How lack of diversity on ‘Friends’ led to $4-million pledge

Marta Kauffman Recalls Being Harassed: Why Were So Many People Picking on ‘Friends’?

Created by Kauffman and David Crane, the series about a group of close friends was an instant hit when it premiered in 1994, and thanks to syndication and streaming, it has remained one of TV’s most popular shows since airing in 2004 after 10 seasons. Despite its success, however, the comedy was repeatedly criticized for its lack of diversity, and numerous observers questioned how the characters could exist in a predominantly white environment despite the series being set in New York City.

Kauffman felt that “Friends” was unfairly singled out, claiming that too much attention was paid to the near absence of black people and other people of color: “It was difficult and frustrating.”

But now, Kauffman says, she gets it.

In recent years, Kauffman — who is also a co-creator of the recently concluded Netflix film Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin — has had a dramatic change of heart, and she now feels that the reviews of Friends were fair .

The series’ failure to be more inclusive, Kauffman says, was a symptom of its internalization of the systemic racism plaguing our society, which it saw more clearly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the wider protest movement that erupted around him.

That reckoning was what prompted her decision to donate $4 million to her alma mater, Brandeis University in the Boston area, to establish an endowed professorship in the school’s department of African and African-American studies.

“I’ve learned a lot over the last 20 years,” Kauffman said in a Zoom interview. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It hurts to look at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know any better 25 years ago. ”

The Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies at the private research university will support a distinguished scholar with a focus on the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora. The donation will also help the department recruit more experienced scientists and teachers, set long-term academic and research priorities, and create new opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship.

Since the announcement, Kauffman said, “I got nothing but love. It was amazing. It surprised me a bit because I didn’t expect the news to be so widely shared. I got a flood of emails and texts and posts that were nothing but support. I got a lot of ‘It’s about time’. Not in a mean way. It’s just that people are acknowledging that it was long overdue.”

The news comes just over a year after the cast of “Friends” — Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer — reunited for a highly anticipated special on HBO Max. Although the program delighted legions of fans who clamored for a reunion almost immediately after the series ended, it sparked discussion about the way the popular sitcom had sidelined People of Color during its original run.

With the exception of a few scattered cast members who could be seen in the background of the Central Perk cafe where the gang hung out, nonwhite characters were rare on Friends. Lauren Tom, Gabrielle Union, Mark Consuelos, and Craig Robinson were among the people of color who appeared on the show, but their interactions with the main characters were often fleeting.

The most prominent response to the criticism came in 2003 with the appearance of Aisha Tyler as a paleontology professor who worked with and eventually dated Ross (Schwimmer) — after first dating Joey (LeBlanc). But Tyler’s character was gone after only nine episodes.

Producers sometimes balked at the criticism, citing the lead cast’s electrical chemistry. But Schwimmer said in a 2020 interview that he thought it was “just wrong” that there wasn’t broader cultural representation on the show. He added that he’s been pushing for Ross to date different women: “I really felt that Ross should date other people, women of all races.”

The cast of "friends" Reading scripts at a table

Last year’s Friends reunion special celebrated the show’s diverse fan base – but didn’t address the lack of diversity on screen.

(Terence Patrick / Warner Media)

“Friends: The Reunion” sidestepped the theme while also celebrating the show’s diverse fanbase with segments that included tributes from queer fans and fans of color, and featuring guests like BTS, Malala Yousafzai and Mindy Kaling. Some viewers found the omission glaring.

By the time of the screening, Kauffman’s perspective had already begun to shift.

“After what happened with George Floyd, I began to wrestle with the fact that I had bought into systemic racism in a way I was never aware of,” Kauffman said. “That was really the moment I started investigating my participation. I knew then that I had to correct the course.”

It was difficult at times to talk about their reckoning. She broke down in tears during a panel at the ATX TV Festival 2020 as she spoke about facing her personal shortcomings.

“What makes this really emotional for me is wanting to have that connection that I didn’t have,” she said. “I deeply wish for that connection with the black community that I didn’t have. Because of ‘Friends’ I never got there.”

And while there may have been an opportunity to address the issue during the reunion special, Kauffman said it didn’t seem like the appropriate forum: “I don’t know how the two were related. And I don’t know how we were able to address it in the context of this reunion, by going into all the things that we did wrong. And there were others.”

She was inspired to do something more meaningful. “In this case, I’m finally literally putting my money where my mouth is.”

Established in 1969, Brandeis’ Department of African and African American Studies is one of the oldest in the country. Its mission is to leverage a “breadth of interdisciplinary engagement” for the study of “peoples of African descent through the lens of history, literature, economics, art, and sociology.”

Chad Johnson, the University’s Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African-American Studies, noted that the professorship will place Brandeis in a leadership role in the broader academic community and public.

Johnson said the response to the pledge “had come.”

“There is a lot of excitement in the Brandeis community [among] graduates,” he added. “This is an important milestone for the university and the department. Marta’s gift is an extremely important message that African and African American studies are extremely important, not only to Brandeis but to academia in general.”

When asked if she felt the pledge helped undo past missteps, Kauffman insisted she wasn’t done yet.

“I feel like I’ve finally been able to change the conversation,” Kauffman said. “I have to say, once I agreed to that and I stopped sweating, it didn’t relieve me, but it lifted me up. But until I can get it right in my next production, it’s not over. From now on, with every production I do, I want to make sure I’m consciously hiring people of color and actively nurturing young writers of color. I want to know that I will behave differently from now on. And then I feel unencumbered.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-06-29/friends-diversity-marta-kauffman-brandeis-university How lack of diversity on ‘Friends’ led to $4-million pledge

Sarah Ridley

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