Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman admits 'I didn't do enough' when it came to diversity
During a virtual showrunner panel for the ATX Television Festival on Sunday, when Kauffman was asked what she wishes she had known when she first started in her career, she said, "I wish I knew then what I know today. I would make very different decisions."
Kauffman, who created the show with David Crane, elaborated, "We’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company but I didn’t do enough. Now all I can think about is what can I do? What can I do differently? How can I run my show in a new way? And that’s something I not only wish I knew when I started showrunning but I wish I knew all the way up through last year."
Friends, which ran from 1994-2004, starred six white actors living in New York City and rarely featured non-white people in major roles. The show's lack of diversity has long drawn criticism, and earlier this year two of the main Friends cast members, David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow, spoke out about it on separate occasions.
"I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color," Schwimmer told The Guardian in January. "One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women." Schwimmer's character Ross dated Julie (Lauren Tom) in seasons 1-2 and Charlie (Aisha Tyler) in seasons 9-10, with Tyler's character being only the second major supporting role played by a black actress on the show after Gabrielle Union played Kristen in season 7. "That was a very conscious push on my part," Schwimmer added.
In May, Kudrow admitted that Friends would "be completely different" if it had been made today. "It would not be an all-white cast, for sure," she told The Sunday Times. "I’m not sure what else, but to me, it should be looked at as a time capsule, not for what they did wrong."
In his book Generation Friends, author Saul Austerlitz wrote that Friends producers "expressed a desire to be open about race and ethnicity" during casting and hoped to make the show as "diverse as its New York City setting." Ellie Kanner, the show's casting director, "included numerous African-American and Asian-American performers" on her lists of potential actors for the series, Austerlitz wrote.
But according to the author, "comedy was a less integrated genre than drama" at the time, in part because "dramatic series had room for a greater variety of characters" and more diverse settings, like "hospitals, precinct houses, [and] courtrooms." Television executives behind comedy shows, Austerlitz wrote, "Were more fearful of asking audiences to laugh along with characters of color, concerned that such shows would be ignored by the majority-white audience."
With a Friends reunion special in the works at HBO Max, perhaps the cast, which also includes Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, and Matthew Perry, will have a deeper discussion on the show's diversity. The special won't debut when the platform launches May 27 but will join all 236 episodes of the NBC series on the streaming service at a later date.