While the '90s sitcom Friends is beloved, even its most ardent fans must admit it's also problematic through a modern lens. On Sunday, June 7, series co-creator Marta Kauffman addressed Friends' lack of diversity during a virtual panel for ATX’s TV… From The Couch festival. Kauffman, who also created Netflix's Grace and Frankie, joined A Black Lady Sketch Show creator Robin Thede, Dead to Me showrunner Liz Feldman, and Legacies executive producer Julie Plec to discuss being showrunners in 2020. And, in the wake of the ongoing protests against police brutality and racial inequality their discussion turned to the need for more Black voices in Hollywood.
For her part, Kauffman admitted that she wished she knew then what she knows today. "I would have made very different decisions," she said, per Deadline. "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."
In the past, Friends has been criticized for its white-washed vision of New York City. The comedy featured an all-white cast, and rarely included people of color, even in guest-starring roles. Aisha Tyler, who played Charlie, was the only Black woman to have a recurring role on the show throughout its 10 seasons. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, the actor shared the pressure she felt knowing what her role would mean to viewers.
"I knew it was something new for the show, and it was really important because, the fact of the matter was, it was a show set in Manhattan that was almost entirely Caucasian," she said. "It was an unrealistic representation of what the real world looked like."
Other stars of the show have acknowledged that Friends could have done a better job of casting inclusively, as well. Earlier this year, David Schwimmer, who played Ross, told The Guardian that he was "well aware of the lack of diversity," and that he had "campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color." Meanwhile, in May, Lisa Kudrow, who play Phoebe, told The Times that the show "should be looked at as a time capsule." She added that if the show were made today "it would not be an all-white cast, for sure."
Kauffman can't go back and make Friends a more inclusive series, but as a person with the power to get shows made in Hollywood, she does have an opportunity to do better moving forward. That's something she's already planning as she rethinks how she can run her shows more inclusively in the future. As her fellow panelist Thede said, per Deadline, "It's about what we can do now. it's not about just hiring one black actor and one black writer. It's about creating an environment where everyone feels equal on set."