Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja in January 2015 for The Sunday Guardian (http://goo.gl/bGrCtT). Another version of the interview was published in December 2014 in HT Brunch and can be read here: http://wp.me/p3Ysps-oe.
THE ONE WHERE DAVID & MARTA TALK ABOUT THE SHOW
On the 20th anniversary of FRIENDS, creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman retrospect about the show that was there for us, in their first ever India interview
Why do you think Friends has managed to outlast most shows of its time? What did you guys do differently?
Marta: (chuckles) Well, you can’t plan for it. The stars were aligned; it was the right time for a show like that. But I think what could have worked was that I guess everyone wanted a group of people they could invite into their homes and feel comfortable with, thinking, ‘I know these people.’
David: The one line concept for the show is that it’s that time in your life when your friends are your family. We really wanted people to care about the characters, so we were really willing to have scenes that weren’t funny, but where you just felt for them.
Marta: We wanted the show to have heart, we didn’t want it to be just gags. Ultimately it came down to what we had told ourselves in the beginning: We wanted to write a show that we would watch.
David: And that made us laugh.
Marta: Yeah. But don’t think there’s any reasonable explanation to why it took off the way it did.
David: (laughs) To be honest, our goal, when we started, was to do a show that wouldn’t be cancelled in the first 12 episodes. Our expectations were really low. (laughs again)
The show is a pop culture phenomenon in India and rakes up this feel good nostalgia each time we still watch it on syndication. Does that happen to you too?
Marta: You know, I have a daughter who’s 13, and I get to watch the show through her eyes, because she was too young when we were shooting it back then. And when I watch it with her, what it takes me back to is what was happening back in our lives at that time, all the amazing memories. And that’s fun, because whenever I watch it alone, I have to admit I can’t enjoy it, because I always go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we left that joke in!”
David: (Chuckles) I have the exact same experience. Whenever I come across the show and watch it a bit, I either go, ‘Wow, that joke’s still funny’. But mostly it is, ‘Wow, we couldn’t have spent 10 more minutes and found something funnier or better or! Argh!’ I try not to do that anymore, but after we had finished shooting the show, every once in a while, something would happen and I’d go, oh that would make a fun story… (lowers voice) if only we were still making the show.’ ‘Oh there’s a Chandler story… if he were still a character.’
Marta: (chuckles) The problem is that we are too hard on ourselves. But I have to say that my husband and I were in a hotel room not too long ago, and we were watching the last episode. And we were surprised at how moved we were. And I don’t know if we were moved at what it represented or if it was, you know, good TV (laughs), but we were moved.
The amazing thing about FRIENDS is that no matter how many times you watch it, it never fails to make you laugh. How did you guys determine at that time what’s ‘funny’?
David: Well, we had a writing room full of some very smart, funny and talented people, and someone would always go: Are we really doing that joke again? Are we really going to hit *that* note again? Are we selling out the character to get a laugh there?
Marta: It was up to everybody to keep us all honest. And that was only possible if we had a happy writers room. So we had little tricks to keep the room happy (laughs). One year, we had bets on who would be able to eat the largest amount of something. So when things got really slow, we would take a break to watch somebody eat a 5 ton can of pork and beef (chuckles).
David: Another rule we had was to talk a lot to each other. We all loved hearing about each others’ lives, which, in other rooms may not have a place. But with us, it ended up being crucial to hear about someone’s weekend, because very often we would say, ‘Oooh, would Chandler do that?’
Marta: It was all very basic, when you think of it. The idea was: If it made us laugh, it would probably make others laugh too.
So how did the catchphrases and the mannerisms evolve? What’s the story behind ‘How you doin?’
David: It certainly wasn’t designed. I do remember very early on, one of the actors came up to us and asked, ‘Am I gonna have a catchphrase?’ And that just horrified me! ‘No! No! No one’s gonna have catchphrases!’ That just felt like old fashioned TV. And yet, when you have a line and it gets a laugh, and you try doing it a second time and it gets a laugh, it sort of evolves.
Marta: You know, we were in such good hands, there was never a sense of having to write a catchphrase or writing down to an actor’s ability. We just had to come up with the best stuff.
David: But I do remember, Matthew had a specific way of delivery. We learnt very early on, that we should never underline a word for Matthew. Because when you underlined a word in a script that we wanted emphasised , he would take that as a challenge, and, invariably would emphasise some other word in the sentence! Occasionally, we would underline a word we didn’t want to emphasise in the hope that maybe he will emphasize the word that we want (chuckles).
What can you tell us about the six characters that’s not common knowledge?
Marta: Originally, our pitch was that Joey and Monica would be together, that Monica was attracted to him. And we did one episode on that, but the chemistry wasn’t just quite right. Funnily, the Monica and Chandler thing was just supposed to be a really fun moment, we didn’t realise it would turn into an arc that would last for the rest of the series. Once we saw the reaction to that episode, we were like, ‘Oooh! Interesting. Let’s do more of that!’ A lot of the show evolved like that. Truthfully, after a point, you are no longer driving a show, the characters are. You just serve it.
David: Also, when the actors came in, they breathed their own life into the characters. For example, originally, Monica was less vulnerable and more tougher, more sarcastic. But when we cast Courtney who brings so much warmth as an actress, it defined how the character was going to evolve.
Did you know that the Ross and Rachel storyline would culminate at the end of the show? How did you pull off carrying it 10 seasons!
Marta: You know, one of the things we learnt was that they were more fun apart than they were together. The characters wanting something was better than them having it. The more we could keep them apart, the more there was to write about.
David: But yes, keeping them apart was the hardest thing. I mean, if you look at, for instance, at the end of the pilot episode in the first season, Ross asks Rachel, “Would it be okay if I asked you out sometime?” And she says, “Sure.” And then, they never go on a date! We managed 24 episodes where they never even had dinner together. We did everything we could to throw obstacles in front of them.
Marta: But we knew all that time that we had to get them together. We just had to do it well.
David: Yeah, early on, we did toy with the idea of not doing it, but then we said, ‘No, we’ve got to deliver that.’ It would have bummed everyone out otherwise.
How difficult was it to write that last line and that closing moment of the show?
Marta: It was emotionally very difficult, that ‘Oh My God, this is the last line’, but that season, everything was difficult, you know, from the last bagel you would eat at the table reading, everything felt so weighted because it was the last of something.
David: There definitely was a lot of pressure on that episode to make it as good as it can be. But you know what? We lived with that pressure every week for 10 years. And we loved every minute of it!
So, I have to ask that one question…
Marta: No (laughs). You don’t even have to finish it. There’s not going to be a movie. It was a perfect time in everybody’s life, and there’s no going back.
David: Besides, we’d rather people want it than we do and it’s not what they expected (chuckles). We’ve put a bow on it.
Note: This piece first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on January 10, 2015. An edited version of it can be read here: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/the-one-where-david-and-marta-talk-about-the-show
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