Marta Kauffman is the writer and producer responsible for some of your favorite TV shows. Along with David Crane, she’s the co-creator of Friends, the iconic ’90s sitcom that changed TV (and friendship) as we know it. Now she’s the mastermind behind Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and she is a co-founder of the female-led production company Okay Goodnight. Kauffman lives in Los Angeles, and has three kids. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. I tell it to shut up twice before I actually get out of bed. I brush my teeth, and then I snuggle with my dogs. I make myself a cup of coffee and I work for an hour or so. After that, I do the whole get dressed, put on your makeup, braid your hair, and get out of the house routine. I’ve decided it actually takes longer to go to bed than it does to get up in the morning — taking off your shoes, your bra, the makeup. Maybe it’s that there’s more ritual around it.
On set life:
When we’re filming, I’m on the set every day. I watch every rehearsal. The production schedule is a 12-hour day, so if the call is at 7:30 a.m., then we end at 7:30 p.m. Hair and makeup starts before that, so it’s a long day. We do six days of shooting for each episode and try to keep it to two days per location. If we’re on location, I go and stay there the whole time, because I can’t run back and forth to my office like I can when we’re on set, where it’s 27 steps between my office and the writers’ room.
Every morning when I get into the office, I write down the episodes I’m working on that day. There are days when we are working on all 13 episodes at once — where we’re doing the mix playback on episode one, picking music on episode two, and editing episode three. You get pulled in a thousand different directions.
On co-creating Friends:
When David and I lived in New York, we had a group of six friends. We were all each other’s best friends. We hung out all the time; we were like a family. So later, when we were thinking of shows that could have an ensemble cast, it occurred to us to look back at that point in our lives. That was the birth of the idea for Friends — that time in your life when your friends are your family.
On the success of Friends:
The truth is that as writers, we didn’t really get to experience the success of Friends. It’s not like we were at the airport and had people recognize us. It was all about the work for us. The success and the fan base didn’t matter because we just had to figure out how to make the next episode as good as the last one — or better. Having a show in that time slot was a lot of pressure.
On being a woman in TV:
I certainly experienced misogyny at work, which I think has been incredibly rampant in this business. Let’s just say there was one particular man at NBC who had a really hard time with women in power. We butted up against each other, but we found humorous ways to get through it, because there was a job to do. But one night I had period cramps while we were shooting the show. I was a little bit hunched over because my belly was hurting and I was writing notes. An executive asked me, “Are you okay?” I said, “I’m fine.” He said, “No, really, what’s wrong?” I told him, “I have cramps.” And he said, “This is why I hate to hire women.”
This is what I said to him: “I’m doing my job. I wouldn’t be so convinced that if a man got his period, he would be standing here doing his job.” It was a pretty awful moment.
On being a working mom:
It’s always been a struggle for me. When I was with my kids, I always felt guilty that there was work I wasn’t doing. When I was working, I felt guilty that I wasn’t with my kids. Now my daughter is 20 and in college — and if I weren’t working, I might be able to go there and visit her more. I don’t get the opportunity to do that because I’m in production, so I still, to this day, feel guilty about it. But my kids grew up knowing that their mother worked, and I don’t think they’re any less healthy as people because of that. If anything, they’re healthier: They’re motivated, they’re driven. My two girls are very career-oriented and they want balance in their lives, and I feel like that’s a success.
As a working mom, I had a partner who was willing to help, and it’s really hard if you don’t have that. Not impossible, but hard. If you don’t have a partner, then you absolutely need someone in your life who can be there when you’re not, like a nanny. Someone you trust, someone you feel good about leaving your child with. You need to feel okay with them spending hours and hours with this person.
On getting Grace & Frankie made:
I thought there would be more roadblocks to getting the show made. I’m 62 years old. I’m younger than my two characters are, but I’m definitely feeling the signs of getting older. I’m feeling the dismissiveness from certain age groups and from men in public — in stores, in restaurants. I was feeling things in my body that no one had told me were going to happen.
But we had Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, so people were definitely leaning into the idea for Grace & Frankie because of them. It felt like we had this opportunity to really talk about what it is to age, and to explore how you can age aspirationally. Not only gracefully, but with hope in your heart and the feeling that there’s more to come — while still accepting the crap that happens to you: the mini-breakdowns of your body, the dry vaginas, the knees, the shoulders, the back, everything that happens to us more and more frequently as we get older.
It also felt like a hole in entertainment. It was important to find a show that should reach a huge number of people, and it’s worked beyond our wildest expectations. Multiple generations are watching it, which was a real surprise.
On her management style:
I try to give people the opportunity to step up. I know that I’m the last word on things, but this is a collaborative process. The only way to get good collaboration out of people is to encourage them to go beyond the basics. We have our writers go into editing and casting — each writer follows their episode from the very beginning. I want to make people feel like they have a home with me, and that they can keep moving forward with their careers. My hope is that they want to keep working with me — and that we are generous of spirit and caring enough that they want to stay.
This interview has been edited and condensed.