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Interview: Marta Kauffman

By Natalia Lusinski · August 2, 2011

For years, Marta Kauffman provided us with many Friends. Not only did Friends win six Emmys, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series, but it also garnered 63 nominations; having run for 238 episodes over ten seasons. Kauffman (Five, Friends, Related, Dream On) and co-creator David Crane met at Brandeis University; after college, they partnered with composer Michael Skloff, Crane’s roommate, whom Marta would later marry.

Kauffman and former writing partner David Crane started out in theater in New York, writing musicals. When asked what that experience was like and how she thinks it helped prepare her for her TV-writing career, Kauffman says, “It’s really good to study theater before television – it teaches you a lot about structure… and that people don't just talk to each other, but are doing things.”

TSL spoke with Kauffman to discuss everything from how she went from Off-Broadway to Friends, from managing writers’ rooms to home life, and how she has become one of the most successful female television writers, if not the most successful one, in a predominantly male world.

TSL: Did you always know you wanted to be a TV writer?

MK: No, we [David Crane and I] wanted to do theater. We were actors. There was nothing for undergraduates to perform in, so we wrote something undergraduates could do. It was fun being on the other side.

TSL: So how did you go from Off-Broadway to L.A.?

MK: We were writing musicals… Nancy Josephson, our agent at the time, said, "Why aren't you guys writing television?" It’s not something we thought a great deal about, but were intrigued with. She pulled us along. Unfortunately, we came out [to Hollywood] at a bad time. We didn't want to do other peoples' shows, but our own stuff. Nancy said, "You can't do that." We didn't know any better.

We did exactly what we wanted to do – develop [shows]… We pitched a couple series before we got a real job… While developing for Norman Lear, we had written the pilot for Dream On, then we came out here.

TSL: How many specs did you write before Dream On?

MK: One or two.

TSL: Your path to TV seemed so easy…

MK: Relatively speaking, it was. But there were many, many lean years.

TSL: For writers still having lean years, do you think they should give themselves a certain number of years to "make it"?

MK: Depends on the circumstance… Learn about TV: being a writers’ assistant, being an assistant to someone in production. If you are writing good stuff, just [a matter of] circumstances, keep going… hang in there. [But] at some point, you have to get realistic.

They (writers) need to understand the basics of television and television-watching – to reinvent it, not copy. They forget television is something people do while doing other things.

People have a misconception about TV writers, [that it’s easy]. It’s not easy. Dialogue needs to be razor sharp…

TSL: Any additional writing words of wisdom you’d like to add…?

MK: 1) Not everyone is funny; people think if an idea is funny, they are funny. Very often, they write jokes that are not funny. Then don’t do comedy. 2) Learn what makes good writing. Most [new] writers say a character’s name a thousand times. Writing [should be like] writing a haiku – be judicious with dialogue. Use as few words as possible to make something make sense. Scenes are not really about the dialogue, but what is underneath. 3) Lots of sex.

TSL: (Laughs.) And do you prefer writing television over features?

MK: TV is way better than screenwriting; you are the boss. You create something, get to be [involved] in every aspect of it. In screenwriting, the director has the last word unless you are a very, very successful screenwriter; you don’t get to produce. In TV, your vision is realized.

TSL: With Friends, did you and David write many drafts?

MK: Honestly, that was a show in many ways that wrote itself. It really knew what it wanted to be.

TSL: I know some writers write characters based on people they know. Was this the case with the characters in Friends?

MK: The characters were definitely loosely based on friends, relatives of ours… We had seen David Schwimmer and loved his hangdog [expression].

[The show] was based on us and our experiences. We knew those people…

I am extremely proud of the show, and it was the best work experience anyone could have had, more fun than you’re supposed to have at work.

TSL: I heard that you often knit in the writers’ room…

MK: (Laughs.) Knitting is a mindless thing. I used to literally play with silly putty. It kept me from eating – which is the other thing that happens in the writers’ room. (Laughs again.)

TSL: Any words of advice for people who are thinking of teaming up with a writing partner?

MK: It depends on the person, if they like having the collaboration and someone to bounce ideas off of. Do you complement each other in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
I used to say I’d write out loud; he [David] would type – for twenty-seven years. Once I did it on my own, it was a hard adjustment, but I really like it now.

TSL: And while one is working on their specs, should they write every day?

MK: I think everyone has to find their own rhythm. This looks different for different people. Young writers should write as much as possible. I work in short bursts; as long as the burst lasts, I’ll ride the wave. When I go away [from writing], I get answers to questions I’d been asking myself.

TSL: You are probably the most successful female TV writer in Hollywood. It seems like such a men’s world and some shows seem dominated by mostly male writing staffs. As a female, do you think it is more challenging to get writing jobs, run shows, etc.? Or is it getting easier?

MK: I do think it is something one has to be prepared for. It is quite a boy’s club out there. But there are more female showrunners now than there used to be. It’s a very tricky thing. You have to be on your toes and prepared for what it means, how people will react, will they be resentful… We as women bring something to the game that men don’t. There’s still misogyny, but I do think it’s getting better and easier for women to do.

TSL: What do you think is key to being a good showrunner?

MK: There are many kinds of showrunners… It was always very important to me and David that people in our room felt heard and [that it was] democratic. We said we were comedy whores – we would take an idea from anyone. We would make the final decision, but people with the most passion and strongest opinions would win.

TSL: And outside of the room, how do you balance work and family time?
MK: I am incredibly lucky to be married to the partner I am married to [Michael Skloff]. He made it possible to do what I do. That’s part of it. I [also] wouldn’t go two nights [in a row] without putting my kids to bed…

TSL: But if you had to work late–?

MK: I’d first go put them to bed. I once wanted to write a book called “Babies and Briefcases” – working mothers and how we balance them.

TSL: That’s a great idea. You should!

MK: Ours is the first generation to choose to work. Everyone has their own tricks – what works for them and their family.

Gail Berman said to always have posterboard in your basement. There may be an art project due tomorrow and the store is closed when you get home and you won’t have any. Another woman said if [someone] grocery shops for you, then you can’t complain about the fruit.

You have to let go of some of the control.

TSL: Along the lines of life outside of work, I know your husband, Michael, is a composer. How does it help being married to someone in entertainment? Would you recommend it?

MK: I have to assume it depends on the person. It helps if someone understands what creative people go through when creating, they can understand that frustration and drive.

TSL: So you would recommend it?

MK: Yes. Necessary? Probably not. But I think it helps. There are definitely downsides – the hours, the lifestyle. Two creative people could be… squirrely.

TSL: Recently, you were an executive producer of Lifetime’s upcoming “Five”…
How did you get involved in the project?

MK: After Friends, I really wanted to reinvent myself. I was never going to do better than I already did. Lifetime and Jennifer Aniston and her company wanted to do a breast cancer awareness [project]. Jennifer then brought it to me. It was a really fantastic experience, exactly what I wanted to be doing. More depth, but still has comedy.

TSL: If you had to tell someone why they should watch it, what would you say?

MK: For several reasons. 1) It’s a subject matter we need to talk about. 2) It’s unlike anything that’s been on TV, a film in five short films. I’ve never seen anything like it. I am incredibly proud of it, an interesting way to tell stories and not saccharine.

TSL: So you would do this again?

MK: Absolutely. In order to do more things like it, people just have to watch it.

TSL: Definitely. I’m sure many will.

Marta, if one of your kids wanted to be a TV writer, would you be supportive of that idea? And what advice would you give them?

MK: Yes. Much finer than being an actor. (Laughs.) I would say to work hard, learn, and write good dialogue.
Also, a less-than idea does not mean you should do it; you can only do well things that are in your heart, things you really feel strongly about.

Script Lab readers, “Five" premieres on Lifetime on October 10th, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.