It all started with a misunderstanding. Marta Kauffman had heard some scuttlebutt about Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda both plotting a return to television. Since she heard the names together, unable to resist the siren song of two-thirds of the Nine to Five cast, Kauffman assumed the two would be a package deal. They were not. But that didn’t stop Kauffman from teaming up with former collaborator Howard J. Morris to put Fonda and Tomlin into the kind of TV show she prefers–one where the comedy comes from the characters, not at their expense.
Thus was born Grace and Frankie, the Netflix series that debuted last month. Unlike the casting process of the most famous show Kauffman co-created, a little program called Friends, the leads here did not have to be whittled down from a thousand candidates. This time, Kauffman started with the leads and worked backward, building a show around them. Her daughter ended up being the one to hit upon the money idea: What if Fonda and Tomlin’s husbands leave them . . . for each other. Even without knowing that Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston would end up inhabiting those other crucial roles, the project had a lot of promise. Kauffman and Morris set to work on pitching it outside of the network system, where they could explore the themes and beats that had already begun bubbling up, without being hemmed in by a 22-minute time limit each episode. What they ultimately landed on is a show that is very much of its era–following movies like Beginners and shows like Transparent–but also rooted in the punchy humor of classic sitcoms.
A lot has to go right in order for a show to hit the notes its creators intended. Kauffman and Morris talked to Co.Create recently about putting together a writers room, learning from the cast, and experimenting with different vibes until they create just the right level of warmth.
While there’s no shortage of material to be mined from two women whose husbands left them for each other in their golden years, the show’s premise had to be sustainable beyond the elevator pitch.
“When you come up with a premise, you’re not just coming up with an idea where people begin. What you come up with is really what the show’s about,” Kauffman says. “For Grace and Frankie, the premise that the two husbands fall in love with each other and are gonna get married—that’s a jumping-off point. The show is really more about starting your life over in your seventies. What do you do when it all blows up and you’re seventy? The other thing is secondary to that.”
Although the pair first met on the set of HBO’s Dream On in the early ’90s, Kauffman and Morris also worked together on a series of Lifetime movies–and chafed against the restrictions of the channel. On paper, Grace and Frankie seems like something that could have ended up going in that direction–one marked by sappiness and melodrama–but its creators wanted a different tone. Exactly what tone they were going for, however, was something that had to reveal itself.
“The hardest thing was finding that right balance where you felt like this is a comedy but this is a serious comedy,” Morris says. “We discovered that things that are too broad don’t work on this show, and so the tone was absolutely the hardest thing for everybody to find, including the actors, the directors, the network, the studio, and us.”
“The tone comes from how the characters behave, and in a lot of comedy I see, it’s a little cold,” Kauffman says. “You have to care about the characters. You have to create people who you’d like to spend time with, who you want to invite into your bed on your computer, or into your living room while you’re folding laundry. I want to invite in people who I like, and that’s not everybody’s goal. We like them. We’re not standing outside making fun of someone else. It feels like these people are us is the idea.”
A writers room is a group of Avengers that will not necessarily make themselves obvious among all the available candidates. Choose wisely.
“Putting a writers room together is almost like fielding a team,” Morris says. “Not everybody has to be good at everything, but you want people who are good at a specific thing because it is the ultimate collaboration.”
“You read lots and lots and lots of scripts,” Kauffman says. “You look for different strengths. ‘This one is good with story, this one’s really funny.’ We are trying to create the greatest human being with all of us, pieces of all of us. And then the most important thing you’re looking for is, who do I want to spend a million hours in a small room with? Honestly, you have to like these people and you have to want to be with them.
Morris adds, “You have to really ask yourself, “Okay, it’s late at night, it’s gonna be two in the morning, a scene isn’t working: do I like this person? Do I want to be with them? It really is crucial.”
At first, Kauffman and Morris spent months figuring out all the characters and refining up the idea for the show. Then they pitched the show and Netflix bought it—and then pretty much everything changed. Actually working on the series with the group of performers assembled renders everything that happened in the pilot a work in progress.
“When you’re writing for specific people, they breathe life into it. But the minute an actor breathes life into a character, that character automatically will shift and change because they bring a whole different set of experiences to it and knowledge,” Kauffman says. “So once you get to know an actor a little better–what they’re capable of, and what their strengths are–you start to understand how to write for that person. One of the biggest changes was we didn’t know until Sam [Waterston] and Martin [Sheen] came along how much you would care about their relationship.
“We had no idea at all, but that really helped us,” Morris says. “Because then we could tell more stories, and tell stories from their point of view.”
“You never know,” Kauffman adds. “We had another relationship in the show that we decided not to pursue because the chemistry didn’t feel right. You don’t know until you’re there, and you really just have to be fast on your feet and be able to, after a table read, take two days and rewrite because that chemistry doesn’t work. You have to find what works and get rid of what doesn’t, and sometimes it’s the cast that shows you which is which.”