Friends From College cast, creator talk lifelong friendships and Fred Savage's This Is Us obsession
Even without all six friends from college present, the cast and creator of Friends From College found it difficult to stay on topic.
EW joined Fred Savage, Cobie Smulders, and writer-director Nick Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) for a roundtable in May, during which the trio delved into their upcoming Netflix series Friends From College, a comedy about, well, friends from college. The sixsome at the center of the show — Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), Max (Savage), Lisa (Smulders), Sam (Annie Parisse), Nick (Nat Faxon), and Marianne (Jae Suh Park) — knew each other two decades earlier while attending Harvard and reunite in New York after Ethan and Lisa, the married couple in the friend group, move to the city.
Of course, things get a little more complicated than that. The comedy explores the ins and outs of long-term friendships — beginning with its messiest relationship in Ethan and Sam’s extramarital affair — and more often than not, the group gets into trouble adults their age shouldn’t. Luckily, Savage, Stoller, and Smulders kept things mature and professional for the roundtable. Well, they did until they began talking about wieners…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start from the beginning. What drew you, Nick, to writing and directing this now?
NICHOLAS STOLLER: My wife [Francesca Delbanco] and I wrote the first script over a few years. We started working on a show just kind of about marriage, and then we thought [about how] we have a very tight group of friends from college out in Los Angeles and we’ve always found the dynamic really interesting. They’re like our family, they’re the people we’re closest to, but we also all regress when we’re around each other, and so it seemed fun to push it to the extreme with this group. And it seemed fun to have a 20-year hookup be the way in.
Speaking of which, why start a comedy on infidelity, with Ethan and Sam’s affair being the focus of the opening episodes?
STOLLER: The ultimate regression is a hookup that never ends. These are characters who would not normally cheat; that’s not the problem. The problem is these two, Ethan and Sam, want to somehow have their adult life but also live in the past when they were in college. That’s the most extreme version of it, that they have this relationship that won’t end.
COBIE SMULDERS: I remember when we were shooting, it was so important for the other relationships, Lisa and Sam, and Sam and her husband, to be happy. Like, it wasn’t a flaw in a marriage that then forced these two to look for something else somewhere else. I thought that was really interesting.
STOLLER: There’s this book that my wife turned me on to by Laurie Colwin called Family Happiness. The woman at the center of it has kids but is also having this affair that’s tearing her up, and the person she’s having an affair with knows she’s married and doesn’t want anything more out of it. It’s just all about wanting everything. You want to have this fantasy that’s away from your regular life but you also love your spouse, your children, and your family life. It’s an amazing book, and it’s one of the few times I can think of where you’re looking at infidelity without some kind of moral angle to it… It seemed interesting to us that [Ethan and Sam] are not, like, sociopaths out to screw people over. They love their [spouses], but they also want to have this escape, which I think a lot of people can relate to.
Why did you want to examine a group of friends at this age? What makes this range special? You know, going from—
SMULDERS: Like, 34 [points to herself] to, like, [points to Fred Savage, who is 40]… 67?
FRED SAVAGE: [Laughs] Right, I’m playing a character teetering on the brink of dementia. [Laughs]
STOLLER: Yeah, and[points to Cobie] you’re so excited you just bought beer for the first time.
SMULDERS: I am soexcited!
STOLLER: That’s Lisa’s main motivation, to buy alcohol.
I guess my question is, why is a group of middle-aged Harvard grads going through their mid-life crises relatable to the average viewer?
STOLLER: I think those are just the specifics of the characters. I think they’re all relatable because they’re all flawed, and they have the same fears and hopes and desires. I think that’s true no matter what college you went to, and that’s true no matter what age. This might be just me, but I loved that about Sex and the City. I watched that show twice, and I got different things out of it the two times I watched it. I watched it in my early 20s when it was on, and I totally hated Aidan, and I watched it in my mid-30s and I hated Carrie. I’m being partially facetious, but I think it’s true, to have a show that you can grow up with. I loved Golden Girls, you know what I mean? I don’t think the age of the characters matters.
SAVAGE: Thematically, we’re dealing with friendships and with love, and dreams deferred, betrayal and heartbreak and longing and hope and all these major themes that are pretty universal, at least for adults. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend this for children.
STOLLER: But they could watch [leans in closer to the recorder] the Bill Nye the Science Guy show, also on Netflix.
SMULDERS: Or The Magic School Bus.
STOLLER: [Leans in again] Also on Netflix.
Cobie, Fred, what brought the two of you on board? Fred, I know you and Nick did The Grinder together.
STOLLER: Yeah, we were [does air quotes] “friends” before this.
SMULDERS: Oooh, he put quotes on that!
SAVAGE: [Laughs] I’m a living air quote. [Does air quotes] “Fred Savage,” a “friend.”
SMULDERS: So I met Nick through Jason [Segel, Smulders’ co-star on How I Met Your Mother] a long time ago, and I’ve been a fan of Nick’s for a very long time, not only as a person but as a creator and a director and a human being. [Laughs] Fred is new, but I’m also a fan of Fred. [Fred laughs]
SAVAGE: Well I just realized that Nick is the only person who’s hired me as an actor in the last 10 years, so it seemed like a good fit, this show. [Laughs]
When it comes to your real-life friend groups, are you at all similar to the character you play in this show? Like, Cobie, were you ever younger than the rest of your circle?
SMULDERS: Or significantly younger? [Points to Fred again] Yeah, I remember actually when I started acting professionally at 18, that meant I became a waitress as well [laughs] and all the women that were servers with me were in their late 20s. That was an interesting group because it felt like we were all on the same page. We had some shared experiences, but there was a lot to learn from for sure.
And Fred? Are you like Max in any way?
SAVAGE: Along the lines of what Cobie said, you know, this is a show about universal moments: friendship, love, heartache, disappointment, regret, so I think there’s a lot of things we’ve all experienced in one way or another, maybe not in the specific way these characters have, but definitely in a way that you can kind of get a toehold on who these people are and then try to put your own spin on it.
So what you’re saying is you have never gotten high on coke and thrown pizza at a wall.
SAVAGE: Yeah, I’m not gonna comment on that. [He grins mischievously.]
Nick, you based this group of friends on your own friend group. Did the cast ever get a chance to meet their inspirations?
SAVAGE: Oh, they were all the writers! [Laughs]
STOLLER: Yeah, a lot of our friends from college was on the staff. We were lazy. But, you know, as you write and rewrite [the script] and you cast [the show], it becomes totally different. So while it might start personal, really all that’s left is this idea of the old dynamics that exist between friends. I don’t think there’s much in it that, like, our friend watching this show would be like, “Oh, that’s me.” But Lisa’s tendency to be a little more anal definitely comes from Francesca, my wife [laughs]. She would say that.
NEXT: The trio talks the binge model and the Friends that came before them
When you and Francesca wrote this show, were you writing it with Netflix and its binge model in mind?
STOLLER: Yeah, it was definitely designed to be binged. Even when we wrote it, we thought of it as a four-hour movie. We almost structured it like a movie, and we figured out how the episodes would lay out based on that. I think if you binge something, and it hasn’t been designed that way, you start to notice how repetitive it is.
Other than the structure, I do have to ask: How does this show about friends differ from all those other ensemble comedies about friends?
STOLLER: [Laughs] What show has there been about friends?
SMULDERS: [Laughs]Hasn’t enough time passed?
SAVAGE: It was initially going to be Friends, and then in parentheses, “Not Friends.”
STOLLER: We should have just called it Friends, so that way more people will click on it. But it’s pretty different! I mean, tonally it’s different. I think you said it best [points to Fred]…
SAVAGE: Well, Friends was great, I’ll take the comparison all day long, it’s a phenomenal show and one of my favorites, one of the best in television history for sure, but that was about a group of people excitedly looking toward the future, linking arm in arm and marching towards tomorrow with great hope and optimism and support for one another.
This show is very regressive, it’s not about looking ahead, it’s about looking back. All these adults do is hang out with their friends from college. There’s something terrific and exciting about friendships that endure and that you can go back to, and they’re touchstones to a better, maybe happier time in your life, but at the same time, it can really hold you back.
STOLLER: There’s an unspoken apology in the title, “Friends From College.”
SMULDERS: You should throw an ellipses in there. “Friends… From College.”
SAVAGE: Yeah, it’s definitely a backwards-looking group. Like, this is a group that says, “Yesterday was the best.” [Laughs]
STOLLER: “Please hold on to yesterday!”
SAVAGE: “Yeah, wasn’t that great? Yesterday was amazing!”
Plus, this show is pretty plot-heavy and goes to some darker, deeper places, and not only with the love triangle.
SMULDERS: The thing that’s interesting is that these are characters that haven’t spent much time together all together in one place since college, so that really just throws a wrench into the whole works. And I’ll just speak for my character, Lisa, Lisa and Ethan are trying to have a child, and that will unfold how it will, but Lisa’s really determined to have a child and start a family, and Ethan is unaware. I don’t want to give anything away…
SAVAGE: Just know that Seth Rogen plays so much into this that I don’t even know what to say anymore.
Yeah, you have a slate of fun guest stars on this show.
SMULDERS: Some f—ing awesome ones, yes.
SAVAGE: Kate McKinnon, Ike Barinholtz…
STOLLER: And Seth Rogen. [Publicist warns him not to spoil Rogen’s involvement in the plot.]
Oh no, I can’t believe Seth’s going to play Lisa’s baby.
SAVAGE: Oh yeah, Seth Rogen is the baby.
STOLLER: He’s the baby that was born, just, whole. That’s a good idea for a movie. “Adult Baby.”
There was a movie recently called Boss Baby.
SAVAGE: Don’t ruin it for us! Let us do this. [Laughs]
SMULDERS: Let us spitball.
Sorry! But we should get back to the show… Cobie and Fred, how does your experience on this compare to the more traditional sitcoms you’ve done?
SMULDERS: For me, my only real experience in television has been on How I Met Your Mother, so comparatively to that, I mean, with this we know how it begins and ends. They had all the scripts written when we started the show, which was such a blessing, really, because you know the trajectory of where your character’s going. Also, it’s on Netflix, so there’s a little bit more freedom in terms of things that are said, and things that are shown or not completely shown. [Laughs]
STOLLER: Yeah, there’s the wiener.
SMULDERS: Yes, but that’s not my wiener.
SAVAGE: You would never show your wiener, and everyone was asking you! [Laughs]
SMULDERS: I know, I know. It’s just not the right time. Maybe on another season.
STOLLER: Let us know when you’re ready.
Oh boy. I was going to ask about how the cast bonded to play long-term friends…
SMULDERS: Did we, Fred? Did we do much bonding?
SAVAGE: I mean… [laughs] It was like we never said goodbye to each other. [Nick starts laughing.] We would go to work and we would be together all day and then they would say “oh you’re done” and we would go to dinner, go out all night, and then just roll right into work all the time.
STOLLER: [Laughs] Our joke was Fred never went out. He has a no hangout policy. [Fred starts laughing.] We would call him and be like, “We’re all in North Fork at a Courtyard Marriott at the restaurant in the hotel, because that’s it, that’s the only place to eat, and do you want to join us?” And he would say, “No, I’m watching This Is Us.”
SAVAGE: You tear yourself away from This Is Us! You turn it off mid-episode, see how that goes.
STOLLER: And Designated Survivor. [Laughs]
SAVAGE: Okay so we did have a few days of rehearsal to kind of find [our rhythm] a little bit, but for the most part it was very natural. We all got along really well.
SMULDERS: Except for that one day.
STOLLER: Oh, that one day was bad. When you wouldn’t show your wiener.
Oh no, we’re back to that.
SMULDERS: Yeah. [Looks at Nick.] I said, “I need to talk to you.”
STOLLER: It was weird that you brought Fred into that conversation.
SMULDERS: Well you know what, I feel most comfortable with Fred. [Laughs] Probably because of all the times we’ve hung out after work.
SAVAGE: Look, I wear thin, as I’m sure you’re getting, so I try to keep my interactions with people sparing. [Laughs]
Friends From College debuts July 14 on Netflix.