It has been 16 years since Friends went off the air and the hit show still has a massive following — that's why HBO Max paid a whopping $425 million for streaming rights. But as the sitcom gets new fans, one old problem has popped up again: it's alarming lack of diversity. The criticism isn’t lost on Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman.
Kauffman took part in an all-female showrunner panel for the virtual ATX TV Festival along with Robin Thede, Liz Feldman and Julie Plec. They discussed how to get more black writers living outside of L.A. and New York into the industry. Kauffman tearfully said she wished she made "different decisions" earlier in her career.
"I wish I knew then what I knew today, I would have made very different decisions. We’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn’t do enough," she admitted, according to Deadline.
Kauffman was also a writer and executive producer on Friends, which premiered in 1994. She's currently the showrunner of Netflix's Grace & Frankie, which she also created.
"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? That’s something I wish I knew when I started showrunning but all the way up through last year," she continued.
Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer starred in Friends, which was about a group of six white friends living in New York City. The NBC show also featured predominantly white recurring guest stars, with the exception of two of Ross's (Schwimmer) girlfriends. Aisha Tyler appeared in nine episodes in 2003 as Charlie Wheeler, while Lauren Tom played Julie in seven episodes in 1995. Schwimmer said casting "women of color" was a "conscious push" on his part.
"I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color," he said in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year. "One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part."
Schwimmer also defended the show, saying it was "groundbreaking in its time" for some storylines, like "the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships."
Just last month, Kudrow admitted the show would be "completely different" today. She also wanted to acknowledge the series for what it did right.
"Well, it would not be an all-white cast, for sure. I'm not sure what else, but, to me, it should be looked at as a time capsule, not for what they did wrong. Also, this show thought it was very progressive," she told the Sunday Times. "There was a guy whose wife discovered she was gay and pregnant, and they raised the child together? We had surrogacy too. It was, at the time, progressive."
In celebration of the show's 25th anniversary last year, David Crane — who created the show with Kauffman — spoke to Yahoo Entertainment. When asked if the show's lack of diversity is something they'd change, he admitted it's "a challenging question" and spoke about how the series fits into the larger conversation about evolving standards for television.
"There’s obviously so much more perspective on that," he noted. "I think you have to look at it through the lens of when we started. If you look at Seinfeld, Mad About You and Frasier, no one was prioritizing that. Should they have? Probably. It’s something that, in a contemporary way, you’re aware of. I think if you were approaching the show today, you would certainly approach it differently. But on the other hand, these were absolutely the six people who felt perfect for these parts, so it’s hard to get into a time machine and imagine it differently."
Friends is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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