring, among others, David Hyde Pierce, later of Frasier fame.
It was at Dream On that Kauffman and Crane first worked with Kevin Bright, whose previous experience in comedy programming complemented the Brandesian partnership. “[David and I] met [Kevin] doing the pilot of Dream On, and the three of us just clicked. It was a wonderful collaborative relationship, and we decided that we should form a partnership…we sort of completed each other.” That partnership soon became Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, the formidable production company that went on to produce Friends, as well as such shows as Family Album, Veronica’s Closet, and Jesse. During one two-year period in the late nineties, the company divided its energies into overseeing the production of three shows simultaneously.
Of course, the driving force was Friends, which debuted in 1994 as part of NBC’s storied Thursday night “Must See TV” block of sitcoms and came to a voluntary end ten seasons later, a pop-culture phenomenon. The show was nominated for sixty-three Emmys and won six, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2002. In a 1999 interview, Kauffman recalled knowing from the start that they had come up with something extraordinary: “At the first run-through of Friends, during the first scene, I remember getting this chill up my spine. That was when we knew we had something special. Had no idea what it would become—that it would be successful or anything—we just knew it was special. That was a pretty good feeling.” Everyone involved with Friends felt deeply connected to the show and proud of the end result. During its sixth season, Kauffman said, “I want this show to never end. I sort of feel like this will be the high point of my career. I will never do anything in television after Friends that will come close to the creative satisfaction, the sheer joy of doing it.” Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment, once offered this testament to the show: “With its tremendous 18-49 success story, every network for the last ten years has tried to find its own ‘young adult’ signature comedy. Nothing has been more highly sought after, but what they fail to find is the heart that binds the ‘Friends’ together. Without the heart, there is no Friends.”
David Wild captured Kauffman’s own heart in working on the series in his book The Showrunners: “Marta Kauffman trades off ideas, answers all major script issues when Crane is absent, and interfaces with the cast in a way that appears warm and direct. She provides another highly audible service on the Friends stage. When something’s funny—hardly an infrequent occurrence—she issues forth a laugh best described as hearty, infectious, and, well, friendly. In addition to being a gifted writer, she’s one hell of an audience.” In working on a show that filmed in front of a live audience, no doubt a harkening to Kauffman’s theater roots, Kauffman believed “part of the excitement of show night [is] hearing the audience and having them tell you if you did it right or not.” The reality of a studio audience, however, means that sometimes Kauffman and her colleagues recognize that, “Hey, this whole section of the scene is so slow they’re falling asleep.”
Kauffman becomes more serious when addressing what she calls the “incredible misogyny in the business.” Despite her success in the entertainment industry, Kauffman has said, “I think it's still a boys' club which [women have] been permitted into. I think the basic attitude is still extremely sexist. You know, David and Kevin are considered incredibly smart producers; I’m a tough woman. Kevin for example, who’s very opinionated and can be very strong-willed, is never called a tough man. I’m a tough woman, I’m a strong woman, I’m a tough cookie, I’m a bitch. And I think even the enlightened people who we work with slip into misogyny. And they don’t mean to, and they don’t think they are, but they do…We had an experience where a couple of writers were on the phone with Howard Stern and Howard Stern was of course making jokes about whatever Howard Stern makes jokes about, including what the girls must be like on staff. And the writers, who were joking, in quotes, in return, make a comment that the girls who are on staff don’t actually write, they just make the coffee and serve it. I was livid. I was so furious about that. I felt that all the women who put the same hours in, and do the same work that they do, to even make a joke that that’s all we’re worth tells me that these men are not enlightened, that they still think it’s okay to put us in that place. So I think that we fight it all the time.”
Perhaps to compensate for the misogyny Kauffman has observed, Bright/Kauffman/Crane has become one of the most female-friendly working environments in the entertainment industry, even going so far as to provide a nursery for use by all parents on the staff, regardless of position.
After Friends wrapped in 2004, Kauffman and Crane cowrote a several episodes of the Friends spin-off Joey, though they were barely involved in the production of the show. According to Kauffman, “It was too hard for me [to watch Joey]. I miss it and I miss the people.” Kauffman and Crane’s limited work on Joey marked the end of their longstanding creative partnership. Said Kauffman, “I worked with a partner for 27 years and had no idea of what I was capable of on my own. It’s time I knew.”
Kauffman has since served as executive producer on the WB’s Related (2005), a show whose differences from Friends—an hour instead of half an hour, single camera and without a live audience as opposed to multicamera and with an audience—appealed to her because, as Kauffman said, “I don’t want to compete with myself.”
Although Related went off the air after its first season, ABC announced in July 2007 that it has acquired the rights to a collaboration between Kauffman and Goldie Hawn, a one-hour drama from Warner Bros. Television that will be based on Sara Davidson’s nonfiction book Leap! What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?, about how people approach various crossroads in the lives. Kauffman will exec-produce with Hawn and also script the pilot. Kauffman also is producing her first feature film, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, a documentary of Holocaust surival.